Midway through the 1998-99 hockey season, Franklin had an unexpected opening for a varsity coach and the program turned to a former star player, and state champion, to fill the void. Chris Spillane, who had one-plus year of JV coaching experience, was promoted to finish out the winter. The Panthers won 10 of their final 14 games that season and advanced to face Duxbury in the Div. 2 South championship game. Twenty years later, Spillane’s coaching career has come to a close following another trip to the South final and, just like his first year, another meeting with the Dragons.
Spillane officially submitted his resignation on Monday, after telling his players that he was stepping down at the team’s end-of-season banquet on Sunday night. During his two-decade tenure as head coach, the Panthers went to the playoffs every season, reached five state championship games (including three Div. 2 finals in a row), won the Div. 1 state title in 2016, and became the first Hockomock League team to be selected for the Super 8. He finished with more than 300 career victories, second on the program’s all-time win list behind only his high school coach Bob Luccini.
“I’ve missed so much of my kids’ college hockey,” said Spillane when asked why he decided to retire. His daughter Kaitlyn just wrapped up a successful career at St. Anselm and his son Ryan has one more year left for the Hawks. His son C.J. was a senior on this year’s Franklin team. “My wife and I were talking and I was like, it’s time to follow him. I’ll miss this, but I can’t get that back.”
The idea of retirement was first addressed in the summer and Spillane told his coaching staff about his decision. He explained that the assistant coaches “basically coached the team this year” to prepare them for the possibility of taking over for the 2019-20 season.
After two decades without missing the playoffs, Spillane nearly saw his final season end early. The Panthers made the tournament with a record of 8-9-4 and were the lowest seed in D1 South. Franklin only qualified as the Kelley-Rex division champion (its eighth straight division title and 14th Hock title under Spillane), but the Panthers got a lot of help on a wild night to earn the crown.
Franklin thought the title and its postseason hopes were gone when it lost to North Attleboro, but then Mansfield and Oliver Ames were both beaten the same night, handing Franklin the title. Spillane said, “We showed up for practice the next day and I was like, you’re not going to believe this boys but we just won the league.”
When asked about his team taking advantage of that break and then making an improbable run to the South final, Spillane replied, “It was always in our kids, just this year took a little bit longer to pull it out of them and get them to see what they’re capable of.”
Talking to coaches that have faced Franklin during Spillane’s tenure and there are several common phrases that pop up – hardworking, consistent, disciplined. It was established from the start what was going to be expected of the Panthers every season and almost always the team met those lofty goals.
“Chris is the best coach I have seen in all my years of coaching… without question,” said Canton coach Brian Shuman. “His players are expected to outwork their opponents every shift and to play tough, fast and physical every time they touch the ice. You can tell that his players have the highest respect for him and would go through a wall for him.’
Long-time Stoughton coach Dan Mark added, “Chris has been a class act and I know I will miss him. The last 10 years my teams have struggled and he has never run up the score and has always been gracious and complimentary to me and my teams.”
Spillane credits a lot of his coaching philosophy from what he learned playing for Luccini and his coaches at UMass Boston, Gary Doak and Bill Stewart. He took bits and pieces from each of those coaches and molded it into his own style, but one that has been flexible and adaptable to meet the challenges and demands of coaching for 20-plus seasons. As he noted, the “X’s and O’s” haven’t changed much down the years but he has changed way he interacts with players, even if he still makes them do plenty of skating and hard work to get on the ice.
“Twenty years ago you could be a screamer and a yeller and it worked,” he explained. “Now it’s evolved into being a friend, a coach, and a mentor, and obviously with video being introduced they need visual learning not just white boards. It’s different generations and coaches who can change with it sort of stick it out and those that don’t change with it get weeded out.”
Spillane continued, “You’re just trying to make it the best experience they can have and if they win that’s just icing on the cake. You want them walking away saying I love hockey.”
One of the biggest challenges that Franklin faced during Spillane’s tenure was making the jump from D2 to D1, but the Panthers met it head on and needed little time to get acclimated. In just its second season in D1, Franklin was chosen to play in the Super 8. A team loaded with 22 seniors upset Xaverian in overtime in the play-in game and gave eventual champion Malden Catholic a battle over two legs. It was his son Ryan that scored the game-winning goal to lift the Panthers, which obviously meant a lot to his father, but it was the fact that he had coached that large and close-knit senior class since their days in Mites that made the accomplishment extra special for Spillane.
To remain in the Super 8 mix, Spillane has pushed to add tougher teams to Franklin’s schedule. Malden Catholic was the first to jump on (and the Panthers earned their first win against the Lancers this winter), but it was hard to find other D1 teams willing to schedule the Panthers. In 2016, Franklin added a state title and solidified itself as a public school program to be reckoned with and a positive addition for any Super 8 contender’s schedule. Now the likes of St. Mary’s, Marshfield, Hingham, St. John’s Shrewsbury, Barnstable, and Pope Francis are all regularly on the season slate.
“Now we’re turning games away and finding the right match for us that we could compete in but would still challenge us,” Spillane said. “It’s just about challenging kids, playing the best teams you can play and win or lose it’s going to make you better.”
While the Panthers have added D1 teams from around the state to bolster its strength of schedule, Spillane still looks forward to games with historic rivals. He joked about the “green teams” that Franklin gets fired up for (Canton, Mansfield, and King Philip) and raved about the depth in the league this season and the challenges that teams presented.
Canton has been the most consistent rival to Franklin’s supremacy in the league, with the teams trading seasons at the top. Shuman said, “I tell our kids all the time that we are incredibly lucky to have a true rival like Franklin. Rivals push you to be better and bring the best out of you. And Chris’ Franklin teams have clearly done that over the years.”
He added, “Franklin has always been a great hockey program, but Chris has made the program one of the best in the state.”
Spillane grew up in Franklin and dreamed of playing for the Panthers. He got his chance and was part of some of the program’s best teams. He won a state title in 1983 and scored 79 points the following season as a senior. He came back to Franklin after college to raise his family and got the chance to coach at his alma mater. Now, after 20 years of success on the bench, he gets to go back to being a fan, at least for a little while.
“I may still get out on the ice and help out, maybe do a captain’s practice, but at the end of the day it needs to move on,” he said, adding that he hopes that his assistant coaches will be considered to replace him. Even though he is moving on from the Franklin job to watch Ryan’s final year in college, he fully expects that this won’t be the end of his hockey career.
“For one year I am sitting back and being a parent and then the following year I’ll probably be coaching somewhere,” he said. “It’s in my blood.”