By Phil Stacey
---- — Prepared. Focused. Determined. Meticulous. Ultra-competitive.
Any one of those phrases could have been used to aptly describe Bob Roland, the long-time leader of Marblehead High hockey who died this past weekend at age 79 after a lengthy battle.
If all you knew about Roland was that he insisted his team’s nickname was the Headers, and only the Headers — not Magicians, like every other sport at Marblehead High — then you got a sense of who the man was and how he ticked. But that really only scratches the surface on who this man, who won 415 games in his 35-year high school hockey coaching career and finished as one of the winningest coaches in state history, really was and what he meant to the hundreds of young men who played for him.
“It was an honor to play for him and wear that Marblehead sweater,” said Tom Colby, a star center for the Headers who graduated in 1973 and serves as an assistant coach for the team today. “Bob was a stickler for preparation and scouting long before it was in vogue, and it really paid off. That, teamed with his system for playing the game, gave Marblehead a huge lift.”
For much of Roland’s coaching tenure (1962-92 at Marblehead, plus four years at his alma mater, Lynn English, later in the ‘90s), there was only one division for hockey, meaning no matter how big or small your program was you were all thrown into the same pot come tournament time. And earning one of those coveted postseason berths was always a challenge; the qualifying standard at the time meant that you had to win 70 percent of your games. The state tournament was not for the weak of heart or those lacking in fortitude.
Roland’s Headers qualified for the postseason 10 straight seasons (1964-73) and 20 times overall, playing for the state championship in both 1964 (a loss to Arlington against one of his coaching mentors, the legendary Eddie Burns) and in 1985 (a setback to St. John’s Prep). The discipline he learned in the Army and serving in Special Services after he graduated high school in the 1950s shone through in his hockey team like a sheet of ice after the Zamboni had just finished resurfacing it; Marblehead was always well-conditioned, well prepared and feared no one. They believed if they stuck to Roland’s systems and hockey truisms that they’d find a way to win — and many more times than not, they did.
“One of the biggest things about Bob was that he always got the most out of his kids,” said long time Marblehead High athletic director Alex Kulevich, who for many years served as Roland’s boss when Roland taught physical education in the school system for 30 years. “He was very innovative.
“There were games in which Marblehead never should have been in, and on paper you’d say ‘that shouldn’t happen’, but many times they won those games. And if they lost, they were close one-goal losses. That was because of the way Bob could motivate his student-athletes.”
Metaphorically speaking, there was nothing Roland wouldn’t do to gain an advantage for the Headers. Whether it was his Belichickian insistence that no one player was above the team, his instituting of forechecks and defensive zone coverages that other coaches never even considered, or renting ice at a place where Marblehead would be playing its next tournament game, Roland always stayed ahead of the curve.
“His organizational skills were phenomenal,” said Colby, one of the leading scorers in Header hockey history. “He was tireless in his scouting and finding another team’s weaknesses. Bob could watch a goalie face 34 shots, remember where every single one of them went and say, ‘He leaves his short side open’ or ‘He opens his 5-hole up on breakaways’. It was amazing.”
Roland made white dress shirts and red ties on game days mandatory for his players. He loved wearing red rubber bands on his wrists. He obsessively kept track of all things Marblehead hockey in his yearly tome, ‘The Flame’, which he’d hand out to players, coaches and friends of the program. Everything from the yearly records and updated scoring leaders to the most obscure statistics — which sophomore had the most overall ‘hustle points’ in program history? or the fourth line that surrendered the fewest goals in a season? or the best clearing percentage by a trio of defenders? — it was all right there. ‘The Flame Burns On!’ he’d write in thick black marker on the cover of each season’s finished product.
He wasn’t the easiest coach to play for, but if you had the right constitution, motivation and work ethic, there was a spot for you on the Headers. Roland’s best work came not with the most talented players but rather those middle-of-the-pack guys, for whom he always seemed to find a perfect fit.
“My son Tom was not an outstanding hockey player,” said Kulevich, “but Bob put him in the right spot — right in front of the goal — and he got a lot of goals that way. That was Bob; he used everything he had to get an advantage with the talent he had.”
Oh, did he have talent. Many of the greatest names in Header hockey history — Toot Cahoon, Bobby Blood, Rick Ledbury, Gary Conn, Daynor Prince, Peter Eyges, John and Scott Sumner, John Vigneron, Tim Howes, Arty Graves, Scott Garfield, Bob Jackson, Ralph Colantuno, Phil Legro, Dennis Laing, Craig Murray, Vaughn and Billy Goodwin, Hilary Rockett, Trevor Price, Patrick Flynn, Todd and Josh Clifford and Colby, to name a few — wore the Red and Black for Roland. He helped make them into winners, transforming this bucolic seaside town into passionate hockey followers for life.
He was Bob Roland, and he was one of a kind. And he’ll definitely be missed.
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.