CLEARWATER — It’s been decades since Tom McManaman coached a group of kids from the New York town of Oyster Bay to two national hockey championships.
Today, those players are spread throughout the United States.
They have careers and families. Some have coached.
They admit they could see themselves as McManaman’s peers and call him Tom.
Yet, they still call him coach.
“We have so much respect for what he did for us,” said Daniel Gould, a 53-year-old Massachusetts resident. “He didn’t just teach us hockey. He taught us life lessons that we all use today. We owe him so much.”
That’s why, on Jan. 8, the team reunited to attend McManaman’s 90th birthday party in Clearwater, where he resides. Three, including Gould, were there. The others attended via Zoom.
“He’s our larger-than-life leader,” said Perry Florio, 54, who attended virtually from his South Carolina home. “He is our teacher, our mentor, our coach.”
McManaman is also their pope, laughed Gold.
“He’s nicknamed The Pope mainly because he didn’t curse, drove 55 miles per hour and was a model leader and father figure to us all,” Gould said. “He didn’t swear and just led this very moral, high-standing kind of life.”
According to legend, Gould laughed, the nickname was born one afternoon when a town resident saw fireplace smoke rising from the skating rink’s chimney during a game.
“He said if it’s white, the coach wins and if it’s black, he’s going to lose,” Gould said. “That’s when he officially became The Pope.”
McManaman said he is honored that his players still think highly of him and that he still loves them, too.
“They were just a great group of kids,” he said. “Now they are a great group of adults. I am so proud of all of them.”
McManaman didn’t learn hockey in an organized league, said his son and former player Kevin McManaman, 54, of Connecticut. Due to the pandemic, he attended the birthday party virtually.
“Dad grew up in Chicago and went to college in Minnesota,” he said. “He just played on ponds and stuff.”
McManaman later become a math teacher at Walt Whitman High School on Long Island.
“Dad would skate with some of his students at the neighborhood pond,” Kevin McManaman said. “Those students came up with the idea to start a hockey club at their school and needed a teacher to sponsor it. My dad volunteered and within a few years they made it to the state tournament.”
In 1975, McManaman left the high school team to coach his son’s squad based out of Long Island’s Oyster Bay, but including players from surrounding towns.
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“I played my first year under a different coach and we were struggling,” Kevin McManaman said. “I don’t think we won a game. We routinely got beat 10 to nothing. He was tired of seeing me dejected.”
Within a few seasons, the players recalled, the same group of kids won the state tournament.
They credit McManaman’s strategy that called for fast offense and a full press on defense.
But they said the life lessons he instilled played a role in turning the team into champions.
“Humility, work ethic, honesty, integrity, show class whether you win or lose,” Florio said.
“He was firm but fair,” Gould said. “List every attribute you want in a coach, and he had it. I was probably one of the least-talented kids on the team, but I never felt lesser. He never sucked the confidence from me if I made a bad play.”
The Peewee Division for 11- and 12-year olds was the first age group with a national tournament, the players said.
Oyster Bay fell short of qualifying in 1979 but was dominant in 1980. News archives report they were 60-1-4 heading into the national championship game in Detroit in April. During the regular season, they were undefeated in their New York conference and travelled for games against top teams in Boston, Montreal, Philadelphia and Providence.
Still, the players saw themselves as David, not Goliath.
“The other teams in the nationals would have maybe 100 players try out,” Gould said. “They would pick the biggest, fastest and best. We were lucky if 30 came out for our team” of 15.
The game was televised nationally.
“It was this new network called ESPN,” which was founded the year before, Kevin McManaman said. “But nobody knew what it was. I don’t even think we had cable TV yet. So, we didn’t feel added pressure.”
Nor did the team feel pressure when it was down 3-0 after the first period to a Michigan team.
“That’s because of Coach,” Florio said. “He taught us to always stay positive, never give up, keep playing hard and have fun. I never thought for a second that we would lose the game.”
They won 5-4.
“It was a magical time for hockey in New York,” Gould said. “The Miracle On Ice took place a few months earlier in Lake Placid, just a few-hours drive from Long Island. Then the Islanders won their first Stanley Cup in May. And, in between, we won.”
McManaman coached the team through 1985 as they moved through the age divisions, returning to the nationals each time and winning it in his final season, again by defeating a Michigan team 5-4.
“After that, we went our separate ways,” Kevin McManaman said. “But we remain close.”
The players keep in touch via group text messages and reach out to their coach a few times a year, Gould said.
“We’re a hockey family,” Kevin McManaman said. “And anytime dad talks about hockey and those guys, he gets a gleam in his eyes. He loves them all.”