Don Mahler: The Visionary of Hartford Hockey; Philippe Bouthillier Went Overtime to Make Sport Happen
Hartford hockey coach Phil Bouthillier, far right, is shown at a postseason banquet in May 1975. Bouthillier died on Wednesday at age 71. Also pictured, L to R: Assistant coach Jim Carsley and former players Vance Dean and Pat Flanagan. Valley News file photograph — John Kaminski Purchase photo reprints »
The hockey rink in Hartford may be named after Wendell Barwood, but the ice belonged to Philippe Bouthillier.
Bouthillier, who died unexpectedly on Wednesday at the age of 71, was, plain and simple, the Godfather of Hartford High hockey.
“The reality is that without Phil there would be no hockey in Hartford, or at least not as quickly,” said Todd Bebeau, who played his hockey at Hartford and coaches the boys team today. “I wouldn’t have the privilege to do what I do if it wasn’t for Phil.”
By the force of his engaging personality and enormous love of the sport — and the kids who played it — did he dream, birth, build and nurture the ice hockey program at Hartford High School from concept all the way to state championships.
Back in the early days of Hartford hockey, starting in 1966, Bouthillier would haul kids over to Frost Park in Wilder on a homemade ice patch or, later on, flood the tennis courts out in front of the school. When he and a number of influential townspeople raised enough money for the BOR facility behind Hartford High in 1975, it became the Bouthillier family’s second home.
Phil would be out on the ice before school, tending to the balky refrigeration system, maybe sneak a peak during a break from classes, and then be back for practice in the afternoon. To say nothing of the after-school hours, when he would scrape and shape the ice to keep the surface in playable condition.
Back in those days, there wasn’t much between the inside of the rink and the winter weather outside. But it never bothered Bouthillier. He would always be ready with a smile and a cup of hot chocolate.
“What’s the matter, you cold?” he’d laugh. “This is hockey weather.”
It was always hockey weather for Bouthillier — and his wife, Mona. For years, even after he retired from coaching, the two would come to every game, standing behind the net, cheering on the boys and girls in red, white and blue. Phil was the de facto game-day organizer, getting the scoring sheets ready, prepping the goal judges, policing the crowd.
Even in his later years, when his legs made it nearly impossible for him to actively participate in the girls’ practice sessions, Bouthillier would still lace up his skates and make his way over to the bench area, where he would watch the action.
He just had to be on the ice, and a part of the program. He couldn’t stay away.
“You never had to ask Phil for help; he was always there,” said former girls coach Nelson Fogg, who played for Bouthillier and later coached with him. “I always knew I had somebody to talk to. He was a wise and supportive friend. He was my hockey mentor.
“You could see him always cheering on the kids, especially the ones who might not be the best skaters or the most skillful,” said Fogg, the assistant principal at the high school. “He was always looking out for the kids to help them and make sure they were enjoying the experience.”
From the moment he came to Hartford, the man they called “Mr. B” made his mark on the students — both on the ice and in the classroom.
“Phil was the atypical involved community member. It was his heart’s desire to make the community better. And he did that through teaching and hockey,” said Doug Heavisides, a former Hurricane player and coach, now director at the Hartford Area Career Technology Center.
“He loved kids and he loved to teach,” said Heavisides of Bouthillier, who taught chemistry at the high school. “He was high energy and creative in the classroom. He always wore this butt-ugly purple tie on test day; so you always knew when there was a test.
“I think he must have done that for 40 years.”
As a coach, Bouthillier used the same relationship-based attitude to get his message across to his players from youth level up to varsity. He taught skills, sportsmanship and strategy. And at the same time, he imparted a love for the sport.
“When I was a bantam, I was a little intense,” Heavisides said. “Phil came over to me and said, ‘I want you to play when you’re 40.’ ”
Instead of burning out on the sport, Heavisides, now 42, still plays two or three times a week because of what his old coach taught him.
“Phil and Bob Taylor (former Hartford AD) were old-school guys. They were all about caring and community,” Heavisides said. “They used sports to change lives.”
When the hockey rink was in danger of being left to fall into disrepair, Bouthillier worked behind the scenes to rally support and money for its relief. Now, a major renovation is scheduled and the rink will survive to welcome new generations of Hartford skaters.
“It’s a bittersweet time,” said Bebeau, who teaches at Hanover High. “All this work is now being done, but Phil won’t be there to see the upgrades. It will be strange not seeing him at the rink. But we know he’ll be there with us.”
Bebeau plans to host a holiday tournament next winter in Bouthillier’s name. “We’ll celebrate Phil and his family for all they have done and all they mean to Hartford hockey,” Beveau said.
For years, at the end of each hockey season, Bouthillier could be found at the Xerox machine in the school making scrapbooks for each kid. His own time, his own money. That’s what made Phil Bouthillier so special — his heart; the way he cared for the program and the kids who participated. The impact he made on generations of Hartford skaters was shaped by the way he never made the numbers on the scoreboard more important than the names on the backs of his players’ jerseys.
He coached for the kids, not for the wins. And everyone at Hartford is better for it.
Don Mahler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3225.