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Longtime coach Leger hangs ’em up

  • Mark Leger Staff photo by Ben Conant—



For the Ledger-Transcript
Thursday, August 02, 2018 12:22PM

The end of the 2018 school year also marks the end of an era: after over fifteen years coaching hockey — from Mites through varsity— beloved ConVal-Conant Griffins boys’ hockey coach Mark Leger will be hanging up his helmet and retiring from coaching.

Leger has been playing hockey his entire life, starting in his boyhood days in the “twin cities” area of Fitchburg and Leominster, Massachusetts, where he played with family and friends on ponds and city rinks. His wife, Carol, said: “Hockey is literally in Mark’s blood — he’s French-Canadian, and his family has probably been playing hockey since the game began. They all played, as far back as anyone can remember.”

Carol recalled that the minute their son, Erik, was born, Mark’s first comment was, “I can’t wait to play hockey with him!”

Leger started coaching Erik as soon as he could “balance on a pair of skates”— which was age2. Daughter Morgan is also an accomplished athlete — when she began dancing, Leger said, “Well, I can’t help with that — but I’ll watch!”

Leger coached Mites, Squirts, PeeWees, and Bantams, in the Greater Gardner youth hockey programs and Winchendon Youth Hockey, and when ConVal needed a coach in 2013, Leger stepped up to the plate, happy to have a chance to coach Erik again. But just as Leger started coaching varsity, ConVal’s student population began to drop, and with it, the number of boys trying out for hockey. Erik rallied enough friends — some of whom could barely skate — and saved the program, nicknaming the ragtag fourth line “The Freakshow.”

Erik, a powerhouse on the ice who was the top DIII scorer in the state his senior year, says of being coached by his dad all those years: “He was the greatest — I’m so lucky to have had him as a coach, and to have him for a dad.”

Former assistant coach Scott Tracy, who will be carrying on as Head Coach for the Grifins in 2018-2019, jokes about his “bromance” with Leger during the intense 3-month varsity hockey season the past few years. Tracy said of Leger, “He’s a dedicated, caring coach with a passion for competition — he dedicates a large portion of his life during hockey season to ensuring that the boys both enjoy the sport and learn how to play. He has also been a parental figure guiding many of the boys when their lives are in turmoil with schooling and other woes. It has truly been a blessing to work beside Mark. He has come to know me better than most and I truly appreciate his companionship and love for the game of hockey… I’m going to miss Mark on the bench with me for sure; he fires me up right along with the boys.”

Former ConVal Athletic Director Mark Swasey said of Leger: “Many young men in our ConVal, and more recently Conant, communities have benefited immensely from being fortunate enough to play for Coach Leger. Mark's attributes as a coach and person are many. From his passion for the sport, overall great sense of humor and positive attitude, strong acumen for the game, and a sincere compassion for every player he worked with, the coaching world has lost not only a fantastic coach and teacher, but more importantly a tremendous person of character. Coaches of Mark's caliber not only possess innate skills that make them effective leaders, but also carry intangible characteristics like work ethic and a desire to continue learning, in becoming even better coaches over time. Through his role as a coach, Mark had a significantly positive impact on many lives.”

Every Griffin and former ConVal player will miss Leger’s hilarious “Top Ten of the Season” list, which Leger wrote each year for the end of season hockey banquet. One year, the team made a scrapbook of their favorite Coach Mark quotes, which kept the team laughing all season long.

After years of worrying about having enough players — he even personally hosted hockey-playing exchange students to fill the bench! — Leger and Swasey were instrumental in engineering the team’s merger with Conant in 2016. Former captain Matt Kolk suggested the new team be the Griffins, a mythical lion-eagle creature, merging ConVal’s cat with Conant’s bird, and the players all loved the idea.

“The low point was 2015,” Leger recalls. “We had a 0 and 16 record. It was brutal. The boys were very tough.”

The next year, the new teams’ very first game against Hollis-Brookline-Derryfield launched a new era: a win for the brand new Griffins.

“That was such a bonding moment,” Leger says. “After that game, we were a team. It was awesome.”

2017-2018 was the second year of the Griffins, and the team achieved a long-held goal of Leger’s, qualifying for the playoffs for the first time in many years. Despite the loss in the quarterfinals, Leger was thrilled with the way the season ended, and confident that the ConVal-Conant hockey program will survive and thrive under the guidance of former Assistant Coach Scott Tracy. With daughter Morgan — who has been the team manager since her freshman year — graduated from ConVal, the Leger family is entering a new phase.

Leger reflected on his decision to step down: “This is very tough for me to swallow since I love the game, coaching, and especially the players… they’re my boys. I am very proud of our team and I'll cherish the many memories I have... except for maybe those late nights on the bus!

”No question, the ConVal-Conant Griffins, their families, and the fans are going to miss Coach Mark Leger.