The following article is reprinted from the November 2015 edition of the New England Hockey Journal.
By Brion O'Connor
BOB ROTONDO sits behind a large white portable table in the lobby of Ristuccia Memorial Arena Ice Skating Rink in Wilmington, Mass., taking names. As dozens of young women carry their hockey bags and sticks into the building, Rotondo greets each of them personally, marking off their names from his roster with a bright yellow or lime green highlighter.
“Hello, darling, how are you,” he says, looking up briefly from behind his wire rim glasses. “Number 14, green. Locker room Number 1.”
No. 14 grabs her green uniform from a large rack of jerseys and heads through the glass doors into the rink, followed by a parade of other pony tailed teenage hockey players.
This scene repeats itself weekly every Sunday and Monday during the spring and summer at Ristuccia, when Rotondo's Northeast Women's Hockey League is in full swing. Roughly half of the young women skate for Rotondo's pioneering Boston Shamrocks program of the Junior Women's Hockey League.
“This is what it's all about,” he says, watching the girls play.
And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg that is Rotondo's hockey résumé.
At 70, Rotondo is a certified hockey lifer. He estimates he's spent more than 45 of those years intimately involved with the game. A native of Everett, Mass., he would take the train in Boston to watch the Bruins — featuring Leo Boiven, Fernie Flaman and “a young kid named Johnny Bucyk” — from the 75-cent balcony seats.
“It used to be cheap,” he says. “We used to go all the time. That's when hockey was fun.”
Rotondo recalls first starting to play the game in his backyard with friends, shooting wooden pucks at goals made of wooden two-by-fours, with chicken wire serving as netting.
“That's how we played, but that's a long time ago,” says Rotondo, chuckling. “Or we played in the streets. You can't play street hockey anymore.”
During winter, the gang would play ice hockey, and Rotondo got his initiation in the fine art of goaltending. “Because I couldn't skate,” he admits emphatically when asked why he was drawn to that position. “You always took the kid who couldn't skate and made him the goalie.”
But Rotondo proved to be a quick study, and in 1959 he entered St. John's Prep in Danvers as a freshman netminder. After playing for two years at St. John's, he finished his high school career at St. Mary's in Lynn as a league All-Star. Rotondo then attended Providence College and played for the Friars. Following a brief tenure at Providence, Rotondo left school and began a career in the liquor business that would span nearly two decades.
Then, in the early 1990s, he joined Vinny Magno and former Bruins great Ken Hodge with the Boston Junior Terriers of the old Metropolitan Boston Hockey League. That led to gigs with the Eastern Junior Hockey League, the New England College Development League, and the Tyngsboro/Nashua Huskies.
Eventually, about 20 years ago, Rotondo landed at Ristuccia, which remains his home base (he also manages the Allied Veterans Rink in his hometown of Everett). That's where the Northeast Women's Hockey League, or NEWHL, took root.
“I'm going to tell you how it happened,” he says, warming up to the topic. “We were originally going to do a boys league. But we didn't get any players. We had bought all this ice, so we said, ‘Let's do a girls league, because no one else has it.'
“We had people running up with checks saying, ‘I want to play. I want to play.' That was the beginning of women's hockey in this area. This was the only place that women came to play.
“You had players from junior high and high school coming to play, having fun, skating all day long. Most of the recent college graduates (from this area) all skated in this program, even the ones who have gone on to the new National Women's Hockey League.”
Rotondo and a few partners started to cobble together NEWHL All-Star teams and began playing in a number of regional tournaments.
“Then Paul Kennedy came to me and wanted to do a team,” says Rotondo. “So we sat down and constructed the East Coast Wizards. And, for reasons which I'll keep to myself, I got out. That's when I started the Boston Shamrocks.”
While Rotondo immersed himself in the business of running leagues, club teams and hockey rinks, he also was making a name for himself as a goalie instructor. He began more than 30 years ago with the Boston Junior Terriers but also donated time to local youth hockey programs.
“I can go back to when there were only three people doing it: Me, Eddie Walsh and Joe Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.),” he says. “Basically, like anything else, I looked at what they didn't do, and that's what I did. That's why I'm still doing it today.”
Rotondo established Puckstoppers Goaltending (puckstoppers.net), and after partnering with Paul Vincent of Dynamic Skating, opened his first synthetic ice facility off Route 1 in Peabody. Since then, Puckstoppers has had a bit of a nomadic existence, moving to several locations in Burlington, Woburn and even Andover before settling into its current confines at 29 Draper Street in Woburn. The 3,000-square-foot training center is part of a larger facility that also includes Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning.
