The Tragic Story of Berlin’s Goaltender and Hockey’s Ties That Bind
The raw, driving rain turned to a thick slurry of wet snow as our boxy yellow school bus lurched northward from Manchester to Berlin. We were just into the first weeks of our 1974-75 season as Manchester Central High’s Little Green hockey team, making our biennial pilgrimage to the Paper City.
Berlin, the defending state champion, was a tough matchup anytime. The team was a juggernaut, and had been for years. Having to play the mighty Mountaineers after a few practices and scrimmages was an onerous task. To have to travel three hours just to get to Berlin seemed downright unfair.
Guided by Hall of Fame coach Albie Brodeur, and benefiting from the influx of Notre Dame players who came on board when the parochial high school closed in 1972 (after claiming one last state title, 3-2, over Manchester Memorial), Berlin won the 1974 state championship with a 26-6-0 record. For the 1974-75 season, the Mountaineers were simply reloading, on their way to a 24-4-0 mark and another state crown.
Fortunately, I knew little about Berlin’s hockey superiority, being the proverbial new kid on the block. I grew up in northeastern New Jersey before moving to Manchester as a 16-year-old in the summer of 1974. Berlin was a mystery.
As our bus rattled along the two-lane road, I preoccupied myself with a history class reading assignment, primarily because our assistant coach, Mr. Connolly, was my history teacher. Our head coach, Mr. Finnegan, was a young, bearded firebrand who was relentlessly optimistic at the start of the season. I always gravitated to coaches like that.
Two hours into our journey, I sidled up to Coach Finnegan and asked, in typical kid fashion, “How much longer before we get to Berlin?”
“Oh, you’ll know when we’re close,” quipped my coach, laughing. “You’ll smell it before you see it.”
Puzzled by his response, I inquired further. He told me about Berlin’s leading industry, the paper and pulp mills, and the unique, pungent odor they produced. He was right. The distinctive bouquet of Berlin hit me like a blindside body check well beyond the city limits.
“In Berlin, they call that the smell of money,” said Coach Finnegan with a grin.
I had been tabbed as the starting goal-tender for the early season tilt, and my teammates wasted no time in warning me that I was walking into a shooting gallery.
“Don’t worry,” said Coach Finnegan. “No matter what happens, it won’t be as bad as what happened to that poor kid a few years back.”
“What poor kid?” I asked.
“The goalie, from Notre Dame,” said my coach. “The rink’s roof collapsed at his end of the ice, and buried him. He was all by himself. Killed him.”
Coach Finnegan left it at that.
Even though hockey goaltender is generally considered one of the toughest (and loneliest) positions in sports, for some strange reason the goal crease has always been my “safe spot,” my sanctuary. I’m not sure why.
Maybe because it has a certain eye of the hurricane quality to it, where all the action is swirling around you. It’s like a giant funnel, where the play is designed to come right at the net behind the goalie. And there was a certain attraction of being the one player that could almost singlehandedly prevent another team from winning by preventing them from scoring.
For whatever reason, I just felt comfortable setting up between the pipes. The idea of a goaltender being buried under tons of snow and steel and wood shook me to my core. His name was Norman Boucher, and he was only 15. His death must have been horrifying, despite my coach’s almost casual comment. It was as if that sanctuary had been violated.
For that catastrophe to happen in Berlin, of all places, it must have felt as if the hockey gods had turned against their own. Because the game is inextricably woven through Berlin’s tapestry, and much of New Hampshire’s tapestry. For me, Boucher’s death was a poignant reminder of the ties that bind an incredibly tight-knit hockey community.
Hobart Amore “Hobey” Baker and the black ice of the ponds near St. Paul’s School in Concord get most of the credit for planting the seeds of New Hampshire hockey in the early 1900s. That’s understandable, given Baker’s preternatural talents and subsequent legend forged by his brilliant play at St. Paul’s and Princeton, and his premature death (college hockey’s best player is annually recognized with the Hobey Baker Award).
