By Phil Stacey
---- — SALEM — The greatest victory for the Beverly High hockey team didn’t even happen on the ice during its season opener Saturday evening.
Make no mistake, the Panthers looked terrific in carving up Weymouth, 6-1, at the Rockett Arena. In a season that may very well be the most highly anticipated in program history the Orange-and-Black didn’t disappoint, using their depth, talent and skating ability to take command early on and roll to victory.
But the true symbol on this night of overcoming the odds, defying conventional wisdom and looking an adversary — in this case, cancer — square in the face and shaving ice chips all over it was the man they call Bobby.
Head coach Bob Gilligan, now exactly two years into his battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, was a surprising and inspirational figure behind the BHS bench Saturday night. It was originally thought that, after his latest round of aggressive chemotherapy, that he might be able to join the Panthers again sometime in new year, perhaps mid-January.
But in what family and friends have come to know as ‘typical Bobby’ fashion, he refused to let this dreaded disease dictate what, or when, he’d be back doing what he loves. He showed up at the rink unannounced last Monday for practice, kept going back all week and was ready for the first puck of the season to drop for real Saturday night.
“He’s an inspirational figurehead to every single one of us in the program,” said Beverly High assistant Paul Munzing. “Just him being around lifts everyone up. And he’s not just hanging around, either; he’s coaching.”
Stationed behind the home team bench with assistant coaches Justin and Ryan Shairs, Gilligan looked comfortable and completely in his surroundings. He barked out orders, broke down plays on the bench and treated this game no differently than any of the other 185 or so he’s coached over the last 10 years.
Even after the contest, when he was clearly tired from an emotional day, Gilligan eagerly diagnosed some of the night’s nuances with the Shairs brothers outside the hosts’ locker room.
“We just have to get the puck down deep in that situation.”
“Those guys on that line can really be effective.”
“If we can keep cycling the puck like that ... “
“He’s working so hard for us, so we have to work just as hard for him,” said senior captain Andrew Irving, who finished with two goals and a pair of assists.
“He’s so unbelievably inspirational,” added cousin Connor Irving, who had two assists of his own. “Coach is the strongest man I know. We could tell this whole week he had a jump in his step, that he was ready to go.”
Gilligan’s team certainly seemed aware that this was a special evening, and not just because it was the opener. Jumping on their Bay State foes early, they got two goals from the third line in the first period as Teddy Leathersich and Jesse McLaughlin both tallied; got another from second line center Graham Doherty late in the third as they built up a 32-4 shot advantage; then finished the job over the final 15 minutes with three more goals without ever letting up.
“Our guys executed exactly as we hoped they would and took away the stuff (Weymouth) did well,” said Justin Shairs, the team’s de facto head coach while Gilligan was out earlier this season.
“You know, a lot of our guys have been here since Day 1 when this happened with Bob. They know what he’s been through recently: the high level chemo and treatments, the stem cell transplant right before Thanksgiving. For him to come back much earlier than any of us thought, you could tell an immediate difference in the kids at practice.
“What these kids are seeing,” added Shairs, “is a picture of perseverance and toughness in Bobby.”
Gilligan chose to let his assistants and players do the talking after Saturday’s game, deflecting attention away from himself. But it was clear that being back in the atmosphere he’s loved from the first time he put on skates as a young boy in Beverly revitalized him — and his team and community.
“It’s good for me,” he said, before tapping the side of his head lightly, “especially up here.”
Phil Stacey is the sports editor of The Salem News. Contact him at email@example.com or 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.