Rizzo Set the Tone for Hockey Success at BHS
Bulletin Sports Writer
Mark Rizzo’s one year of varsity hockey at Bellingham High was a big plus, but it also came with a small minus. A 5-foot-10, 170-pound senior center, Rizzo played on the school’s first hockey team during the 1978-79 season. He was the Blackhawks’ first-line center, and his aggressive, pro-active style produced six goals and 19 assists for 25 points. The team’s maiden voyage into the Tri Valley League was extremely positive because coach Roger Guillemette’s forces finished with an 11-5-2 record and missed out on tourney play by only a few percentage points.
The team’s talent and experience, which were developed in the town’s youth program, made an immediate impression in year one. Rizzo, however, probably wished he were a year younger. The senior co-captain graduated in 1979 and headed for Framingham State. His teammates, players like Pat Morrison, Jeff Stearns, Larry Pontremelli, Steve Gentile, Jim Newman and Brian Sherlock, returned for the 1979-80 campaign and posted a 15-5-1 record, which landed the second-year team in the tourney, where it defeated Dorchester and Harwich before losing to Oliver Ames at Boston Garden.
“I saw the game at the Garden and I’ll admit it stung a bit not being able to skate with the players,” said Rizzo (pictured right) from his home in Mendon. “But I was happy for the guys. It’s rare that a young person wishes to be even younger, but that’s how I felt at the time.”
Rizzo was, however, a key cog in the team’s first year, a terrific skater who passed effectively, dug the puck out of the corners and checked hard. He could have compiled more than 25 points, but a fractured wrist during the season forced him to miss four games.
“Two encounters I remember well were our very first game, which came against Franklin, and a game against Millis,” Rizzo said. “We lost to Franklin, 8-6, but gave them a huge scare. I had a goal and three assists against Franklin. In the Millis game, I scored a hat trick, getting two goals in close and another from the point.”
Crediting teammates like Morrison, Stearns, Gentile, Newman and Sherlock for Bellingham’s early success, Rizzo also tips his cap to Guillemette, a coach he labels as “a great motivator.’”
“Roger knew how to manage players,” Rizzo emphasized. “He taught us to be organized on power plays. He brought out the best in us. As for some teammates, Morrison was an exceptional talent, Stearns wasn’t flashy but he was solid, Gentile was fast and aggressive, Newman was smart on defense and Sherlock was one of the best goalies in the league.”
Bellingham’s current hockey program has slipped and now is a co-op team with Blackstone-Millville. Rizzo recalled how different it was in the early going and how incredible fan support was in 1979. “We got lots of support from students,” he noted. “Basketball had average teams and football was winning one game a year. The youth league parents were at all the games, and other fans generally came out in support. Playing varsity hockey was one of the most memorable times of my life.”
Rizzo would have played hockey at Framingham State, but practice was held during first-period classes at the college. “I wasn’t going to skip English classes to practice,” he said. “I rearranged my schedule for my sophomore year, but I suffered a torn ACL playing softball just before classes began and had to forgo hockey again. When my junior year arrived, I decided to focus on majoring in economics and my future.”
After graduation in 1983, Rizzo worked first for a financial company specializing in retirement programs for educators. He later joined the staff of Keyes-Graham Insurance Agency in Plainville as vice president of marketing and in 1996 was appointed president. After seven years, in 2003, he purchased the firm, which now operates as KGR Financial Resources. Rizzo is a certified financial planner, having taken courses that dealt with taxes, estate planning, trusts and investments.
Rizzo, 53, and his wife, Robin, have four children and have lived in Mendon for the last 14 years. His leisure time had been spent playing softball, but after five knee surgeries he’s turned to golf and spending time with his family for enjoyment. Calling his late father (Russell) his role model for instilling high standards and being encouraging, Rizzo relied on an athletic philosophy that stressed giving 100 percent. “I believed that if you commit to a team, you have to go all out to compete and to improve,” Rizzo noted.
Listing Bobby Orr, Rick Middleton and Cam Neely as three of his favorite pros, Rizzo can take solace in missing out on Bellingham’s tourney appearance at Boston Garden. Thanks to his leadership as a captain and his quality play centering the Blackhawks’ first line, Bellingham became an instant success in hockey. His 11-5-2 team was a catalyst for the following year’s squad, which made it to the Garden for the Sectional Semifinals.
Mark Rizzo was the ultimate team player, a talented forward who played intelligently and instinctively. His pioneering spirit put Bellingham’s ice hockey program on the map early.