But it was Berlin that set the game’s roots deep in the state’s North Country during Baker’s star turn in Concord. The game immigrated to New England and this rugged mill city on the backs of laborers who streamed over the border from Québec and the Maritimes.
“The concept of the game came down from Canada, and a rough form of the game was played on local ponds and rivers by 1903,” says Walter Nadeau, a retired Berlin police captain and amateur historian. “I’m guessing that the locals may not have had a copy of the written rules.
“The first formal, decent hockey rink was built in 1913, and used extensively,” says Nadeau. “As far as I know, from 1903 to 1918, many informal games were played among teenagers and young adults.”
Hockey captivated Berlin’s predominantly French Canadien locals, and quickly became the community’s lifeblood. The earliest known account of local high school students playing the game was published in the Berlin Independent on December 4, 1903.
“The game is not like a baseball or a football game,” stated the Independent. “It is equally good to watch, but it is not one at which you can cheer, the playing is to [sic] rapid and incessant, and the most the spectators can do is give a sharp yell when anything sensational happens.”
According to the New Hampshire Legends of Hockey, “organized” hockey arrived in Berlin a few years later with the creation of amateur mill teams (offered by business owners to distract employees from desultory working conditions and low wages). Downing Potter “D.P.” Brown, a former Williams College hockey player and owner of the Brown Company, helped establish the Mill League, with games played on an outdoor rink at the city’s baseball park. In 1920, Father Alpheri Lauziere formed the “Canadiens,” who played against Maine’s top teams from French Canadien enclaves like Lewiston and Waterville.
“Most of the players were first- and second-generation French Canadien,” says Nadeau. “Hockey became a big part of the Berlin culture. The games brought people together.”
Starting in 1923, a succession of local squads — the Berlin Athletic Association and the Berlin Hockey Club — became regional powers, often making the long trek south to play at Boston Arena. In 1937, the fabled Berlin Maroons were formed and won three New England AAU championships by 1951. Nicknamed the “Flying Frenchmen,” the Maroons were crowned National Amateur Hockey Association champions in 1954, 1967 and 1968.
The city also became a force in high school hockey, beginning in the 1940s. The Notre Dame Rams, coached by Albert “Barney” LaRoche (a Maroon star known as “The Rocket”), won the first 16 NHIAA state championships, from 1947 to 1962. Over the next seven years, the public Mountaineers won six titles, and the Rams captured title No. 17 in 1965. In all, Berlin schools won the first 23 state hockey titles, before Hanover High broke the stranglehold in 1970 (defeating Berlin High in the final).
After the Maroons’ national title in 1967, and the complete mastery of high school hockey by Berlin schools for the preceding two decades, the city was dubbed “Hockey Town USA.” A sign celebrating the new moniker was posted on Route 16 at the city line, and a banner, featuring two enormous goalie sticks and the words “Welcome to Hockey Town USA” on a giant puck, was erected by Green Square.
“Besides the Notre Dame Arena, the recreation department maintains seven skating rinks,” says Nadeau. “Back in the day, many fathers maintained rinks in their backyard. Hockey was as much a part of the fabric of the community as meat pie.”
Meanwhile, the St. Jean (de Baptiste) Maple Leafs introduced organized hockey to Manchester in the late 1930s, hosting games at the Kelly Street church grounds through the early 1960s. In 1958, the Manchester Beavers descended on the Dorrs Pond Rink, and the Tam-O-Shanters and Alpine Club teams launched four years later. When the John F. Kennedy Memorial Coliseum, built beside Gill Stadium, opened for the winter of 1964, hockey moved indoors.
In the fall of 1966, the Manchester Blackhawks began competing, and played in the New England Hockey League through 1970. The Manchester Monarchs then played four seasons in the Can-Am League (the recent Los Angeles Kings farm team took the same name as an ode to the original Monarchs). Following the 1973-74 season, however, post-scholastic amateur hockey in Manchester came to an abrupt halt. The Blackhawks returned in the late 1970s for a brief encore, competing against the Concord Budmen and the Maroons, but soon shuttered operations.
