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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

24-Year-Old Alum Head Coach of UMB Men’s Hockey

Imagine that you come to work one day and find out you’re the new boss of the outfit. Well, that’s what happened Michael Bertoni.

On January 16, the UMass Boston men’s ice hockey team had a home game against Saint Michael’s College. Bertoni, a recent graduate of UMass Boston and assistant men’s hockey coach, was preparing his team to face off against the competition when he was given some shocking news: Jack Foley, the men’s head coach for the past year and a half, was taking a medical leave of absence.

Oh yeah, and Mike, you’re in charge of the program for the rest of the season.

“It’s been crazy,” said the 24-year-old from Franklin, Massachusetts. “I’ve been trying to deal with that in the best possible way. I wish that [my first head coaching position] would’ve been under different circumstances. I’m looking at it as a challenge for myself. I’m very impressed with the overall character, heart, and morale that most of the guys have carried in the face of the adversity that’s going on, the down year and all. But the first thing that I told them [as the interim head coach] is that you become a better person in the long run if you are able to persevere. One of my long-term goals as a head coach is to provide a positive influence on my players, on and off the ice. I demand three things: come to the rink to practice and compete; stay together both on and off the ice; and never pack it in.

“Some of the guys on the team [now] I actually played with. They’ve brought a level of respect that I didn’t expect and they are abiding by the fact that I am a coach, not by the fact that I am a friend or a former teammate. They are very mature about the whole situation. They realize that I demand a lot.”

Senior Michael Ciarletta, who played with M. Bertoni at UMass Boston two years ago, claimed it’s no surprise that his ex-teammate has handled the situation well.

“He was very intense as a player. His role was not that of a scorer; he led by example. He was always out there killing himself for the team, whether it was blocking shots or whatever. He did what he had to do and he’s passing that [trait] along to his players now.”

Brian Sullivan, a senior defenseman who transferred from Northeastern University last year, offered a similar opinion.

“The whole thing was a gigantic surprise to him. Overwhelmed? I don’t know about that. The team has a lot of respect for Mike. We see his work ethic and the commitment that he puts into the preparation of each game. He also demands the same thing out of us; there’s a mutual respect.”

“He’s handled himself very well. He goes about his business and is very professional about coaching. We’ve got some guys here who may be used to losing, and perhaps accept it. Mike tries to get that out of us. So if he’s not upbeat all the time and expects more out of us, I see that as a good thing. Winning does not happen overnight; it takes time.”

La Bertoni Famiglia

If Mike Bertoni likes facing multiple challenges simultaneously, then he certainly likes having two siblings, as well ex-teammates and current friends, on this year’s squad.

“That’s a little difficult,” said the coach with a smile, “but like I said, I hold everyone accountable; everyone should be prepared to play. I demand the same from everyone.

Brother and first year junior Will Bertoni has had post-concussion syndrome since the seventh game of the season, and has not skated during a game in which older brother Mike has been interim coach. A history of concussions puts the middle Bertoni’s collegiate playing career in jeopardy.

“He’s had some [concussions] in the past [while he was in high school], but he’s doing okay. We have to wait and see.”

M. Bertoni claims the youngest sibling freshman goaltender Sean Bertoni is “doing okay for a first year player.”

“It’s a much higher level of competition than high school hockey. He was captain of the [Franklin High] team in high school. But it is a step up. He’s getting comfortable.”

Mike never had the privilege of playing together with his younger siblings at any organized level, although there were many backyard competitions through the years. Sean and Will, however, were members of Franklin high school’s recent glory days of going to the High School Divisional II South’s championship’s in the not-so-distant past. The Bertonis have a legacy of leadership at Franklin High, with each brother being a captain of the team during his senior year.

“They [Franklin’s program] go pretty far in the state tournament. Every Bertoni [Michael, Will, Sean] has made it to the South Divisional II final. Franklin is a pretty respectable program.

