It sits just northwest of Boston, a 45-minute drive (without traffic) down Route 3 to 95 to 93, and if you live there you could practically bike to the Tsongas Arena in Lowell.
Billerica is a typical town in Massachusetts — not too big, not too small. It boasts some surprisingly great restaurants: Mangia Mangia for Italian; Rick’s Café for Chinese (yes, that is its name); Garrison’s for just about everything else.
Chris’s Ice Cream Parlor is busy every day during the summer, and the carnival comes every spring to the parking lot of the Billerica Mall.
There’s a common area or “green” as it’s known in the center of town, where they have small groups come in and play during the summer in the gazebo.
And for the Massachusetts-Lowell hockey team, you could say Billerica is “All in the Family.”
“When I grew up in Billerica, I dreamed of playing at Massachusetts-Lowell,” said Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald, who returned to his roots as the head coach of the River Hawks in 2001 after five years as coach of Niagara.
That’s because back in the early 1980s, the University of Lowell Chiefs (as they were known back then), were the dominant team in Division II, winning back-to-back national championships in 1981 and 1982, and three titles in four years overall.
“I grew up watching Lowell play at the old Joe Tully Forum all the time,” says Kory Falite, a freshman forward on the River Hawks from Billerica, referring to the rink in which Lowell used to play its games from the late 1960s to 1998, when the Tsongas Arena opened.
“I definitely wanted to play for a Hockey East team. It just happened to work out at Lowell. After watching the competition in Hockey East, I really wanted to play for a team in that conference.
“Being so close to home, it was the best situation for me, plus all the freshmen that were coming in with me. The school really made me feel that I was going to contribute to the team right away,” said Falite.
And contribute he has.
Coming into the weekend, Falite was tied for second on the team in scoring with 13 points, trailing only senior captain Jason Tejchma’s 18. His eight goals were only one behind Tejchma for the team lead as well.
“He’s got a lot of raw talent and ability. We’re continually refining and developing his skills,” said MacDonald.
“He has a tremendous shot, with a quick release and a lot of velocity. He skates well and finishes his checks well, which is critical on the forecheck.
“He’s hungry to score goals and help his team win,” added MacDonald.
True to form, the 5-foot-10, 173-pound Falite has come up with some big goals this year for the River Hawks.
“We were at BU the fourth or fifth game of the season. I put one over Curry’s shoulder to give us the lead, 1-0. We hung on to win, 2-1. It was great … just great,” said Falite of Lowell’s victory on October 27 over the No. 7 Terriers and sensational goaltender John Curry, who last Monday wrapped up both the Eberly Award (best save percentage — an eye-popping .985), and the MVP trophy of the annual Beanpot in helping BU win its 11th title in the last 13 years.
“I like the fact that he loves to score goals, and he shoots the puck to score goals. He doesn’t get shots blocked like other kids. He goes to the areas that he needs to go to in order to score goals,” said Lowell assistant coach Tom Fitzgerald, who hails from (you guessed it), Billerica.
Fitzgerald knows a thing or two about hockey. Before the start of the current NHL season, Fitzgerald announced his retirement from pro hockey — after 18 years in the NHL.
That’s one reason MacDonald looked him up during the NHL lockout during the 2004-05 season.
“Blaise has been a good friend of mine for a long time. We both grew up in Billerica, and we both went to Austin Prep (in nearby Reading, Mass.). Blaise and I go way, way back. He and my father coached a little for a while.
“When we had the NHL lockout in 2004-05, Blaise invited me to come and skate with the team,” said Fitzgerald, who played two years at Providence before turning pro.
“We talked about potentially working together. I told him I wanted to get into coaching.
“I got a call this past August. His volunteer coach had to give up coaching. Blaise just asked me for a 70 percent commitment. I jumped at the chance.”
And the River Hawk players have benefited from Fitzgerald’s experience of almost 1,100 NHL games.
“Tommy has been great. You can’t get much better than 18 years of experience in the NHL. He knows all the little things, both on and off the ice,” said Falite, who also attended Austin Prep before playing for the Boston Junior Bruins of the EJHL.
In his short time as MacDonald’s main assistant, Fitzgerald has been impressed with what he’s seen.
“They teach the kids how to play. They teach accountability; life lessons. They teach you that after you leave Lowell, you have to get a real job — you can’t show up 10 minutes late to practice any more,” chuckled Fitzgerald.
“Blaise is as fundamentally sound as a coach can be. I didn’t know it, but he built the Niagara program from the ground up.”
Indeed, it was MacDonald’s Purple Eagles who pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the past 10 years in the NCAA playoffs, when they shocked New Hampshire, 4-1, in a first-round game in 2000.
“As an assistant coach, he’s learned from the best — Don “Toot” Cahoon (Massachusetts), Jackie Parker (Boston University). I think Blaise runs a great practice. He never sacrifices teaching for time,” added Fitzgerald.
“He demands a lot out of you, but he cares about you on and off the ice,” said Falite.
“Some coaches show up at the rink and do their thing and leave, but not him. In the fall, he had us up at 6 a.m. three days a week. He really teaches the mental aspect of the game.”
Which has most certainly been tested throughout a tough season in terms of wins and losses for the River Hawks.
Through 30 games, Lowell stood at 5-19-6 overall (4-14-3 Hockey East). The team went through one painstakingly long stretch when it was winless in 20 straight games, going 0-17-3. Out of 26 players on the UML roster, 19 are freshmen and sophomores (73 percent).
“That was definitely an experience that I’ve never had before,” said Falite with a big sigh. “My father told me that the guy who does our games on radio said, ‘That’s got to be the best 0-17-3 team in the country.'”
“We have a chance to win every game, it seems,” said Falite. “It’s the little things and the inexperience that has lost us games. It’s not like we’re getting blown out. Every game we have a chance to win.
“Everybody on the team just tried to stay mentally focused and not get too frustrated. I know I didn’t do anything differently.”
As luck would have it, it was Falite who scored the game-winning goal in a 2-1 win against Massachusetts on February 3, breaking the team’s winless streak.
“We weren’t being outplayed, we were beating ourselves,” said Fitzgerald. “I felt like we tried to stay positive, but also realistic. I think Blaise handled it great.
“We stuck with the things that made his prior teams successful.”
One might think that someone who played that many years at the pro level might have a very difficult time adjusting to life after retiring. Not Fitzgerald. In fact, he has so many irons in the fire, one wonders how he balances everything.
“I don’t miss it a bit,” said Fitzgerald of his playing days in the NHL, and who also works as the studio color analyst along with former Maine defenseman Bob Beers in covering Hockey East’s game of the week — “Friday Night Ice” — for the New England Sports Network (NESN). Fitzgerald also serves as the studio analyst for the Bruins games as well.
“I love being in front of the camera as much as I do coaching and being on the ice. Someday I’ll have to make a tough decision between the two.”
If that isn’t enough, “Fitzy”, as he is known, has started up his own youth hockey tournament, “Prep Ambitions,” which is a prep-school hockey showcase of sorts for middle-school aged kids.
It really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that tiny Billerica has turned out athletes like Fitzgerald who have gone on to very good pro careers.
Major League Baseball pitcher Tom Glavine, who could reach the milestone of 300 wins this season with the New York Mets, grew up in Billerica. Ironically, he was such a good hockey player as a youth that he was looked at by both collegiate and pro teams, and considered a pro hockey career.
And before this writer hung up the phone with Fitzgerald, he added yet one more twist to the “Billerica Connection.”
“Oh, I almost forgot. Kory Falite’s dad was my gym teacher when I was a kid growing up.”
You just can’t make this stuff up.