The Queen City was hockey heaven for me, a teenager who first fell head over heels with the sport playing street hockey in northeast New Jersey, where none of the schools had hockey teams and the natural-ice skating rinks prohibited the game due to liability concerns. The New York Rangers, and later the Islanders, gave us a taste of top-flight hockey, but the opportunities to play, on ice, were few and far between.
All that changed with my clan relocated to Manchester. I thought JFK Coliseum was an absolute gem, despite its shortage of locker rooms, and the University of New Hampshire’s Snively Arena, where we played a preseason game, was nothing short of palatial.
Like Berlin, my Manchester Central team had a distinct French Canadien flavor, but it was far from a cohesive unit. In fact, we resembled the old cultural brawls between the French Canadiens and the Irish who fought for jobs in the city’s mills along the Merrimack River. While our team was dominated by names like Montminy, Bellemare, Allard, Carrier, Ouimette, Bernier, Boucher, Petrin, Lemaire, Pelletier, LeBlanc and Metevier, we also had our share of players from different neighborhoods. Kids with names like Fitzgerald, North, Telge, Weise, Davidson, Soares, O’Brien and me, O’Connor.
The irony is that while I was considered an outsider, I’m half French Canadien. My mom’s maiden name is Paré, and her father — my beloved grandpère — was my greatest sports influence during my formative years (and the reason I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan, despite growing up a stone’s throw from New York City). My mom was raised on the predominantly French West Side of Manchester, which is why we moved to New Hampshire after my father lost his battle with cancer in the summer of 1971.
I was accustomed to a robust cultural mix, growing up in a diverse community in New Jersey. My sports of choice — baseball, then basketball, soccer and hockey — all brought me into contact with dozens of ethnicities. At Manchester Central, my soccer teammates often joked that we were like the United Nations, with Greeks, Columbians, Bolivians, Ecuadorians, French Canadiens, and even one wonderfully talented young man from Haiti named Daniel Lascaze. But we blended beautifully on the field, winning the city championship my first season.
Our Little Green hockey team produced no such alchemy. One hockey teammate, whom I met early on in homeroom, warned me: “This team is two cliques. The French kids, and everyone else. And their parents are nuts.”
That was a particularly delicate scenario for me, as the other two goalies were Gilles Ouimette and Mark Lemaire. Gilles under-stood. Mark? Not so much. Probably because I was “third man in,” which is one goalie too many on most hockey teams.
Gilles, a sophomore, started the season before as a freshman, so I knew he was talented. To his credit, we got along famously, even though Gilles’ father made his own opinions about who should be playing perfectly clear, spitting invective from the stands. There’s a brotherhood among goalies, simply called “The Goalies Union.” We’re tethered by the position’s unique challenges, and the unmistakable pressures we shoulder.
That’s why I felt a kinship with Norman Boucher, the sophomore goaltender for Notre Dame High’s junior varsity who was crushed to death under a pile twisted metal and splintered wood on February 26, 1969. Goalies are solitary figures. Typically, we’re alone, confined to our “crease,” often left to our own devices. We’re members of the team, but not always fully part of it.
Yet goalies typically take immense pride in their loner status. It’s what draws us to each other. Boucher’s untimely end resonated with me in a way other players couldn’t understand. But it would be decades before I learned the whole story.
Those who knew and loved Norman are still haunted by the devastating and tragic events of that night,” Karen Boucher Wheeler, a niece of Boucher’s who was only a year old at the time, told Steve Enman of The Berlin Daily Sun on the 50th anniversary of her uncle’s death.
That night, Boucher was on the ice with his junior varsity teammates, preparing for a scrimmage against their crosstown rivals. The fact that a city of almost 20,000 (in 1969) could field two high school varsity hockey teams and two JV teams was a testament to the sport’s popularity. The Notre Dame Arena, built in 1947, was Berlin’s only enclosed rink (and the second indoor rink in the state, after Dartmouth College). Like most buildings on that fateful day, its roof was sporting a thick blanket of heavy snow.
