[aesop_character img=”http://www.gametimect.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Screenshot-2016-06-11-23.02.15.png” caption=”CHIP MALAFROnTE” align=”right” force_circle=”off”]
John “Red” McDonough never subscribed to the philosophy that winning is everything. The longtime Wilbur Cross hockey coach, who passed away Sunday at age 86, thrived on teaching and imparting life lessons through the game he loved.
“For him it was always about the kids,” John McDonough Jr. said of his father. “And helping them grow as individuals.”
McDonough succeeded Ray Tellier as hockey coach at Wilbur Cross in 1957 and over the course of a 37-year career established himself alongside contemporaries Art Crouse of West Haven and Lou Astorino of Hamden as one of the legendary coaching figures in Connecticut high school hockey history.
The trio, with a combined 96 years of coaching experience, became known as The Big Three.
While Crouse and Astorino racked up victories and state championships, McDonough spent most of his career battling to keep the program at Wilbur Cross afloat.
After booming in the early years, Wilbur Cross often struggled to find players in a dwindling talent pool. Those who came out for the team quickly found their coach was not only eager to improve their hockey skills. He was fully committed to seeing them become better people.
“I didn’t have a father, so he was a father figure to me,” said Andy Porto, a 1966 Wilbur Cross graduate who later became a high school teacher and coach. “He believed in our ability, always encouraged us and was a great role model.”
Though he lacked the talent pool of West Haven and Hamden, McDonough consistently produced well-coached teams that found ways to win. Wilbur Cross made the state tournament 26 times, including a string of 15 straight seasons from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s.
And though the program never played for a state championship, and lost more games than it won (328-331-14), they flourished under the steadfast devotion of their coach.
In 37 years McDonough never missed a practice. Much of his down time was spent taping sticks and washing uniforms. He took pride in his duties under circumstances other coaches might have found intolerable.
“If you have the right combination of players and dedication,” McDonough once said. “You can accomplish just about anything.”
One of McDonough’s most impressive coaching jobs came in the 1988-89 season. Wilbur Cross, with 11 skaters and two goalies on the roster, won a school-record 14 games and reached the Division II semifinals. Some of the best players were on the ice for the entire game, McDonough doing whatever necessary to keep them fresh.
“It was an honor to play for him,” said John Porto, who starred on the ’88-89 team with his older brother, Chip, making the Porto’s one of a handful of multi-generational families to play for McDonough. “He had a way about him that when he spoke, you could see the passion in his eyes. He wasn’t one to ramble on. He was a man of few words. But he lit up a room.”
McDonough graduated from Hillhouse in 1947 and was part of the inaugural hockey team at American International College in Springfield, Mass. Upon graduation he embarked upon a professional career that included stints playing for Eddie Shore’s Springfield Flyers and the New Haven Blades.
At Wilbur Cross, he worked with small groups of kids, many of whom had learned the game on the streets of the Goatville neighborhood, often skating with them during early morning practice sessions at the old New Haven Arena. He coached with a trademark cigar clenched between his teeth, even during games, at least until the CIAC nixed smoking on the bench in the early 1980s.
McDonough’s wisdom extended to anyone seeking his advice, even rival high school coaches.
“Red was constantly guiding me, not only with X’s and O’s but how to deal with all the other facets of coaching,” said Larry Vieira, longtime Branford coach now at New Fairfield/Immaculate.
“He helped with things like dealing with parents, administrators, referees and the CIAC. When coaching against him I always thought I was I was one up on him. But in reality I was five down on him. He was smart as a fox; he never showed his hand. Even after losing to him I was never mad because I knew the master just gave me another lesson in life and how to coach.”
By the time McDonough retired in 1994, the Wilbur Cross program had become a New Haven co-op team, winning 14 of 17 games and losing in the Division II quarterfinals. McDonough remained a fixture on the high school hockey scene in retirement, always eager to assist coaches and administrators alike.
“Red always treated his players and coaches with respect in a special way to earn their confidence in his coaching style,” said Jim Riccitelli, McDonough’s assistant at Wilbur Cross. “He always focused on the intangible qualities in his players and coaches. I will always fondly remember his laugh, sense of humor, and ever present cigar.”
McDonough’s death signifies the end of a golden era of Connecticut high school hockey. The Big Three, so instrumental in cultivating regional success and a national reputation for Greater New Haven, are all gone now.
Crouse passed away in 1992; Astorino in 2006. Their legacies won’t soon be forgotten; deep-rooted in the fabric of their respective communities.
McDonough, who worked tirelessly to maintain a competitive program for inner city teenagers, didn’t need a state championship to validate his worth as a teacher and coach. His vast influence is measured not in wins and losses, but by the positive impact he imposed on generations of New Haven hockey players.
“There’s no question in my mind,” Andy Porto said. “That Red will always remain the heart and soul of Wilbur Cross hockey.”
Register staff writer Dan Nowak contributed to this report.