‘Almost like family’: A look at three decades of success for Concord boys’ hockey

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 02-12-2023 8:59 AM

Senior captain Joey Tarbell attended almost every Concord High boys’ hockey home game growing up. His neighbor, Shane Riley, played on the team; they always won. Tarbell imagined himself one day racing onto the ice at Everett Arena donning the Crimson Tide jersey.

More than 30 years ago, Mike Commerford – the leading goal-scorer in the program’s history – had those same aspirations with his friends.

Such hope comes into focus for so many young kids in the Concord community, where hockey remains king and the Tide continue to add championships to the banner.

Now in his final few weeks playing for the program, Tarbell has already experienced three championships as one of the team’s top defensemen. He has his sights set on a fourth.

Currently undefeated, Concord remains in familiar territory, atop the Division I standings. But it’s not just the last four years or the last 10 years; Concord boys’ hockey has been a staple in the Concord community for more than three decades, since current head coach Dunc Walsh took over the program in August 1990.

Over that time, Concord’s won nine state championships and had dozens of talented players rise through the program, from Commerford and Tim Walsh to Billy MacDougall and Patrick LaCasse to Brooks Craigue and Tarbell and even Tara Mounsey, who became the first female to win the New Hampshire Player of the Year award after leading the Tide to a championship in 1996. They’ve all learned under the tutelage of Walsh, and they’ll each wax poetic about championships their teams won or playoff games played in front of a packed Everett Arena.

Winning is the expectation. In Craigue and Tarbell’s time at Concord, the Tide have lost just three games total.

Some note the constant stream of talented players as the easy explanation for Concord’s consistent success, but talent can only push a program so far. It’s the talent. It’s the coaching. It’s the relationship-building. It’s the attention to detail. It’s the determination to win. It’s the community support that all guides the way.

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“People will point to, ‘Well, he’s got the players,’ ” said Tim Walsh of Dunc Walsh (no relation). “Well yeah, OK. There are a lot of teams out there around the state that are as good as what he’s had, but they don’t buy in. They’re not bought into the system and the way things work. Dunc’s got the kids over the years to buy into what he wants.”

That system remains quite simple: Play hard and play together.

Surely, there’s more to it that involves the X’s and O’s of hockey, but hockey’s first and foremost a team sport, as Walsh frequently reminds his players. Without the togetherness, winning nine championships in 33 years would be nearly impossible.

“They care about the program so much,” he said of his players over the years. “And that’s important. Some programs, they lose kids all the time. But it’s good to have kids that care about the program, and they want to win. It’s important to them, and it should be. It’s a big part of their high school experience.”

It’s also a big part of the community.

“We grow up in this city with all the other kids, we all go down to the rink, we all play together,” Commerford said. “We go to elementary school together, we go to middle school together and then we go to high school together. And by the time we get to high school, not only are we close friends, but we’re almost like family.”

Over-the-moon excited

It’s rare for Walsh to walk into a restaurant in town and not run into a player or parents of a player he coached. When you’ve led a program for 33 years, the odds become pretty high.

That community he’s built and built and built branches out into all aspects of his life. All the winning through the years helps keep those memories fond for most who played for him, but the memories transcend just hoisting trophies.

“My hope is I run into a kid 10 years from now, and you know the kid had a good experience playing for you,” Walsh said. “The amount of people I’ve gotten to meet and create relationships with through hockey is huge. There’s a big, big Concord High hockey family in the community, which is pretty cool.”

That love of hockey begins from a young age, like it did for so many who’ve played at the high school level.

“That’s what you always want, to wear that Concord High jersey when you get older,” said LaCasse, a 2011 Concord graduate who’s an assistant on Walsh’s staff. “It’s definitely a big thing around the community here.”

MacDougall, who graduated in 2006 and is Walsh’s other assistant, remembers taking things a step further as a kid.

“You’re out playing street hockey or floor hockey in the basement with your buddies, and we were pretending to be players on the Concord High team,” he said. “It wasn’t so much Bruins players that you’re pretending to be as a little kid as much as it was Concord High players.”

Once MacDougall and his friends actually made the team, all those years of anticipation and excitement came to a head.

“There was a group of us that made the team freshman year, and all five of us were over-the-moon excited,” he said. “None of us really played a whole lot freshman year, but just to get the Concord High hockey sweatsuit and to be part of it was like a dream come true for us.”

That’s when the hard work and pressure ramps up.

Playing for Concord High and playing for Walsh carry with it high expectations — expectations of success, sure, but also expectations of upstanding behavior and, in a sense, a responsibility to be good stewards of the program.

“You don’t just play for yourself or your teammates, but you play for those who have come before you,” Commerford said. “There’s some responsibility that comes with wearing that uniform.”

In recent years, junior hockey has grown in enormous relevance around the area, often seen as the best place for top players to gain requisite experience if they want to play in college or professionally.

But because of the Concord community rallying in its support of the high school boys’ hockey program year after year after year, more kids in the area choose to play for their high school rather than a junior hockey program. Not only does Walsh take pride in that, it further highlights the uniqueness of what Concord High boys’ hockey is, in its success, in its longevity and in its passion.

“The community aspect is awesome,” MacDougall said. “With junior hockey programs and other avenues for kids to play, we may not be where we are without it. That community culture and Coach Walsh, just that camaraderie around the community has helped insulate us from the junior hockey aspect and helped us retain the talent that we’ve had. I think that’s a huge, huge part.”

