It was a bit of a shock and very sad to learn late last summer that Coach Bill McCormick passed away in July. He was a great influence on me during my four years at Williams, and I regret that I didn’t stay better connected after graduation. I saw him at a few reunions, most recently, I believe, at our 35th, by which time he’d already been retired for 15 years. He still retained that youthful vigor, a vivid memory of our past triumphs, disappointments and follies, and a keen interest in my career and family.
While applying to Williams, I had heard great things about the hockey program there, but I don’t think I met Bill until the early fall of ’64 at the first organizational meeting of the freshman hockey team held at Weston Field. After introductions and congratulations for having made the right decision in choosing Williams, Bill said he wanted to assess our fitness and, over time, find ways to improve it. That seemed an entirely reasonable thing to do, and I quickly discovered I had a lot of room for improvement. Actually, I had envisioned we would be conditioning on ice in pursuit of pucks and other players, not running around a track timed with a stop watch. Anyway, I and fellow candidates soon learned Bill’s soft-spoken but rigorous ways, and before the season officially began, we had cohered into a strong fraternal group, determined to give him our best efforts.
When we finally stepped onto the ice in November, conditioning did not diminish, but this was the moment we’d been waiting for: skating, practicing individual skills, play-making, learning strategy, and scrimmaging. Bill told us how to do it all and demonstrated to us that he could do it all. One day he had us practicing that bane of all goalies, tipping, or deflecting a teammate’s incoming shot with your stick near the goal mouth. High shots, low shots, shots on the ice, he rarely missed getting his stick on the puck or getting the puck on net. When my turn came, I managed to make a few, until a rising shot from I don’t remember who deflected off the shaft of my stick and clocked me in the helmet. My ears rang for a while, but I was OK. Everyone got a chuckle, and Bill apologized for omitting an important point of the exercise: “Sometimes ya gotta duck.” He advised us on everything from skating technique to learning to see the whole ice, which to him was like a game of high-speed chess: see the whole board, know your options, envision the consequences, make your move. Simple. Simple for him, which is no doubt why he was captain and leading scorer at Michigan State University for two of his four years there.
Our first scrimmage between the freshman and varsity teams was an eye opener. Both squads, of course, had much to prove. The Roe brothers, our dear late teammate Jimmy Roe and his older brother Bill, added an extra spark to the combustion. I’m sure the varsity crushed us, but what really impressed me was the speed and intensity of the game, offensively and defensively, and the realization that I was moving up a big level from high school hockey.
Most of the freshman team moved up to the varsity in sophomore year and remained with Bill through our senior year. In this fast-paced and confrontational game Bill always demanded fair and clean play and deplored un-sportsmanlike conduct, which in addition to leading to the penalty box, could easily lead to a lengthy seat on your own bench. On the other hand, he expected his players to resist any attempt at intimidation by opponents, and a lack of backbone in such situations could be an equal invitation to demotion. Over the years the team had its ups and downs, but the love of the game that Bill did so much to inspire never waned. It seemed like a competition as to who could be first to practice and who was the last to be forced off the ice before the Zamboni came on. Bill, who always had an ear to the ground, pointed out to me (as if I didn’t know) that some of my course work could have benefitted from similar dedication.
While I absorbed so many benefits from Bill’s teaching, inspiration, and the example he set, the true weight of his influence was recently reinforced at a gathering last November in Williamstown arranged as a tribute to Bill for his 35-year coaching career, his leadership in college hockey, and his service to the Williamstown community. A large group of family, friends, and players from the ‘50’s to the ‘80’s packed into the Taconic Golf Club, one of Bill’s favorite haunts, to reminisce about this great man. After an hour or more of drinks and conversation, one his daughters announced that anyone was welcome to take the mic to offer personnel remembrances. There were many from all eras of his career who stepped forward. Their comments were universally sincere, heartfelt, poignant, witty, and largely extemporaneous. I was so glad to have come, and, as I have been for 54 years, truly honored to be a member of his fraternity.
To my classmates on the team, Clint Wilkins, Dobby West, Jeff Walker, Ricky Moore, Ned Perry, Charlie Gordon, who have been equally bad as I in staying in touch over the years, I hope to see you all this June and to make time to tip a few beers for Jimmy Roe and Coach Bill.