With the Shamrocks at the forefront of “elite” youth hockey since the program's 2008 founding, Rotondo also has a unique perspective on the state of the sport today. However, he's loath to talk publicly about what's wrong with the club-sports culture that dominates youth athletics.
“I can't answer that question, because I'll get myself in trouble,” he says. “But, big picture, the skills — skating, passing, shooting — need to be developed, along with a sense of the game, with quality coaching.”
Far too many programs, he says, are more concerned with turning a profit instead of turning out solid hockey players who also are accomplished young men and women. Though he acknowledges that the Shamrocks program is pricey, he said that housing and transportation costs, layered on top of training and academic expenses, make it difficult to break even.
“For us, it isn't about money. If you saw what it cost to run this program,” he says, “once you take all the expenses out, and it doesn't even go level … it goes backwards.”
Rotondo also has leveraged his influence, and facilities, to expandthe game to those less fortunate. Specifically, Ristuccia now hosts regular sled hockey clinics under the auspices of USA Hockey's adaptive sports programs.
“I saw it once, and decided I need to do this, because these kids need a break,” Rotondo says. “We basically donate all the girls' equipment, we donate the ice. This is what we need to do.
“These kids get onto the ice for an hour every now and then, and they make every effort to have the best time,” he says. “They use that time to the best of their ability, not like some kid with all the nice equipment who gets into a game and his parents complain because he got short-shifted 30 seconds.
“These kids, you've got to see the expressions on their faces when they're on the ice. That, to me, makes all the difference in the world.”
Still, the Shamrocks are clearly the apple of Rotondo's eye. He is a partner with the North Shore Shamrocks, the corresponding boys program, but the elite all-female Boston Shamrocks remain his pride and joy.
With Ristuccia being the longtime training facility of the Boston Bruins — a large granite replica of the 2011 Stanley Cup greets visitors by the front door — Rotondo wants his Shamrocks to feel like they're just as important as their NHL counterparts.
“It makes them feel good about themselves,” he says.
As he enters his eighth decade, Rotondo says he's unsure about how much longer he plans to stay involved with the game and the program, especially on a day-to-day basis.
“I'll take it one day at a time, but I'll probably be here for a while,” he says. “Some days are good, some days are not so good. That's true of any business.”
But watching Rotondo greet the young women coming to play in their weekly NEWHL game, it's clear that this is a man who enjoys giving back to the game and giving back to the next generation of players.
“When you have girls from all over the country living in the house, and you have all this stuff going on, you have to be so attentive to everything,” he says. “You have to watch their eyes, you have to watch their mannerisms. You have to know when something's wrong. You almost have to be like a mother and a father to the kids.”
“I know more about these kids because they talk. They can sit down and talk to me because I'm like a grandfather. But you have to respect them as young ladies, and as equals, because a lot of them are brilliant. It's amazing to sit down and talk to them, and talk about mathematics, or history, and other subjects.”
The Shamrocks employ an academic advisor, a college advisor and five tutors to make certain that the girls stay focused on their studies. The list of Shamrock alumni who have gone on to play Division 1 and Division 3 hockey is impressive, playing at programs such as Amherst, Boston University, Clarkson, Harvard, Maine, New Hampshire and Yale.
“A lot of people don't realize that there's 1,424 days in a high school experience, and a college experience. And you have to make the best of every day,” Rotondo says. “There's 168 hours in a week — seven times 24 — and what you want to do is teach them to manage their time so they do hockey, they do their school work, and they also have a social life where they become better young ladies.
“You have 1,424 days, and then your life changes, so you better make the best of the time that you're here,” he says. “It's the same when a kid goes out and plays the game. Do the best that you can do. Whatever it is. That's all that counts. If each kid individually does the best that they can do, as a unit, then they grow. If you have one person who doesn't, then you have an issue.”
Asked what he'd like his legacy to be, once he finally walks away from the game, Rotondo thinks for a moment, and then says, “Just that I helped a bunch of kids go to school, and become great women.”
“I'm not looking for anybody to pat me on the back. As they say, I am the grumpy old man,” says Rotondo with a grin. “There's two grumpy old men (in girls hockey). Me, and Carl Gray from Assabet. We're the two grumpy old men. That's the way it is. I'm grumpy, but the kids get what they need.”
They do, because Bob Rotondo makes sure of it.