“It always seems to have good talent, and it does well year in and year out.”

No member of the Bertoni family could have prophesied the current situation. After all, Will and Sean did not come to Columbia Point to play directly under the watchful eye of big brother. According to M. Bertoni, Ma Bertoni finds the whole scenario quite amusing.

“My mother just laughs about it. She come to the games and enjoys herself watching me coach and my brothers play.”

Sean and Will, however, offered slightly different assessments of how their mother and family view Mike’s sudden shift into the coaching spotlight.

“She knows that this is what he wants to do with the rest of his life,” said Sean. “He loves dealing with kids. But,” he added, “he’s 24 years old, and she sees how stressed he is because of all the work he puts in. But that the way he is, and she supports him 100 percent.”

“Our family is extremely proud of him,” said Will, “and that he is a mature and professional young man, that he’ll excel and he’ll win.”

When asked who’s the best hockey player among the Bertoni brothers, all three brothers avoided potential controversy. M. Bertoni steered clear of any definitive answer, only saying with a laugh, “I don’t want my tires slashed.”

The younger siblings were also reluctant to label one Bertoni as top dog on the ice. Sean excused himself since he plays between the pipes while Mike skated as a forward. “It really doesn’t compare.” A curious Will did ask, “What did Mike say?”

A Tough Situation

The Beacons were not enjoying a stellar season when Foley took his medical leave of absence. The team was only 2-10, and there were some blowout losses mingled with some tight games. The lack of depth of the team creates additional obstacles that other teams don’t face.

“We are outmanned right now. We only have 16 active players (14 skaters and 2 goaltenders), where some teams have 24 or 25 players. I did change things up when I took over the head coaching duties. Coach Foley likes a run-and-gun offensive style of play, where as I feel that we don’t have the personnel for that right now, so I instituted a defensive trap game. I feel that it’s important to play a style that it is conducive to the kind of team you have.

“We are playing a lot of top-flight teams. We played Norwich University, a top-ranked team at the Division III level, in the second game after I took over. That was the first game that we played the trap, and we did pretty well and played really hard even though we lost the game 4-2. The score was tied 1-1 after the first period, and we shut them out in the second period. The head coach of Norwich, Mike McShane, came into the locker room after the game and told the guys that they played like champions. He was impressed by how hard they worked, and the guys really took that to heart.

“I have a lot of respect for the leadership that our upper classmen have shown. They don’t get complacent. I tell them everyday to keep positive, and the guys have been great about it. If one player gets down for whatever reason, you have the other guys right on him.”

Donlan couldn’t agree more with his coach. “When your coach is satisfied with an individual player’s performance, then he’s not doing his job. You should always strive to be competitive. There are imperfections in everyone’s game, and that needs to be addressed. If you’re not getting pushed, then you’re not going to become the best player you can be. He wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t ask more from everyone every day.

Recruiting

As an assistant head coach, Bertoni’s responsibilities did include recruiting, albeit on a smaller role. Now that he has assumed the head coaching position, Bertoni feels the added pressure of trying to sell a program to a high school player that is for the most part only five or six years his junior.

“It’s quite different now. I was in contact with a lot of the players that the program was recruiting, so when Coach Foley took his medical leave of absence, I told the recruits what the circumstances were and that I was going to be the interim head coach. Most of the recruits have actually been okay about that; they haven’t taken it negatively. It is different because before I had less contact with them.

“Recruiting for a coach entails a lot more than trying to convince a high school player or potential college transfer that the coach’s program is the one for him. Perhaps more than in any other sport, parents of hockey players take a deep interest in potential college programs that their son might become a part of. After all, parents want to be sold on not only the hockey program, but the university as a whole.

“The individual’s ultimate goal is to graduate from here with a degree. No one here is going to be signing National Hockey League contracts. I’m determined to bring in quality people with good character, and also do well in the classroom. I stress the academic environment that we have here at the university, and in athletics. We take academics seriously, and we take steps to ensure that parents are kept up to date.

