Some things are hard to describe: you know them, really, only when you see them. And such a thing is greatness. When does a team cross the boundaries between skilled, memorable – and legendary?
The 1983-84 Watertown High ice hockey team passed that last threshold as it took the ice for the third period of its second round tournament game against Newton North. The Raiders were down two goals to none, and in the locker room Hall of Fame Coach Dick Umile was somewhat subdued. But when the squad took the ice, it was if an inner fire had been kindled. Assistant Coach Artie Venezia says that “I remember that moment like none other before and none since. When I saw the players come out, I sensed leadership on the ice, a championship caliber I saw it in their eyes, in their body language. And when the puck hit the ice, play was ferocious:’
Less than a minute later, forward Joe Maclnnis cut the lead to one. With nine minutes left, junior center Tim Duffy tied it. The game went into sudden-death overtime. Suddenly Newton peppered the Watertown end with shots, all turned back by goaltender John Leitner The Raiders got a bounce and rushed out of their end, Mike McGrath to Tom Egan . . . to victory. The Walter Brown Arena was pandemonium. A jubilant Umile said, “All we did was never quit.” For as Watertown Press editor Bob Ford wrote in an article proclaiming the “Birth of a Legend;’ that “legend is not one tied to winning, but tied to faith:’ The hazy line demarcating greatness was suddenly clear as day, and the team was on the other side.
The 1983-84 squad had a good pedigree. The year before, the Raiders had qualified for the Division I state tournament and won their first game, Watertown’s first postseason play since Art Shannon led the legendary 1948 squad deep into the playoffs. That squad’s stellar seniors had raised the bar for their successors; but their graduation left the team heavy with juniors, a yet-to-be-tested mix of veterans and newcomers. “We thought our players would compete well,” Umile recalled, “but we did not know how well our goaltending and younger players would hold up:’
He needn’t have worried on either count. In goal was the spunky Leitner, whom Umile called later “a kid who has mastered dealing with pressure and . . . takes a lot of pride in his trade:’ The Raiders allowed just 30 goals in the 18-game regular season, a mere 1.67 per game. And with each line the Raiders combined youth and experience to great effect. Senior co-captains Maclnnis and Jack Hauswirth attacked opposing nets early and often as the squad led the Middlesex League in goals scored with 90. Hall of Famer Maclnnis, a scoring machine, had 27 of them himself. He led the league in scoring with 46 points – paced mainly by Hauswirth, with 42. Tim Duffy added 23 points and a solid playmaking instinct. The credit doesn’t stop there, though. For everyone played hard, and played as a team: from the “Lovell Street gang” (John and Mark Khozozian, Mike Venezia, Rich Kashian) to the forward play of Egan, Mark Messina, Dan Sacco, Mark Francis, and Marcel Bogosian, to the solid defense of Kevin McMahon, Charlie Jacoppo, John Campben, Ed Veiking, and Dennis Murphy.
Opening league play with an 8-1 thumping of Winchester, the Raiders would drop just 2 regular season games all season. After losing to rival Reading a loss they would soon avenge – the Raiders reeled off 12 straight league wins to end the season, to close play at 16-2-0. In early February, from atop a bunched Middlesex League, Umile remained cautious. “We said these kids would make some noise, but their teamwork has carried them to a possible championship,” he noted. “When I think about it, I shake!”
Well he might. Watertown had never won the Middlesex League, and had not won any league crown since that 1948 squad. But suddenly that all changed. The title-clinching victory over Stoneham well illustrated the squad’s greatness: a 4-1 win sparked by stingy defense, strong goaltending from Leitner, balanced scoring (two goals for Hauswirth to go with one apiece for Maclnnis and Egan), and all-around team play. Two tune-up wins over Melrose and Belmont followed, and it was on to the postseason.
“I don’t know how we’ll do, but these kids will not back down, ever;’ said Umile, and he was right. In the first game the Raiders coasted over Danvers 5-2. Leitner made eleven saves in the second period alone, supported both on defense and with a consistent and persistent offensive attack, with Maclnnis scoring twice and Bogosian, Duffy, and Francis tallying single goals.
Powerful Newton North, winner of its last twenty games, was next. But there, as detailed above, the team’s character came to the fore. It was on to the state semi-finals and Watertown’s first ever “Garden Party;’ on to the hallowed home of Orr and Esposito. It was on to Matignon.
Matignon – dubbed “the Soviet Union of Eastern Mass. hockey” – was seeking its fifth consecutive state title, boasting a team that would send an astonishing eleven players into Division I College programs and three into the pros. The Warriors had breezed into the semis with 11-1 and 14-1 blowouts. But they would not breeze that night. As the Press detailed, “Coach Umile’s boys were about to be recognized for their character and composure. As Matignon settled down to feast on their next victim, Watertown took a scary bite out of them:’ The Warriors jumped out on top 2-0, and prepared to cruise, but the Raiders had other plans. First Hauswirth and then Maclnnis scored to tie the game. Could an upset be in store? Umile thought so: “we never intended to represent our town at a sightseeing party!”
In the second period, the dream faded; Matignon scored four unanswered goals. But while the Raiders gave way, they never gave up. As Warrior Steve Leach told the Globe, “They showed their character we got two goals and they came right back.” As the clock ran down, the Watertown fans gave their team a long standing ovation while the players continued to scrap to the final buzzer “They weren’t losers;’ a Watertown student aptly said later “It was simply the end of a great party.”
The hard-fought game surprised all comers – except those from Watertown, who knew first-hand of the team’s spirit and drive. There were individual honors aplenty, from Maclnnis’ selection as Middlesex League MVP to the eight Raiders named League All-Stars to Umile’s nod as both the Globe and Herald Division I Coach of the Year But above all, it was a team, that rose together as one to grasp the mantle, surpassing expectations and making history. Something there is in greatness, that makes its expression grand, the stuff of legend. The legend of the 1984 hockey squad, the Hall is glad to note, lives on this spring.