The snow had started falling on February 24, and during the next five days the skies deposited more than 5 feet of the white stuff over the region. Romeo Tremblay, Notre Dame’s varsity hockey coach, and members of his team shoveled portions of the arena roof, but large drifts remained on either end of the building.
Early Wednesday evening on February 26, after chatting with coaches and teammates by the benches, Boucher skated back to his net to take a few more shots. Al Cayouette, a Notre Dame student and varsity hockey player, was setting up the public address system.
“At 5:25, as I pushed the button on the PA microphone, I heard an eerie sound, like the crunch of a chip, the cracking of wood, and then a loud ‘whoosh’ of air as the roof suddenly and quickly collapsed on the ice,” Cayouette told the Daily Sun. “I couldn’t see the Notre Dame players and fans on the south end of the arena due to the debris.”
Another student recalled that the roof fell like a massive swinging door, narrowly missing the players at the blue line.
“I looked up and saw sparks, with flying lights and cables snapping and the roof began to swing down in my direction,” Peter Noel, another goalie, told the Daily Sun. “Instinct and/or adrenalin somehow made me skate from in front of the net to behind it, with a thought to get down to the ice and hug the boards”
Noel shut his eyes, and a morbid silence descended over the arena.
“I opened my eyes to see that the roof had fallen in around me, and to my left I saw Bob Bertin struggling to move,” said Noel. “I couldn’t see anything in the area where Norm had been, only debris.”
Bertin and another Notre Dame JV player, Dan Blais, were severely injured.
“There was absolutely no time to react. I must have been knocked out because the next thing I know I am awake, laying amongst the beams and snow and unable to move anything but my legs,” Blais told the Daily Sun. “I prayed, because there was nothing else I could do — I couldn’t even talk. It was like I was in a bubble, and if I had been 1 or 2 feet to the left or right when the roof fell in, I would not be alive to tell this story.”
Boucher was crushed underneath one of the roof’s large girders. The late Omer Morin, one of the referees that night, found Boucher buried by rubble, unconscious, and immediately started cutting off his pads. A local doctor, though, couldn’t find the young goalie’s pulse, and told Morin (a next-door neighbor of the Boucher family) not to rush.
“That’s something I’ll never forget. I’ll never, never forget that,” said Morin in the 2010 documentary “At the River’s Edge: An Oral History of Berlin, New Hampshire.” “And I knew the family. They were neighbors, like I say. The kid never made it. That was a real tragedy in town. A real tragedy.”
The arena was rebuilt, under the direction of Monsignor Alpheri Lauziere, and eventually reopened. A plaque honoring Boucher was installed in the lobby.
With my coach’s sobering-but-abbreviated tale of Norman Boucher fresh on my mind, I took to the ice at Notre Dame Arena that December night in 1974. If I was distracted, I don’t remember. I looked to the rafters, and thought everything looked structurally sound (not that I would have known if it wasn’t). But those thoughts quickly gave way to concerns about the red-and-white-clad Mountaineers, who looked intimidating even during warm-ups.
For a period, we skated toe-to-toe with the defending state champs, down only 1-0 after 20 minutes. Moments into the second period, I made one of the few truly memorable saves of my high school “career,” flashing my right skate to foil a point-blank bid. I thought maybe we had a chance. Then my luck, and the luck of the Little Green, ran out.
The Mountaineers put at least four more pucks behind me by the end of the period. My night was done. Gilles came in to finish the game, and played valiantly. But the game was lost. We slowly shuffled out of the rink to our bus, knowing we had a long ride to lick our wounds. I don’t recall seeing Boucher’s plaque.
Curling up on my bus seat, I felt a strange sense of relief. I would play again. There would be more games. Norman Boucher never had that opportunity. His future was taken from him in the cruelest way imaginable.
As fate would have it, my senior year was the last time that Berlin would rule the roost of New Hampshire school boy hockey (we gave the Mountaineers a great game that season during the Queen City Tournament, dropping an excruciating 4-3 decision). The year after I graduated, Central made it to the state semifinals, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion to Bishop Guertin of Nashua. But by 1980, the Little Green would be state champions, and defended that title in 1981. They were only the third team in state history to repeat, and the first that didn’t hail from Berlin.