His players did not hesitate to throw their support behind M. Bertoni as the current coach. He is believed to be the youngest coach (albeit interim) in the country. His tireless effort is on display daily, and his players believe that his drive that will eventually lead him to success. Junior forward Patrick Donlan admires his coach’s.

“He’s always watching film, and he’s out there recruiting. He’s basically running the whole program by himself. He’s got a cot in his office. He’s living the life of a coach. He’s going to be successful, no question. It’s inspirational.”

Sullivan quickly chimed in, “Or the whole thing is insane. Maybe it’s both.”

Donlan continued. “The team takes on the characteristics of the coach. If the coach is putting in the effort all the time, then the team picks up on it and feeds off it, just like it would from any leader out on the ice.”

A Young Man in an Old Man’s Skates

Bertoni is one that believes youth is in the eye of the beholder. “I feel that I have the characteristics that are needed to build this program into a solid one. People might look at my age and say ‘Oh my God, he’s young.’ but I tend to think experience can be overrated at times. I put in a lot of heart and effort here.”

Sullivan also felt that his coach’s youthful appearance would not hurt recruiting. “It shouldn’t. I mean, no one’s going to ask his age, but you obviously can tell he’s young. But the game of hockey is changing. If you look at the National Hockey League, you see a lot of young coaches now, as where you wouldn’t see it before. His energy is visible, and that’s obviously a plus.”

Although Bertoni mentioned that the lack of dormitories might be a disadvantage in recruiting, he felt that there were other selling points to offer recruits.

“A lot of people don’t know about the facilities here. Some of the parents of the recruits I’ve brought in were amazed at what this university has to offer for their sons, both academically and athletically.”t

Bertoni’s involvement and commitment to academics might be best exemplified by the fact that he still attends classes here at UMass Boston as a graduate student, and that he has also been involved in various educational roles since graduation.

“As an undergraduate, I majored in Secondary Education in Physical Education. I intend to graduate [from here] with a degree in Special Education. I was working during the Fall 2003 semester as a graduate assistant in Academic Advising here in the Athletics Department. Last year, I taught in the Boston Public Schools, at the Phyllis Wheatley High School in Roxbury. Unfortunately, it was closed down and I was laid off.

“It helps to let parents know about those kinds of things, that not only will their son be playing hockey, which I feel is a privilege at this level, but the coach has a solid background in academics.

Next Season and Beyond

The future remains uncertain, for both Michael Bertoni and the UMass Boston men’s hockey program. The team has not had a winning season in four years, and retention has been a key factor. Bertoni is cautious about anticipating his future here at UMass Boston, but he is confident in his ability to help bring the program back into prominence, whether it’s as a head coach or some other role

“I feel that I can get the job done. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions regarding the situation with coach Foley. He is slated to return as of right now. If I do have it, I’d be more than happy. You could almost call it a dream job. I feel that I have the ability to do what it takes to build a quality program here, and bring in good kids.”

When next season starts, Ciarletta and Sullivan will have hung up their skates and entered the next phase of their lives. Donlan and both younger Bertoni brothers, however, will return to the ice at the Clark Athletic Center. Asked whom he wanted behind the bench beginning next season, Donlan was unequivocal in his answer.

“I want Mike Bertoni back. I’m endorsing him right now for the position of head coach of the UMass Boston Beacons hockey team.”

Ciarletta feels that he did a great job under the difficult circumstances this year, and he feels his ex-teammate and current coach should have the position permanently if Foley should happen not to return.

“I think he deserves the opportunity. He’s been around here for a while. Plus, he was a player here. He should have a shot from the beginning of the season to bring in the players he wants and implement the system he wants.”

Sullivan concurred with Ciarletta. “If it’s not Jack Foley, then it should be Mike. But it’s not entirely his decision to make. We’ll see.”