NEW CANAAN—The news on Monday that Bo Hickey was stepping down as New Canaan’s boys hockey coach after 20 years, in which he won 10 league titles and made the Rams the most consistent program in the FCIAC and one of the best in the state — created a ripple effect.
Really, it was just one piece to the Bo Hickey puzzle, and the seismic reaction to the news in reality was about more than just a successful coaching career in one sport concluding.
An era is coming to an end, one that lasted for over 50 years, when Hickey attended what was then known as Stamford Catholic and produced one of the most storied playing careers in league history.
Hickey may have been known as much for his work as a football assistant as behind the hockey bench. Save for an occasional year, this will be the first season Hickey has not coached since 1974, when he was named the offensive line coach at Staples.
Hickey will turn 69 this fall and could hear the sound of the clicking clock. But that was always mitigated by his true passion and gift: coaching, teaching and motivating high school athletes.
“Trying to get the most out of them athletically,” Hickey said Wednesday night. “I’m not talking about greatness, but an untapped resource where they can have fun playing a sport.”
Hickey told me back in March he finally was going to retire. This time it was spoken with resolution; he has been saying it for years, and my response was always the same: “What are you going to do? You love it too much.”
It is why Hickey waited until last week to turn in a letter of resignation to New Canaan athletic director Jay Egan. He still had to come to terms with permanently closing the door.
Hickey was both one of the most beloved and misunderstood coaches in FCIAC history. He wore a gruff mask, spoke bluntly and rarely was seen without a wad of chewing tobacco. After hockey games, his first line to the media seeking comments was much like after a state tournament game last March: “What do you want to talk to me for, I didn’t score any goals.” There would occasionally be an expletive involved.
But that preamble always led to an honest dissection of a game. Because Hickey had few peers when it came to candor. He told the truth, one of the many reasons his players adored him and the media respected him.
You knew before a season what to expect from the Rams. If Hickey said “We could be pretty good,” the team was a championship contender.
Hickey — and I don’t think it is even close — has more good stories than any coach I have encountered in over three decades as a sportswriter. Part has to do with his having one of the longest and most varied resumes. He had a number of frank one-liners to assess a players’ ability or a game situation. His favorite salutation to a friend has always been “Homes.”
Hickey has been my great white whale. I have tried for over a decade to get him to allow me to write a profile story. He had steadfastly declined each time, answering with a trademark line and belief: “The kids win the games, the coaches lose them.”
Hickey had turned down the annual efforts by the Stamford Old Timers to honor him. Until this year. It will be the shortest speech ever given by a recipient, the word “I” will not be uttered and his players and assistant coaches will be thanked.
Hickey finally relented over dinner on Wednesday to let me write this column. He wasn’t, as sometimes, a hostile witness. Consider what is to follow just a very small sampling of things you may or may not know about Bo Hickey:
— Thomas Hickey got the nickname Bo when he was about 3 or 4, because the name of major league pitcher Bobo Newsom was one of the few he could remember.
— Hickey was a four-sport athlete at Stamford Catholic: football, baseball, basketball and track. He once won the 100-yard dash running in cleats after hurrying from a baseball game.
— Hickey once hit a still-talked-about home run at Stamford Catholic over the football press box.
— After Hickey graduated from Stamford Catholic, he played football at Maryland for a year, Montreal of the Canadian Football league for several exhibition games, for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the Continental League — he was coached by Stamford NFL Hall of Famer Andy Robustelli — was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals and once chased down and tackled Colts star Lenny Moore in an exhibition game, went to the Broncos for the 1967 season before breaking his foot against the Jets, then played for three years in the semipro Atlantic Coast League.
— The back of Hickey’s football card said he scored four touchdowns for the Broncos. It was actually five — he had a receiving touchdown as well.
— Hickey was a renowned softball player. He took a year off after giving up football for good and estimated he traveled the country playing about 250 games.
— Hiring Hickey led to instant success. Former New Canaan athletic director Vinny Iovino reached out to Hickey to become a football assistant in 1981. At that point, there was an agreement with current coach Lou Marinelli to be the head coach but the school system had yet to find a job for him until the eve of spring practice. The Rams, who had been winless the previous three years, won their first two games in 1981 and the state championship the next year. Hickey took over as the school’s hockey coach midway through 1994 when the team was 1-7 and led it to the FCIAC title.
— Hickey said the best team he has ever coached is the 1975 Staples football team.
Hickey was also a true character growing up, and the stories he can share are endless. My personal favorite — and he really needs to tell it because I can’t do it justice in words — is the time when he was at Maryland and went to a carnival. There was a ring with an orangutan, and anyone who could last three one-minute rounds would win 10 times the money they put down. This was a perfect challenge for Hickey.
While waiting in his corner, Hickey felt some water drops on his head, looked around but could not tell where they came from. Moments later, the same thing. The orangutan was spitting at Hickey through its muzzle.
The orangutan soon became the victim of a one-punch knockout.
Bo Hickey was — is — a true original. In terms of playing and coaching ability, he is in our area pantheon. When it comes to making young athletes better players and people, that pantheon becomes even smaller.
“The kids all knew where they stood with me, and the biggest thing is I held them accountable for their actions,” Hickey said. “All high school coaches demand respect. You have to give respect to get respect. I really believe it.”