Al & Barbara Wright and Jo & Ron DiFilippo
This has been a banner year for the sport of ice hockey in Massachusetts.
From nine Massachusetts Hockey alumni hearing their name called on NHL Entry Draft day, to Belmont native Pat Kelleher receiving a contract extension as the Executive Director of USA Hockey, to a memorable Massachusetts State Hockey Championships, to numerous Massachusetts natives playing prominent roles at national and international events, the state once again staked its claim as the hotbed of the sport in the United States.
It’s only fitting that as Mass Hockey celebrates its 50th anniversary as the governing body for the sport of hockey in the state, that its deep history – overflowing with vivid memories and stories across generations – was enriched. The many monumental achievements and contributions made this year, both on and off the ice, have only fortified Mass Hockey’s already strong reputation.
But how was that reputation launched five decades ago? What sparked Mass Hockey’s inception? According to Massachusetts hockey legend Ron DiFilippo, it was much about creating connections and improving the dissemination of information to a growing, hockey-crazed population.
“It was really a communication problem in the beginning, when we were part of (the) New England (district),” he said. “People just didn’t know what was going on and not much was being passed on. New England at that time was really in control, and the representative of all the six states in New England. We wanted to break away and have our own district.”
A fateful phone call to Ron DeGregorio from the executive director of the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States (AHAUS, which predated USA Hockey), inviting him to be New England’s new registrar, kickstarted the process of change. In 1973, DeGregorio was officially named registrar for the New England District, where he oversaw its reorganization into several smaller, more manageable affiliates and appointed associate registrars to help increase the national organization’s efficiency and visibility at the local level.
“It made sense that if we were going to have another district in the U.S. that Massachusetts would be so honored, similar to Minnesota and Michigan which were also separate,” said DeGregorio, co-chair of the USA Hockey Board of Directors and past USA Hockey president. “We (New England) were the first district to have sub-registrars in each of the states, and then we broke Massachusetts into 10 sub-districts and had 10 sub-registrars. So, as a result, we had more grassroots connectivity. That was our objective. At that time a registrar’s role was very important and the connection, frankly, in New England seemed to be lost. That was the premise around which we operated.”
Around that same time, DiFilippo attended a meeting in his hometown district and raised his hand to help. Soon, he was named the first-ever registrar of the Massachusetts district.
“We always thought that USA Hockey at the time was like a big telephone, where you could connect people throughout the district with information, to grow a bigger and better organization,” said DeGregorio, who later moved into a more prominent national role, serving as vice president of youth and on USA Hockey’s board of directors. “We were probably the only area in the country that had sub-registrars and an infrastructure which was supported by an NHL team (the Boston Bruins) at the time. This was before computers and cell phones and quite before the internet.”
And so, with DeGregorio leading the way for New England, and DeFilippo leading the way for Massachusetts, a new era of hockey in the Bay State was born.
Passion Inspired Participation
For both DeGregorio and DiFilippo, it was a passion for the sport and country that prompted them to dive in so deeply to support hockey’s growth, in the state and region, but also from coast to coast.
“I got involved because I used to like to skate, even though I really never played hockey other than pond hockey,” DiFilippo said. “I do reminisce a lot, and sometimes wonder how did I ever get to the point of being so involved in this sport? For me, it was about doing it for the kids and making sure everybody had a chance to succeed. That’s why the sport is growing. They’ve had a chance to succeed and they don’t have to sit back and watch it on TV.”
“Public service in the 70s was an important thing. We were involved with wars, Vietnam, and those of us who were able to come back wanted to give something back to an America that we loved and the people in it,” said DeGregorio. “I was very young and energetic and maybe too young and energetic, but we got a lot done thanks to Ron and the other compatriots who got excited about our vision. I remember bringing some stuff to Ron’s wife to mail out. And it wasn’t 5 or 6 things it was like 40,000 things at one time. It’s amazing how many great people were there and willing to give their time and effort to help the kids and help all of hockey.”
Memories of Mass Hockey
In recalling their fondest memories of the last 50 years of Mass Hockey, DeGregorio and DiFilippo aligned on one common thread: it was about the people – those they served, connected with and, in some cases, made special deliveries to.
“Even though Mass is a small state, area-wise, you got to know people out in Springfield and other parts of the state, people from all walks of life,” DiFilippo said. “They had interest in the game, partly because of the Bruins, so it was the experience of being with people who normally wouldn’t have the chance to get together. Maybe we were the center, but when you went to other towns there was a registrar and directors there and they worked hard. They had meetings, set up tournaments. I remember driving to Springfield in a snowstorm to get to a meeting. I used to go to all the meetings. It was a means to talk to the people that were doing the work, but also talk to the kids that were receiving the benefits of it.”
“One memory that’s embedded in my mind was when I was young, I made a promise to get guidebooks from the national office delivered to each one of the registrars before Christmas,” said DeGregorio. “But they didn’t arrive until the day before. I delivered books in a snowstorm to Springfield and when the registrar and his wife came to the door, he said, ‘you know something, you are really crazy.’ And he was right. I said, ‘I’m Santa Claus today.’ That was the spirit. It was a challenge, but we had a lot of fun.”
What the Future Holds
Today, Mass Hockey is recognized as 10 districts, with more than 190 organizations, thousands of teams and more than 44,000 players. To say it’s come a long way in the last 50 years would be putting it mildly. What the organization, and the sport as a whole, look like 50 years from now is anyone’s guess. But both DeGregorio and DiFilippo agree, they will remain a place for everyone who enjoys the game.
“It’s hard to envision what the future might be, but I know it won’t be the same,” said DeGregorio, who, like DiFilippo, was inducted into the Massachusetts Hall of Fame (DiFilippo in 2002, DeGregorio the following year). “We do know that we can adapt to the future. We’ve done it before and we’ll continue to do it. We need to let people enjoy the process, make it exciting for them, to keep the love of the game. We’re going to have players of all sizes, abilities and skill levels available to play the game. That’s what hockey should be looking for. Making opportunities for more players, different types and sizes and ethnicities of players to be able to play the game and have a place in it.”
“I’m 77 and Ron’s 11 years older, and the thing is, I really love the energy that I see and people wanting to make a difference,” DeGregorio added. “Over the 50-year time we recognized that for us to get to the next level we needed professionals assisting us. And I think that’s really important to continue because things change and we have to take advantage of the opportunities that change provides. That has to continue for us to continue the trajectory upward, and I think we’re in a good position to do that, based on what I see from those that are so much younger than me. They’re energetic and ready to go and make a mark. For me and people like Ron and all those who came before us, that is amazing.”