From The Keene Sentinel
By Michael M. McMahon
Bobby Rodrigue remembers when, 18 years ago, a group of Keene State students asked him if bringing club hockey to the college would be possible.
It’ll never work, Rodrigue thought.
But Rodrigue, a 2000 Keene State alum and a self-described rink rat — with a passion for hockey that stems back from playing on ponds and rinks from his childhood days in a hockey family in Berlin — took a stab at it.
“I was not overly optimistic of the possibility of it being successful,” said Rodrigue. “But we figured we have this group of kids who like this and wanna do this, so let’s make it happen.”
Today, the Keene State men’s club hockey team is well-established and well-recognized — far beyond what many schools of the same size are able to accomplish. Rodrigue has been the program’s only head coach. The Owls are 7-3 so far this season.
Rodrigue, over nearly two decades coaching, has established himself as one of the more well-respected coaches in New England and the region with deep ties to USA Hockey. Now the operations manager and hockey director at Keene ICE, Rodrigue has ushered in elite camps with premier players, coaches and scouts to Keene. Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis is considered a friend. The two get dinner together when St. Louis’ sons have passed through town for development camps.
As the Owls gained traction at the club level in their first decade of competing — winning a New England Conference Hockey Association championship in 2016 and advancing to the American Club Hockey Association Division II national tournament in 2016, 2017 and 2019 — the speculation slowly began to swirl.
Rodrigue began fielding a new question.
When will the Owls become a varsity program again?
Again, “It’ll never work,” he thought.
Keene State fielded a varsity hockey team for three years in the 1980s, winning just seven games as an ECAC Division III program before sputtering out.
Until Rodrigue and that small group of Keene State students, a good number of whom were from Keene High, started the club program in 2006, there was no hockey at Keene State.
What a long way things have come.
In July, Keene State announced the addition of men’s and women’s ice hockey — as well as eSports — to its varsity athletics lineup beginning in 2024.
Three months later, Rodrigue was announced the as the men’s program’s first head coach. It was a decision that seemed all but inevitable to those around the hockey community in town, and beyond.
The college also named Rob Morgan, a veteran coach with a lengthy background in program building across multiple divisions and ranks of college hockey in his own right, to head the women’s program.
But without Rodrigue, it’s hard imagining Keene State’s path back to varsity hockey ever being paved.
“I would have never imagined it coming this way,” said Rodrigue.
His hockey story in Keene began with playing pick-up hockey here and there. As a student at Keene State he was sophomore class president and eventually became student body president. It led to an early life in politics. He was elected to the state Legislature while he was still in school.
It was during college that he met Bert Poirier, a Keene State athletics hall of famer who has worked in admissions at the college for decades, now as senior associate director. Poirier ushered Rodrigue into the Keene hockey community.
Poirier, a Montreal native, remembers seeing Rodrigue walking down Appian Way one day in a Canadiens sweater. Berlin, after all, is about a dozen miles closer to Montreal than it is to Boston. Poirier, a Habs fan himself, complimented Rodrigue on the bold statement in a Bruins town. The two struck up a conversation and soon Poirier got Rodrigue in as a student worker in admissions.
From there, Poirier got Rodrigue into the men’s hockey scene in Keene. And then, coaching. Poirier was also coaching director for Keene Youth Hockey at the time.
“I enjoyed coaching more than I enjoyed politics,” said Rodrigue. “I was still a student and still in the Legislature. I walked away from politics to go into coaching.”
Rodrigue joined a hockey community that operated out of the Cheshire Fairgrounds Ice Arena — affectionately remembered by locals as “The Barn.”
“There were so many good hockey parents here — the way they fostered the program when it wasn’t such a huge, bustling hockey program,” said Rodrigue. “It was seasonal at best, and we still managed to piece it together and we had an absolute blast.”
When Rodrigue and Poirier teamed up to get the club team going, the struggle for ice time was real. Resources were short. And Rodrigue was just a volunteer coach.
Keene High boys hockey coach Chris McIntosh was among of the first group of students to go to Rodrigue about a club team.
“He put together a real grassroots set up,” said McIntosh. “That first year, we basically begged teams to play. But that second year, we had uniforms. All of a sudden it started becoming this more polished thing. Ever since then, Bobby has leveled up that team and that program year after year. And really, without that success, the conversation about a Division III team probably doesn’t even start.”
“There’s no question about it,” said Poirier. “I’ll be honest, running a club team is far more difficult than running a varsity program, really.”
“It’s self-funded,” Poirier added. “There’s a lot of administrative paperwork to be done. I can’t think of anyone who would have done what Bobby has done on a volunteer basis for so many years.
“He was familiar with how student organizations could get started, how they could be funded, how they could be supported,” said Poirier. “Had it not been for his background in that area, I don’t think we would be where we are today. There’s no denying that hockey wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Bobby.”
The turning point came with the opening of Keene ICE in 2015. Rodrigue first began work at the rink running the pro shop. As time went on, he was asked to take on a bigger role until he became operations manager and hockey director.
If it involves ice, sticks and pucks, and it’s happening in Keene, Rodrigue probably had something to do with it.
“For me as a younger coach when I started, I utilized him heavily,” said McIntosh, who took over as head coach at Keene High in 2017 after years as an assistant with Kyle Macie. “He was just such a good resource, and it helps that every time I walk into the rink, there he is.”
Rodrigue credits the Learn to Skate program at the rink, as well as partnerships with USA Hockey and the Boston Bruins, who have run “Little Bruins” programs in Keene, for turning the hockey community in Keene into a bustling one.
“I still call it our little hockey community, but it’s certainly a bigger little hockey community than it used to be,” said Rodrigue.
“Overall you could see the pieces of what could be. We used to keep a decent program moving along with a miserable facility,” he said. “And now we have a terrific facility. The ice quality here is second to none, the cleanliness is second to none, and our ice rate is one of the lowest of anywhere in the region. … at The Barn, you really had to want it. You had to love it and you probably had to come from a hockey family.”
Now, some of the kids that were among the first Learn to Skate groups at the new arena are playing on high school teams for Keene High, Monadnock and ConVal-Conant.
“We’ve got some unreal people involved here,” said Rodrigue, deflecting credit for his part in the sport’s growth here. “I think some people just aren’t as loud as I am.”
With the addition of two varsity programs to the arena’s lineup, Rodrigue expects the community support only to rise. He expects his team to be somewhat competitive right off the bat when it begins next winter. The team’s first schedule, which is not yet completed, already features some ranked opponents, Rodrigue said.
Rodrigue will step away from his full-time role at the arena as he begins his head coaching job with the Owls varsity program. He started on campus this past week. Keene State will continue to field a men’s club hockey program that Rodrigue will pass off to another coach. But he’ll remain involved heavily in all aspects of Keene State hockey.
After all, without him, it doesn’t exist.
(Originally published at https://www.sentinelsource.com/sports/local_sports/bobby-rodrigue-at-center-ice-of-hockeys-growth-in-keene/article_07a5572c-b628-5a20-858e-a60869e6fa4b.html)