Twice in the mid 90’s, Mike and John Gaffney tried to dethrone mighty Mount St. Charles, and both times they came up empty. Mike, the father and Toll Gate head coach, and John, the son and Toll Gate player, lost to the Mounties in the championship series in both 1995-96 and 1996-97.
Mike’s still on the case. The former head hockey coach of all three Warwick public high schools is now the head coach at La Salle Academy, and he’ll be once again trying to knock off the Mounties when his Rams, coming off an upset victory over Hendricken in the semifinals, take on Mount this weekend for the state championship.
John won’t exactly be there with him this time, but he won’t be too far away either. He’ll at least be in the same building.
And when Mike isn’t coaching La Salle’s upset bid, standing atop the bench, he’ll spend some time watching John’s own upset bid.
Together, they’re the very definition of a hockey family, and they’re both on the verge of history.
Mike will be trying to bring La Salle its first state title since the 1976-77 season. John, meanwhile, is the head coach for Prout, and he’ll be looking to lead the Crusaders to their first Division II title ever when they take on unbeaten Lincoln this weekend.
A father and a son, both trying to get to the top.
“A lot of life lessons I learned from him through hockey,” said John, who is 34, of his father. “That’s what’s made me the man I am today. I think we probably have different coaching styles, and the motivational techniques might be different, but I think the message is the same – being a good person on and off the ice.”
John graduated from Toll Gate in 1997, and after college, came back to begin his coaching career. He took over a Prout program that was just starting out and has turned it into a regularly-improving contender. In 2008-09, he led the Crusaders to the Division III title. After moving them up to D-II, he led the team to the finals last year, where it lost to Coventry. This season, he pioneered Prout to the No. 2 seed, and now it’s back in the finals again.
“We’re just very passionate about hockey,” John said. “It’s ingrained, and it’s not like that’s a bad thing. There’s a lot of good in the life lessons you can teach in and around the rink.”
It’s come as no surprise to Mike that John is now a successful head coach. In fact, John’s not the only Gaffney son in the coaching tree. Stephen Gaffney, 28, is an assistant coach with Mike at La Salle, while James Gaffney, 28, assists John at Prout.
That makes four Gaffneys coaching on Rhode Island’s biggest high school stage.
“I think hockey’s in their heart,” Mike said. “They love it. I might be a little prejudiced, but I think they have something to offer, too. I think it kind of shows.”
Mike would know a thing or two, as his high school coaching career extends all the way back to the 1970’s when he served as the head coach of Warwick Vets. He’s also coached Pilgrim and most recently Toll Gate, until he took a few years off after the 2003 season. Then, he started up his journey at La Salle, doing what he loves.
Realistically, he’s doing what all the Gaffneys love. He’s just been doing it for a little bit longer. Mike and his wife Debbie have seven children – six of whom are sons – and sports, particularly hockey, are a binding quality among them.
“I think that our family is unique in just the passion,” John said. “The genetics, or the upbringing, all of us. We have that intangible. It’s just there. Whether we’re playing street hockey or on the pond, there’s that true genuine love for the game.”
And while the Gaffney name and the love of the sport show the similarities between Mike and John, there are certainly some differences in the style of the two head coaches.
Mike’s a little more old school, while John comes from a younger generation. Stephen and James are even younger, and they provide a little bit of a different perspective.
“I hope they’re far better than my style,” Mike said. “I hope the coach they played for at Toll Gate, who was the coach and the father, I hope they learned some of the things that you’d like to do, but also some things where they probably say, ‘Gee, I wouldn’t do that.’ They’re their own men, and they run their own program.”
Whatever their differences are, though, Mike and John have done one thing in similar fashion – win. Mike has established winning programs at every one of his stops, and John’s one stop has yielded the same thing.
And, luckily for them, they don’t have to square off against each other very often. They played once in a non-league game this season, with La Salle winning 4-1, but right now that’s about as far as the rivalry goes.
“Somebody said, ‘Oh it’d be great to have you and your father playing for a state championship,’” John said. “I’m thinking, no, because someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. And Easter dinner or Easter brunch is going to be a little awkward, to say the least.”
For now though, they don’t have to worry about crossing that bridge. La Salle certainly isn’t moving from the state’s top division, and Prout may still have a few more years before it’s quite ready for that level of competition.
Playing in separate divisions also affords them both the chance to win a title. Prout plays today at Brown’s Meehan Auditorium, Saturday and Sunday, if necessary. La Salle is scheduled to play Friday, Saturday and Monday, if necessary.
That should be a staggered enough schedule for each of them to put their fan hat on.
“I’ll go there and be a fan of Prout for those games,” Mike said.
“I’ll be rooting for the La Salle Rams,” John said.
Certainly circumstances have changed from the Toll Gate days of the mid-90’s, but the ultimate goal is still the same.
A father and a son, both trying to get to the top.
Kevin Pomeroy is the assistant sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.