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Enjoy River Hawks Hockey?

By From the Lowell Sun

By Chaz Scoggins

LOWELL -- Chelmsford's Billy Riley Jr. worked for more than 40 years at Lowell Tech, ULowell, and UMass Lowell before retiring last year. He coached the hockey team for 22 seasons from 1969-91, winning 363 games, three NCAA Division II titles, and four ECAC Division II crowns before taking the program to Division I in 1983 and Hockey East a year later.

He took some time recently to look back on his career.

Q: Year after year, you teased your vagabond teams with tales of a permanent, first-class home. The Tsongas Arena finally opened in 1997, and now the university owns it outright. How much satisfaction do you take in that?

A: I take tremendous satisfaction in that, and many of my former players who come back here marvel at just how beautiful it is. They like to give me the credit and give themselves the credit for being the pioneers that perpetuated the tradition and resulted in the reward that the city and the state gave us.

Q: You stepped down as coach of the hockey team in 1991. Have you missed being behind the bench?

A: I can't say I miss being behind the bench. I do miss the interaction with the players.

Q: How have you kept yourself busy since retiring as the most successful coach in Lowell college hockey history?

A: I went back to school and pursued an advanced degree in sports psychology at Boston University. I've got some apartments in the city that I rent to students, and I work out a lot to try and stay ahead of Father Time. And I enjoy my grandkids.
Q: Your Division II teams earned such a reputation for beating Division I teams that most of them stopped scheduling you. What made your players so tough to beat?

A: When we got a chance to play them, it was like the 300 Spartans beating the Persians at Thermopylae. We came to play and we outworked and outhustled the other teams. We were always blessed with good goaltending, and we had a lot of character players who could rise to the occasion.

Q: Blaise MacDonald, the current River Hawks coach, grew up in Billerica, watched your powerhouse Division II teams as a fan and dreamed of playing for you someday. But you didn't recruit him, and instead he was a defenseman on the RIT team that cost your Chiefs a third straight national crown in 1983. Any regrets about that?

A: No regrets. Blaise ultimately turned out to be a great hockey player, an All-American, and I give him credit for coming back to the Merrimack Valley and beating us. We were 28-1 and undefeated in Division II that season until that day.

Q: After the program was elevated to Division I in 1983, it was initially rejected by Hockey East before finally getting accepted. How important was it for ULowell to get into the new league?

A: I felt it was very important and very important to do it then rather than later. I spent an entire summer on the phone trying to get us into that league. John Duff, the school president, kept telling me: "Relax, relax. You'll get in sooner or later." But I was in a battle I didn't think I could afford to lose. With the support of a lot of people in the Statehouse and a lot of people in college hockey, we were able to convince BU and BC to vote in our favor.

Q: Chelmsford's Jon Morris, a fifth-round NHL draft pick who played for you from 1984-88, is still Hockey East's all-time leading scorer. If the Atlanta Braves hadn't signed Billerica's Tom Glavine, a fourth-round NHL pick by the Los Angeles Kings, Morris and Glavine would have played hockey together at ULowell. What do you think they would have accomplished as linemates?

A: They would have been a great one-two combination. Glavine was mentally tough and a great all-around athlete. Other coaches called Morris "The Ghost" because he'd come down on the two defensemen with the puck and then somehow he'd be behind them and going in alone on the goalie.

Q: What was your proudest moment as coach?

A: I'd say winning the first national championship in '79 after playing second fiddle to Merrimack all those years, having about 90 percent of my players graduate because I stressed academics, and the growth of the program to where it is today.

Q: Your biggest disappointment?

A: We had the interlocking schedule with the WCHA. We were on a bus from the airport to Michigan Tech, which had been the model program when I started at Lowell Tech, and I'm thinking: "This is it. I've arrived." And then I realized I wasn't enjoying this as much as I thought I would. Like so many people in other professions, you reach a point when you're starting to feel burned out, and you begin to think there may be other things to do besides coaching a sport where there's so much luck involved, the right bounce of the puck or a referee making the right call, and there is so much self-imposed pressure in the game when it is just a game.

Q: In addition to your coaching duties, you were also a highly respected college-hockey referee. In today's hostile environment, when overzealous parents have been known to physically attack coaches and referees at the youth level, do you find it surprising that anybody would want to be a coach or referee?

A: Refereeing is very tough. When I got out of college, very few players went on to play pro hockey because there weren't that many teams, so a lot of us went into coaching or officiating. There are so many playing opportunities now kids don't think about being an official. But we need more referees who have played a high level of college hockey.