HAMDEN — Dick Gagliardi was a freshman at Hamden High in the fall of 1948; a budding young athlete finding his niche in football, hockey and track.
Joe Bruno, then in his first season as Hamden’s football coach, saw extraordinary potential. But his interest ran deeper than sports. One day he pulled Gagliardi aside to inquire about his classes. It was a time when relatively few students considered college. Many in town worked on farms and their school schedules focused on vocational skills.
If Gagliardi even wanted to be in the mix for college, Bruno said, he’d need to change his course load to include more math and languages.
Gagliardi, who passed away following a long illness on Monday at age 84, followed the advice. He’d soon earn an athletic scholarship to Boston College, which led to a prominent career as both a high school teacher and hockey coach.
During a 47-year career that spanned Yale to Hamden High to Sacred Heart Academy, he never forgot how Bruno, a teacher, went out of his way to help all his students find the right path in life.
It became Gagliardi’s mission statement as an educator.
Dr. Richard Salzano says his athletic career at Hamden amounted to a couple of weeks on the football team. It was in the classroom where Gagliardi, his 10th-grade geometry teacher, saw potential.
At the end of the school year he made a job offer. Gagliardi owned and operated SVS Pro Shop, a sporting goods store that outfitted most of Hamden. Salzano worked there throughout high school. By 17, he was store manager.
“It was the first time anyone ever gave me responsibility of that magnitude,” Salzano said.
Salzano says Gagliardi helped get him accepted at Yale, speaking to the director of admissions on his behalf. Now a cardiothoracic surgeon at Griffin Hospital and professor of surgery at Quinnipiac, Salzano called Gagliardi one of the most influential men in his life.
“Mr. Gag was the first person who saw what I could become, and he said ‘OK, we’re going to do this,’” Salzano said. “You realize now, at our point in life, people don’t have to do stuff like that. They do it because they want to. Dick had his own sons, with their own tremendous accomplishments, and he didn’t have to do anything for me. But he did because that’s the kind of person he was.”
Gagliardi was one of the best athletes Hamden ever produced, a two-sport star who played on successful football and hockey teams at Boston College. As a defenseman on the hockey team, coached by the legendary Snooks Kelley, he won two ECAC championships and skated in two NCAA tournaments.
From there he enlisted in the Marines, a rifle platoon trainer who was recruited to play and eventually be named captain of on the corps elite football team. He played against and defeated his old Boston College team. In 1958 he was named to the Hula Bowl in Honolulu, which pitted college all-stars against a team of Marines and NFL stars. Gagliardi played alongside John David Crow and Frank Gifford.
His time in the Marines was reflected in his coaching style.
“He was all business; come to the rink and work hard,” said Todd Hall, who played for Gagliardi at Hamden in the late 1980s and early 1990s and now coaches the Green Dragon hockey team. “And with him, we loved coming to the rink.”
Gagliardi would succeed iconic coaches both at Yale, where he replaced Murray Murdoch in 1965, and Hamden, hired to follow Lou Astorino in 1987.
Murdoch, an original New York Ranger, hired Gagliardi to coach the Yale freshmen in 1960. Among those coached by Gagliardi was future presidential candidate John Kerry.
And though he left Yale in 1972, his relationship with Tim Taylor, the Bulldogs coach for 30 seasons starting in 1976, helped renew his coaching chops. Gagliardi’s son, Joe, played for Taylor’s early teams. Dick Gagliardi often said he learned more about hockey from his chats with Taylor than at any other time in his career.
At Hamden, Gagliardi’s militaristic approach was befitting of a former Marine. He preached academics as the key to success. On the ice things moved swiftly and concisely. Each drill was organized down to the second. He was always positive, holding himself and his assistants to the same standards as the players: no swearing, no finger-pointing, work hard from start to finish.
Bill Verneris first met Gagliardi in 1974. Gagliardi was coaching his ninth-grade Bantam team in Hamden. The former Yale coach made quite the impression.
“When he walked into a room, it was like E.F. Hutton, everything went silent,” Verneris said. “He had an innate presence and you knew he was a guy you weren’t going to fool with or get away with anything. It was amazing the respect the man commanded.”
Verneris became Gagliardi’s assistant coach at Hamden, a position he held until taking over as head coach when Gagliardi retired in 2001. Hamden won consecutive state titles in 2009-10, Verneris using many of the lessons learned from his time with Gagliardi.
“I wish every young man could have a guy like Dick Gagliardi in their life as a mentor,” Verneris said. “For me, it was such a great experience, to be in my mid-20’s working with Dick. He taught me so much about hockey and life and how to conduct yourself as a man. He did everything right.”
Hamden hockey has kept its bloodlines. Verneris played for Astorino and coached with Gagliardi. Hall assisted Verneris for 13 years before he inherited the program when he retired in 2015.
“Something of Dick Gagliardi has been flowing through this program since 1987,” Hall said. “His influence is still definitely present. No question.”
The final act of Gagliardi’s professional career came at Sacred Heart Academy, where he reinvented himself to proudly head the athletic department until retiring for good at age 73 to spend winters in Florida with his wife of 60 years, Manon.
Through his 47 years as a teacher, coach and administrator, Gagliardi understood exactly what he was — a teacher, role model and mentor to students. Not just athletes. All students. And he never forgot how teachers helped shape his own life.
Success as a coach can be gauged in wins, losses and championships. But the real measure of accomplishment comes in how one positively impacts the life of those young people.
“He took as much delight in our success as we did,” Salzano said. “It makes me reflect on whether I’ve honored him in doing the same for other people. That’s the only way to honor those who’ve done so much for you; to pass it along to other people. He set that idea in so many of us.”