MANCHESTER, NH – I never met Brian Stone. But about two years ago Coach Stone reached out to me. He wanted to share with me a positive story about our city’s young people at a time when too often, the public perception of teenagers is pretty bad.
He knew better. It was an occupational hazard.
Coach Stone, as most of those he nurtured into fine hockey players called him, was a lifelong hockey enthusiast, from player through high school and at New England college, to coach. He was a 2002 inductee in the NH Legends of Hockey Queen City Hall of Fame. He was currently assistant coach at Trinity High School.
He was also a man of great faith, and was actively involved with Manchester Christian Church.
Last night Coach Stone, 51, suffered an apparent heart attack after playing hockey with friends at JFK Coliseum – they found him near his car. There was nothing they could do to save him.
When I heard the news, I didn’t recognize the name immediately. But then I remembered Brian Stone, quite vividly.
The first time Coach Stone emailed me, it was in the hope that a news reporter might be interested in some good news – the fact that many of his players from Central’s hockey team volunteered to take part in One Day of Thanks, a church-sponsored event that served Thanksgiving dinner to 150 people in need. That was in November of 2015.
His enthusiasm was so great, and his words so true, that I told him they were perfect as they were. I couldn’t really do much better. I asked if I could just republish his email as a short story. He accepted the offer, and sent lots of photos. You can see that story here.
It was important to him that every kid in the photos was identified, because that was part of his coaching style. He saw every player as an important and unique individual, and he couldn’t have been more proud of each and every one.
I heard from him again a few months later. He wanted to tell another story, this time of how several of his hockey players raised their hands in a moment of “blind faith” when he told them he needed help.
Without knowing why, 10 of his boys raised their hands. Their volunteer mission was to stand for hours in the cold, snowy-rain and unload food from trucks, to be distributed to 200 families in need as part of a ministry, Food for Children, which continues today. Not one of them complained. In fact, Coach Stone said the warmth of the moment – seeing a group of young teenagers giving up a Saturday morning to do some good, really filled him up.
Coach Stone ended that story with a personal observation: “I have said it before as a coach, how blessed I am to have this platform to make a difference in these players’ lives. If I can make an impact teaching ‘life lessons’ through the game of hockey, that is the best victory I will ever have.”
And that was a perfect segue to the third piece Coach Stone sent me, almost exactly two years ago, just before Easter. It was a beautiful summary of his coaching philosophy, through something he was dedicated to, his weekly Saturday Team Breakfasts – you can read that column here.
Sure, he knew his way around the ice, and no one was better at teaching a kid how to play to his full potential. But where Coach Stone shines was, when saw a player in personal pain, he offered compassion. Where he saw someone struggling with a burden – whether grades, or family life, or personal challenges – he found a way to help carry the load. He described the importance of team bonding over breakfast as follows:
“This is where the “real” coaching begins. This is what I call ‘Coaching Life Lessons.’ This is what it’s all about!
We live in a broken world with many challenges that directly relate to sport and team, so I take time to emphasize the importance of ‘core values.’
I give one player a topic, usually a senior, to define, discuss and share his experience about the topic in front of his teammates, in both sport and life. This season we have discussed respect, character, integrity, commitment, perseverance, accountability, and excellence… I emphasize and tell the boys if there is anything you take away from playing hockey at Central High, to remember that there are two things you can control in life: effort and attitude. You can wake up every day with the best attitude and give the best effort.”
Before going to Central High School to coach, Brian Stone worked alongside Mark Putney at Memorial High School. This morning Mark was laughing through the tears as he remembered the last conversation he had with Coach Stone, who was a childhood friend.
“I just saw him Thursday. We had a lot of fun and laughs at the semi-finals,” Putney says. “I can’t believe he’s gone. He was such an athlete – at the gym every day, he ate well and he played hockey two times a week. Plus he was on the ice every day, doing drills with the kids. He wasn’t just blowing the whistle. He was in such great shape,” Putney says.
“It will be so hard to fill his shoes – and not just the hockey community – he’s done so much for the community. He always tried to help people, that was a reflection of how he coached. He tried to teach life lessons. I’d call him sometimes just to see what he was doing –,” says Putney, needing a moment to catch his breath. “And most of the time he would be having lunch with a kid struggling with grades, or struggling with something. He was an incredible man.”
Coach Stone left a lasting impression on a lot of people, even those who didn’t share the ice with him.
After hearing the “shocking” news about his friend’s sudden death, Louie “The Old Cab Driver” Applebaum stopped by the Precious Blood Monastery to light a candle for Coach Stone.
“He was a gentleman in every sense of the word,” says Louie, who noted that Coach Stone had a memorial vanity plate. “It said UKNOWIT, but the thing is? You never know.”