500 wins in, Williamsville North hockey coach is consummate competitor

Williamsville

WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. (WIVB) — Early in February, the Williamsville North boys hockey team was in a rare rough patch. The Spartans, who were dealing with a rash of injuries to key players, had just suffered a bad loss and hadn’t won consecutive games in nearly two months.

John Burns, the long-time assistant coach and math teacher at North, figured it was time to deliver some positive news to head coach Bob Rosen.

“I did the math,” Burns told Rosen. “The way it plays out, you’re going to to get your 500th win in the section championship.”

It played out. Williamsville North caught fire at the right time and won the sectional title last Sunday at KeyBank Center with a 5-1 win over Orchard Park. It was the Spartans’ ninth Federation title, all under Rosen, who is the only head coach they’ve ever had.

And yes, it was the 500th career victory for Rosen, who took over the school’s new hockey program 30 years ago and never left. He is fourth on New York state’s career coaching list behind Bill Plante, who won 553 games and a record six state titles at Salmon River. 

Will North plays Ithaca on Saturday in the state Division I quarterfinals at HarborCenter, also the site of the semifinals and final. Rosen and the Spartans are three wins away from a sixth state championship. 

Rosen knew this group had special possibilities. His son and assistant, Jake, led off-season workouts that began at 6 o’clock in the morning, before school. Bob had never been an early riser during his days with the Junior Sabres in the 1970s. He soon realized it was time to start getting up early. 

“The least number of players who got up for those practices was 12,” he said. “The most was 22. It was disappointing that we weren’t achieving what I thought we would. We had a lot of injuries and were playing a system that wasn’t suited to our personnel. But it’s how you’re playing now that matters.”

Rosen is the winningest active coach in New York. He knows it, too. He recited Plante’s “553” off the top of his head. He knows he’s had good players, but he’s not one for phony modesty.

“I keep track,” he said Friday morning in his office at L&M Wealth Management on Sheridan Drive in Amherst, where he’s been a financial planner since he was 21. “They keep score, don’t they?”

The man is a competitor, a coach who spends countless hours watching film and planning ways to make his kids better. It doesn’t happen by accident. Rosen was considered too short for college hockey — he was listed at 5-6 — but played for a national champion at Canton and starred for Brian Cavanaugh at Canisius. 

Rosen has been one of the top amateur golfers in Western New York for the last 30 years or so. He’s won just about every major title in the area, including the Buffalo District in 1993. He won 17 or 18 (OK, he lost count) club championships at Westwood, which has since closed. He’s now a member at Country Club of Buffalo.

“He had such a tremendous passion for the game. He still does,” said Cavanaugh, who coached Rosen at Canisius and became a part-time assistant this season. “He’s the hardest-working high school coach in this area. 

“Let me tell you something. He scouts the other teams. He videotapes every one of his games. He has team meals for his kids. He has video sessions for his kids, and skills clinics for them during the offseason. He runs his high school program like a college program.”

Mike Torrillo, the veteran Williamsville East coach, recalls watching Rosen play for the Junior Sabres at the Aud. He remembers that Rosen had strong hands for a little guy, and a great shot, but also a gift for performing the little tasks that win hockey games.

“He’d be the first one to tell you you don’t win without good players,” said Torrillo, who holds the Canisius College record for goals, assists and points. “But Bobby is dedicated. His teams work hard and he does a great job preparing his kids to play. He loves the game, there’s no doubt. He’s definitely a players’ coach.”

Torrillo played Junior B for Rosen as a teenager and won a national championship. Six of those kids from those Amherst Knights later went followed Rosen to Canisius, where he assisted Cavanaugh during a memorable run for the Griffs’ hockey program. 

After 30 years and 500 wins, you’d think a guy might start to slow down, to lose a bit of his drive and desire.

“Not him, no!” Cavanaugh said. “First of all, his full-time job is with L&M. When he was a senior in college, he was already starting to get clients. Then when he was my assistant, everybody he came into contact with became his client. He’s still bringing them in. He has pro hockey players. He is very, very motivated, super motivated.”

That’s the key, as Rosen readily admits. He loves to compete, whether it’s in sports or in business. He said he took up golf after college so he would have an outlet for his competitive urges later in life. 

Rosen said he enjoys the practices more than the games, because he can see kids getting better. He’s notorious for hitting golf balls at all hours. Back in his Westwood days, he would sneak out at lunch to putt for 20 minutes. Cavanaugh claims that Rosen sold his house so he could buy one closer to CCB, where he’s now a member.

“That’s not true,” Rosen, 58, said with a laugh. “We were in the process of remodeling and one my daughter’s friends’ father was selling his house. It was a perfect fit. But yes, it’s right down the street from Country Club of Buffalo. I get on Youngs, seven minutes. It’s pretty good.”

Seven minutes to CCB. Yeah, He clocked it. This is a dogged competitor, a man with a mind for detail. As Cavanaugh suggests, it suited Bob perfectly in the highly competitive realm of finance, which was his major at Canisius College. 

“Oh yeah, this is a very competitive office when it comes to sports,” Rosen said. “It’s that athletic background that makes you compete and gives you that work ethic and the time discipline you need to succeed.”

Rosen said he had a friendly rivalry with the late Gerry Gentner, a partner at L&M who won three state and eight sectional titles as a high school softball coach at Williamsville South. Gentner’s daughter, Julie Murphy, has the office next to Rosen’s. Murphy is in the SUNY Cortland Hall of Fame for softball and field hockey and is one of the top women’s golfers in the area. 

Max Lipsitz, grandson of the firm’s founder, won an NCAA volleyball title at Penn State as a teammate of Matt Anderson. Tim DiGiulio, who played hockey at Hamilton and is Rosen’s long-time assistant, works at L&M. Doug Berken’s son, David, is director of men’s basketball operations at Stanford, where his cousin Adam Cohen, a Will North grad, is associate coach.

Finance has treated him well, too well in a sense. Mercyhurst offered him a head job when it started its hockey program when he was five years out of college. It was tempting, but he was a young husband and doing very well at L&M. 

“It was a hard decision not to take it,” he said, “but financially it was just such a huge cut in pay. My wife Beth looked at me and said, ‘Please tell me you’re not taking this job.'”

He stayed. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll get another college job or whatever. Then Jim Rusin, my fourth-grade gym teacher, said, ‘Hey, we’re starting hockey at Williamsville North, would you coach for a couple of years?’”

Cavanaugh told him to go for it. A couple of years turned into 30. He’s never looked back. Rosen never coached in the NHL, but he developed a fabulous network of hockey connections. He coached the sons of Bill Hajt, Craig Ramsey, Larry Carriere, Joe Crozier and Barry Smith. He was friends with Scotty Bowman, whose daughter married DiGiuglio’s brother. 

How do you beat that? Rosen has had a wonderful hockey life, and he’s never had to move out of town. Seven minutes to CCB. Three wins from a sixth state championship. One very supportive wife. And yes, 54 wins from the state coaching record, if you’re keeping track.

“You make so many great contacts through the years,” he said. “Seeing kids develop through the years, in the clinics and everything, is very rewarding. And the friendships … “

Rosen looked up at a photo on his office wall, of him reading a putt in 1993, when he won the district golf title, and shook his head. 

“I don’t realize I’m going to be 59 at the end of the month,” he said. “I don’t think of it. I still think of myself as a kid. Standing on the putting green, chipping and putting, shooting pucks in the basement, playing pond hockey. That was fun. It was never work.

“My wife tells me, ‘You’re not 18 anymore when you do these stupid things that you do’. But it keeps you young,” Rosen said. “It keeps you going.”

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