For generations March has been Rhode Island high school hockey playoff time and since I saw virtually every Rhode Island high school state hockey title series from 1964 to 2018 occasionally, at this …
For generations March has been Rhode Island high school hockey playoff time and since I saw virtually every Rhode Island high school state hockey title series from 1964 to 2018 occasionally, at this time of the year, I’m asked, “What was the all -time best Rhode Island high school hockey team you ever saw?”
Certainly, the powerhouse Mt. St. Charles hockey program developed by the late, legendary coach Bill Belisle in the 1980’s and 90s is Rhode Island’s most famous high school hockey program. But when it comes to one team - competing in one high school season - the most dominant R.I. high school team I ever saw was the 1966 Cranston East team.
The ‘66 Thunderbolts, which competed in the 1965-66 high school season, not only rolled to the state title, but also captured the New England High School tournament which, at the time, was played at the old Boston Garden.
I remember sitting in the press box at the old Garden watching the Thunderbolts defeat St. Dominic’s of Lewiston, Maine, 8-2, in the title game of the 1966 New England tourney.
The New England title game was the climax of a season in which the Thunderbolts posted a 29-0-1 record against Rhode Island and New England high school competition. The only slight blemish on the record was a tie against Burrillville in an Interscholastic League game on a night several Thunderbolts were sick with flu.
It was a different time, a time when high school hockey was king in Rhode Island. In those days official R.I. Interscholastic League games were only played in two locations, the old R.I. Auditorium on North Main St. in Providence and Mt. Charles’ Adelard Arena in Woonsocket. Most of the games were played at the Auditorium. The high school state tournament games routinely packed the Auditorium’s 4,000 or so seats.
At a time when it was unusual for one team to placed more two players on the Providence Journal’s first team All-State hockey team, four Cranston East players, Joe Cavanagh, Rich McLaughlin, Dan DeMichele and Curt Bennett were members of Journal’s 1966 seven-player first team All-State squad. Another Thunderbolt, Ted Bryand, earned second-team All-State honors. The five All-Staters were all seniors.
Four years later in 1970, Cavanagh while playing for Harvard and Bennett while playing for Brown, would be named first-team collegiate All-Americans. To this day it is one of the few times two graduates of a public high school hockey program have gone on to be named to the same collegiate All-American hockey team.
I believe nine players from that 1966 Cranston East team eventually went-on to play Division I college hockey.
“It was a special team at a special time in our lives” Joe Cavanagh, a three-time Harvard All-American and a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, said about the ‘66 Thunderbolts. “It was unique because we all grew-up playing hockey together in the same city,” Cavanagh added.
Today, Joe Cavanagh, is a leading Rhode Island attorney. A managing partner of the firm of Blish & Cavanagh, he has practiced law for five decades. Cavanagh and his wife Carol raised a large family in Warwick, several of their children became outstanding high school and college student/athletes.
David Cavanagh, Joe’s younger brother who was a junior forward on the 66’ East team, also went-on to play hockey at Harvard. A few years after graduating from Harvard, David became an ordained Roman Catholic priest. The Rev. David Cavanagh spent decades serving as a parish priest and pastor throughout Massachusetts. Today Father Cavanagh is retired from his pastoral duties, but is active in Opus Dei, a Catholic ministry and he lives in Newton, Mass.
Following his outstanding collegiate hockey career at Brown, Curt Bennett, went on to play 12 years in the National Hockey League. He was one of the first U.S.-raised hockey players to enjoy a long and successful NHL career.
Today Curt Bennett, after a post-hockey career in commercial real-estate in the Atlanta, Georgia area, lives in Wailuku, Hawaii and owns a company that builds decorative waterfalls around the country.
John Bennett, Curt’s young brother and a junior forward on the 66’ East team, followed his older brother to Brown where he enjoyed a successful collegiate hockey career before attending med school. Today Dr. John Bennett lives in Miami, Florida.
Rich McLaughlin also went on to enjoy a successful collegiate hockey career at Brown followed by a long career as an executive with Amica Insurance. After raising a family in Warwick, today McLaughlin and his wife Karen split time between homes in Warwick and Florida.
Dan DeMichele joined Joe Cavanagh at Harvard after both of them attended prep school for a year following graduation from Cranston East. DeMichele, not only enjoyed an outstanding hockey career at Harvard, but he also was one of the Ivy League’s top baseball players. Today after a business career while living in the Southwest part of the country, DeMichele lives in Arizona.
Greg Fiske, the starting goalie on the ‘66 team, attended URI after East and never played organized hockey again. But Fiske, a journalism major at URI, was active on the RI sports scene for decades after his hockey playing days, serving as a copy editor in the Providence Journal Sports department. Today he is retired living in Cranston.
Ray Tiernan, a sophomore forward, on the ‘66 team, also went onto play hockey at Brown before attending law school. Sadly, Tiernan passed away in 2020 after raising a family and a enjoying a 40-year distinguished law career in the Washington, D.C. area. Also Ted Bryand, who teamed with Curt Bennett to form the starting defensive tandem in 66’ passed away about 30 years ago.
Dave Holdridge teamed with Dave Cavanagh and John Bennett on the second line during the championship ‘66 season. Holdridge, grew-up in the Edgewood section of the city as did the Cavanagh brothers, the Bennett brothers, DeMichele and Tiernan.
The second defensive unit in ’66 was composed of senior Bill Greene, who went on to play at the University of New Hampshire and sophomore Ashley Atherton, who later played at the University of Connecticut.
Frank Caparco, who was a sophomore forward/defenseman, on the ‘66 team, recently was inducted into the R.I. Interscholastic League Hall of Fame in recognition of a 40-year career as a high school and collegiate hockey game official and coach.
Ron Davis, was a sophomore forward on the ‘66 team who went on to become an All-Stater on future Cranston East teams. Randy Moore was a sophomore hockey and football star in ‘66. I believe sophomore John McGarry was the back-up goaltender during that 65-66 season.
I couldn’t find an official roster of the ‘66 team so I probably missed somebody who made a contribution to the success of that 1965-66 season. If I did, I apologize.
These days R.I. high school hockey doesn’t possess the cachet it did decades ago. Today young hockey players who dream of taking their game to the Division I collegiate level tend to spend their high school years playing 40-50 games a season in Junior Hockey programs around the country or playing at out-of-state prep schools.
Today if a Cranston East male student wants to play on an Interscholastic League hockey team, he would play for a three-school co-op team that includes students from Cranston East, Cranston West and Scituate high schools. That team has posted a 2-10-1 record during the first three months of the 2022-23 RIIL Division II regular season.
Times have changed, but this March hundreds of students will take part in the R.I. Interscholastic League hockey playoffs. When they do, they will become part of an almost 90-year tradition.
The best team I saw in 54 years of watching those tournaments was the 1966 Cranston East Thunderbolts.
John Gillooly was a national award-winning sportswriter/columnist during his five-decade career with the Providence Journal.
He is the author of two books “PRIDE on the MOUNT -More Than a Game” published in 2004 and the recently published “FRIDAY NIGHT THUNDERBOLTS – Why High School Football Matters to America’s Future” (Oct. 2022).
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