Had the hockey gods and Old Man Winter not conspired against Norman Boucher more than a half century ago, he would now be 67, not much older than me. I sometimes wonder if he would recognize his city, and his game, today.
The proud city of Berlin, which once hosted two championship-caliber hockey teams, barely has enough players to field a full squad. The city has been hit hard economically — the main pulp mill closed in 2006 — and as the jobs left, residents followed. Berlin’s population now hovers close to 9,000, less than half the number from the city’s heyday of the 1930s. As a result, the once-mighty Mountaineers formed a co-operative team with neighboring Gorham, and dropped to Division 3 simply to remain competitive (in 2016, the co-op team won the state’s D-3 crown, the city’s first hockey championship in 40 years).
Likewise, my old school, one of the state’s largest, just a few short years after its last state championship in 2014, has had to join forces with rival Manchester West to continue offering a varsity program (coincidentally, my Central team played in the first high school match at the “new” West Side Arena in 1974, against West). It’s an odd juxtaposition, seeing longtime opponents joining hands to play the game they love. But it’s becoming more of a necessity, as cities like Manchester lose affluent residents to surrounding suburbs.
By comparison, Bedford, which didn’t even have a high school when I attended Central, fielded three hockey teams —
varsity, junior varsity, and a practice squad — last season. There is strength in those numbers. The Bulldogs are a powerhouse, winning or sharing the state title in four of the past five years.
This is the reality of the current hockey landscape. It is no longer the blue-collar, ethnic sport that thrived in Berlin. Hockey is still a great game, capable of teaching invaluable life lessons. But many of those lessons are being overshadowed by money. The game requires a significant investment, in terms of both expense and time. (In the early 1970s, I was able to buy all my own goalie gear — high-quality gear — with my paper route proceeds. Today, that’s impossible.)
Steve Bellemore, president of the nonprofit Manchester Regional Youth Hockey Association, says the sport is still popular, with close to 500 boys and girls playing in the program. The cost, though, runs close to $3,000, equipment not included.
“We try to be a top program that has a place for everyone. We try to make it so everyone has a place to play. That was the dream of our forefathers, and that’s our goal,” says Bellemore.
“So many of these programs are about the almighty dollar, and it gets a little cutthroat,” he says. “I’d be lying if I said we didn’t have to cut kids every year, but we try to find a place for those kids.”
For-profit “select” programs are even more expensive, and expect six-month commitments (or longer), preventing kids from playing for their high school teams while promoting sports specialization and fueling unrealistic dreams of collegiate careers. They succeed, in part, because too many parents have lost their minds. Conversely, the three-month high school season is a quaint dinosaur. Much like me, I suppose.
Playing multiple sports throughout the year was always special for me. The variety kept things interesting, and kept my love for each sport strong. Those love affairs lasted a long time — I continued to play soccer and hockey well into my 50s, before my hips finally gave out.
I treasure my memories of those winter days playing for the Little Green, and my own insignificant place in New Hampshire’s colorful hockey history. Norman Boucher was robbed of those memories more than 50 years ago, but his plaque still graces the Notre Dame Arena lobby. Rink manager Joe Accardi, who played for Berlin High his senior year (1977-78) after a stint with the Junior Maroons, said he wouldn’t even think of moving it.
“Hockey’s been a big part of my life, and my children’s life. We all played hockey,” says Accardi. “His death is something that we all remember. It’s part of the history of the arena. It’s big for a lot of us, especially guys our age. That plaque will always be there.”
I’m glad Norman Boucher is remembered, and remembered fondly. He deserves that much.
Brion O’Connor, Manchester Central Class of 1976, still coaches hockey goaltenders. His career peaked in 1982 when he backstopped Sigma Beta to a nail-biting 4-3 victory over Congreve for the University of New Hampshire campus intramural championship. He flunked his statistics mid-term the next day, but the goalie stick commemorating that title hangs in his garage to this day.