From a small school to the world stage
By Jack Copeland
Peter Laviolette was an excellent high school ice hockey player but he wasn’t sure he was good enough to play collegiately when he enrolled at Westfield State.
But he gained confidence in himself and a passion for the game at the university, ultimately leading him to a professional hockey playing and coaching career – and also to a lengthy association with the U.S. Olympic ice hockey program that continues next week in Sochi, where he is serving as assistant coach for the squad.
At Westfield State, he found a mentor in Owls coach Chuck Michonski, who not only turned him into one of Division III’s best hockey players but also began nurturing Laviolette’s work ethic and leadership skills by naming him a team captain during his sophomore year.
Laviolette played 93 games for the Owls, scoring 43 goals and contributing 44 assists. During that time, he told Westfield State sports information director Mickey Curtis in a 2006 interview, he went from liking the sport in high school to “craving it” in college – “and I became more mature.”
“Peter is single-handedly the hardest working player I have ever coached in any sport,” the retired Michonski told Curtis shortly before Laviolette’s induction into the Westfield State athletics hall of fame in 2006. “He just pretty much outworked everybody else, which is what made him stand out.”
The leadership skills Laviolette practiced on the ice also were on the display in the classroom, according to business management professor Gerald Healy.
“Peter was quiet, calm and laid back, but he always looked out for kids in the class who might be afraid to ask me something. He had great leadership skills, even as a kid. He knew how to talk to people and work things out.”
Still, Laviolette didn’t envision playing hockey professionally and planned to pursue a business career with his Westfield State degree.
However, he was spotted by a professional scout while he was playing in a summer league, and his impressive play in minor-league hockey led to his selection as the only graduate of a Division III program to play on the 1988 U.S. Olympic hockey team, where he contributed two assists during five games in Calgary.
“Coming from a small school like Westfield State may have actually benefitted me,” Laviolette said. “Because of the level I came from it was always a story. That type of press doesn’t hurt you.”
That breakthrough drew the attention of the National Hockey League, where he briefly would play for the New York Rangers. The defenseman then served as captain of the 1994 Olympic team in Lillehammer, leading a squad that played eventual silver medalist Canada to a draw in group play before losing in the quarterfinals to Finland.
After rising through coaching positions in the Boston Bruins organization, he gained his first NHL head coaching job with the New York Islanders, and eventually led the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2006 before coaching the Philadelphia Flyers for four seasons.
The year 2006 turned out doubly memorable for Laviolette, as he also served as head coach for the U.S. team at the Turin Games. Now, he is en route to Sochi, hoping the passion he pursued at Westfield State will next bring him an Olympic medal.
Nominated by Mickey Curtis, associate director of athletics for sports information at Westfield State