|Charlie Says: I'm going to the NCAA's with or Without You|
It was impossible to play for Charlie without being changed by him, almost always for the better. I think he took special delight in having privileged prep school kids knock the tar out of each other, to harden them for future battles. Although I played at Lake Forest College, I am a first cousin to all who played for Charlie at Union.
Dennis Baldwin (Union ’91) will never forget his initiation to old-time hockey in a December 9, 1987 game up in Plattsburgh. “Nellie and Teemer started a bench clearing brawl in warmups,” writes Dennis. “As a freshman prep school kid I had never seen anything like it. We expected Charlie to be ticked off when he came into the locker room. Instead, he came in, looked at us sternly for minute, and then cracked a grin and said something like ‘Way not to take any crap out there, now go out and play some hockey.’ We were 1-7 at the time and we went out and tied the defending DIII Champs that night.”
There is an expression I have come to appreciate in middle age, “Taking the hard way makes life easier.” I think Charlie embodied that, and he certainly instilled it into his athletes. It was undeniable that Charlie was in severe pain throughout his final year coaching, but he was stoic throughout. “Once as I came across him walking around the rink, he fell,” writes Brian Lucey (Union ’91). “Unsure what to do, I reached down to assist him but he angrily waived me off as he reached up the boards and pulled himself up.” Stoic, indeed. Division I coaches Dan Fridgen and Mark Morris have shared stories about how damn tough Charlie was in his final years, suffering profusely on recruiting trips, and finally dying on the job in an Ottawa hotel room. There is dedication, and then there is Charlie.
He would not hesitate to punish his players, knowing that it would steel us for the grueling games to come. Several of his Union players have detailed his harrowing side board sprints for any missed shot or pass, each subsequent set of side boards one increment greater than the previous one. A late practice screwup resulted in as many as eight or nine punishing sets, causing the team to turn on one another. “The wrath of your teammates was immediate, caustic, and sometimes physical,” writes Lucey. At Lake Forest, Charlie instilled a habit of all out hitting in each practice. “You’ve got to bruise the body boys,” was his mantra. “If you don’t hit in practice, you won’t hit in games.” A former prep school teammate visited me during tryouts, and was shocked at the ultra-violent scrimmages. Toughening up young men was Charlie’s mission, creating Spartans for the big tests ahead.
While researching this piece I noticed one amazing stat that connects Union and Lake Forest because of Charlie. Exactly five years after arriving at Lake Forest, Charlie led his squad to the first Division II NCAA hockey championship in history, where we got waxed in the final. The very next year, Charlie began another journey with Union, leading the Dutchmen to history’s first NCAA Division III hockey championship, also in five years, also getting waxed in the final. I’m guessing that both those teams allowed themselves to exhale after finally getting to their respective championship game, knowing they had reached their destination and the whipping was over.
Why is it that when Charlie gave us a rare glimpse of his humanity, we all remember it for eternity? T.J. Ryan (Union '85) writes: “Before the first period started at Oswego, it took Charlie a lengthy time to reach the bench. An overzealous Oswego fan that had been giving Charlie grief from behind the glass, pulled himself up and screamed at the top of his lungs: ‘NICE F***ING TIE SONNY BONO!’ Of course Charlie had a wide bottom striped monster tie on—one of his favorites. He looked at me with a big smile and said, ‘That was a good one.’”
Charlie abandoned Lake Forest for Union mere months after our mind-blowing run through the NCAA’s, leaving us truly blown away, his loss creating an enormous vacuum. He was replaced by a future Hall of Famer in his own right, Tony Fritz, a man all charm and smiles, who put an immediate end to hitting in practice. We became massive underachievers without Charlie to prod us.
Why do we love stern coaches like Charlie? Is it because he was so consistent and straight shooting? Is it because we know we need the discipline to be our best? I think the answer lies in team sports, and how a truly tough S.O.B. will eliminate the cancerous individualism that can ruin a team. I’m sure both of Charlie’s NCAA finalists did not have any preening poodles on their respective rosters. Most of you have seen the movie Miracle, and the hard line tactics of Herb Brooks. Jay Grossman (Union ’87) has worked for both men, and knows that they are cut from the same cloth.
As a television producer, I came to Union to produce the first major broadcast out of Achilles Rink back in 1996. I relied on venerable sports information director George Cuttita for logistical help, and when I discovered that he was a dear friend of Charlie’s, I asked him to write the copy for a Charlie obit that aired in the second intermission. That original text is now on a plaque outside the SID offices.
A family man, an educator a coach and friend. He is best remembered for the 3 priorities in which he believed: Family, Schoolwork and Union College Hockey. Charlie’s spirit lives on in those who wear the Skating Dutchmen Uniform…Past, present and future.