They’re gunning for us

Walsh played high school hockey at Bishop Brady under Bud Luckern in the late ’70s and early ’80s, before playing collegiately at Plymouth State. He knew he wanted to coach hockey, and fortunately an assistant coach/JV opening became available at Concord.

He held that role for four years before taking over as head coach before the 1990-91 season. That team lost in the quarterfinals of the playoffs. The next year, Walsh won his first championship.

He’s subsequently won eight more titles, and through it all, his teams have approached the game with a similar philosophy.

“We want to be really good defensively, and that comes from not just the D or the goalie but all five guys on the ice doing their job and being where they’re supposed to be and being committed to coming back on defense,” Walsh said. “It’s great being a goal-scorer, but there are two ends of the ice.”

And no player – no matter how skilled – is ever too good for the fundamentals they practice every single day.

“They all need work,” he said. “It’s a simple game, and we’re trying to keep it simple. Don’t make it harder than it is. We keep the systems pretty simple and play hard and get better. That’s what we preach all the time.”

Inside chilly Everett Arena – maybe 10 degrees warmer than the 32 degrees outside – the Tide take the ice for a midweek practice. Walsh’s team only has an hour of ice time, so they have to make the most of it.

They start with a passing drill, touching pucks back and forth with each other. Then they shift to skating and shooting pucks on net, then a drill that involves passing, skating and shooting.

They go through those basics at full speed. You’d feel out of breath just watching.

“Every day is a good workout, a good practice,” said LaCasse. “The kids go through good drills to make them improve. We work on so much of the little stuff and the stuff that really ends up winning games for you, whether it’s the battle drills, 2-on-1 drills, anything like that.”

Few precious moments on the ice are spent standing around as Walsh runs through plays on his dry-erase board. They move from drill to drill, focused on continuing to improve. At one point, Craigue – of course playing at full speed – wipes out a teammate who’s waiting his turn.

The hunger remains, even in the midst of an unbeaten season.

“We remind them a lot: We’re a good team, but if we don’t play hard and if we don’t play good positional hockey and we don’t play well in our end, if we don’t move our feet, get the forecheck going, then we’re like a lot of other teams,” Walsh said. “We have to keep getting better because teams are gunning for us. Teams want to knock us off. We get everybody’s best efforts.”

That message remains the same from when Tim Walsh played in the ’90s. He remembers the 1992-93 season, his sophomore year, when the Tide were also unbeaten deep into the season; his head coach wasn’t letting anyone grow complacent as they prepared to face a middle-of-the-pack Manchester Central team.

“He harped on us that week in practice before the game, telling us, ‘They can beat you. They can beat you,’ ” he said. “We were pretty damn good, but he would tell us, ‘You’re not that good. Don’t think you’re bigger than you are. Shrink your heads a bit.’ ”

At practice last week, Dunc Walsh skated around the ice, emphasizing their need to avoid laziness on the forecheck. They ran through 5-on-5 drills that underscored that point over and over again until they got it right.

Unbeaten but far from satisfied.

You didn’t want to let him down

Beyond the on-the-ice components, Walsh has also come to value the relationships he cultivates with his players, finding out what makes them tick off the ice, so he can maximize their talents.

Even as he’s grown older, he values those bonds even more.

“I would say now I’m way more interactive with the kids even though I’m older,” the 59-year-old Walsh said. “They know what to expect. They’re fun to work with. It’s fun to come to the rink every day.”

Added Craigue: “You can joke with him. Probably not in a close game, but off the ice, you can joke around with him and talk with him. He’s real easy to talk to. He’s a really good coach and a better guy.”

MacDougall witnesses the development of these bonds every year, now in his ninth season as an assistant coach. The longer he’s been there, the more he’s seen them solidify.

In addition, the fact that Walsh has known some of his players since they first started playing hockey as little kids makes growing that trust and mutual respect for each other that much easier.

“They probably play harder for him knowing that he’s always in their corner,” MacDougall said. “He’s their biggest fan. He just wants to make them better. You want to win games, but he’s always been about being good kids (and) showing respect.”

And not only does Walsh’s support for his players facilitate a winning environment, the players feel an obligation to uphold their end for someone who devotes so much time to giving them this experience.

“Any of us who grow up in Concord, play Concord Youth Hockey, you knew who Dunc Walsh was,” Commerford said. “I think because you knew him, because he was established in the Concord community, you almost got a sense that you didn’t want to let him down.”

An amazing bond

Even though he graduated from Concord High almost three decades ago, Commerford still maintains close ties with his teammates who helped deliver Walsh’s first state championship in 1992.

But Commerford is quick to note that the teams he was a part of are not unique in that way. The Concord boys’ hockey bond permeates deep, cutting across generations of players who’ve made some of their greatest life memories on that sheet of ice at Everett Arena.

That ’92 championship team still plays in the Black Ice hockey tournament held annually in Concord. They’ll also skate together throughout the winter.

“It’s specific to everybody’s generation,” Commerford said. “If you go to a hockey game now, you’ll see kids there, you’ll see parents there and you’ll see the older guys there that played back in the day who are there to watch and support. It’s an amazing bond that I think Concord High has specifically, and it’s one that just doesn’t fall off the radar after high school. Those bonds and those relationships continue and are lifelong.”

And for a current player like Tarbell, it’s something he’s already come to appreciate.

“I’ve loved every second of it,” he said of his time on the team. “It’s been fun. Wouldn’t want to play anywhere else.”

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