John Zifcak was the eldest of Phillip and Frances Zifcak’s sons. With ten siblings to help take care of, he didn’t have a lot of time for sports, but was athletic enough to join the Rhode Island State Police where he had distinguished career, retiring as a Lieutenant specializing in arson investigation and then being appointed the state’s Deputy Chief Fire Marshall. He second son was Gerald, born in 1945.
“Jerry” would have such a sensational high school hockey career that his initials and jersey number, “JZ-7,” remains today the symbol of Burrillville High School’s greatest era of hockey achievement. More broadly, Jerry’s stardom must be considered in the reflected light of an exceptional group of peers who, together, over the span of five seasons, raised Rhode Island schoolboy hockey to an unprecedented level of local popularity and regional prominence, the steppingstone from which succeeding generations of Rhode Island players took their games even further on the national and professional stages.
Jerry’s first steps on ice were prophetic, suggests his famous uncle, Eddie Zifcak, a two-time St. Lawrence All-American and twice a member of the U.S. National Team in the 1950’s. Eddie was in high school when his brother John called saying he that he just bought five-year-old Jerry his first pair of skates. Would he come that morning and help Jerry with his first outing on the ice?
“We got him laced up and we each took one hand and we went gliding down the pond holding him up between us. And he loved it! And pretty soon we got him moving his feet. And then we’d let go and he’d shuffle a little and then fall and say, “Pick me up.” We went down the pond and back, and down and back doing the same thing. Holding him up, letting him go, picking him up again and so on, and he went a little bit further each time we let him go. But, oh boy!
When it was time to go home! We said, “Ok, Jerry, time to go home.” It had been a long time, maybe an hour. John and I were done. But when we turned him to the shore he says ‘But I don’t wanna go! I want to keep skating!’ Then he flops down and starts crying. “I don’t wanna go! I wanna keep skating!”
And keep skating he did.
While not having uncle Eddie’s blazing speed, Jerry had the same fluid stride, balance and alert posture. With deft hands, exceptional vision and a blur of a snapshot, he was a natural-born scorer and playmaker. And universally, observers noted his strength on his skates and his team-first attitude and lack of ego.
As a young boy, Jerry consistently played at a level of skill two to three seasons ahead of nearly all his peers. And thanks to the dawn of youth hockey at rinks convenient to Burrillville in Worcester and Seekonk, he was able to hone his skills against the region’s best competition. Though only 13 when he entered Burrillville High School in 1959, he appeared to be ready. And the Broncos sorely needed him.
The previous March, a deeply talented Bronco squad had finally brought home their long-sought Holy Grail, the New England championship. But graduation virtually emptied the bench. Gone were four of the five All-Staters and All-New England talents who had led the way: goalie Hank Rivet and Burrillville’s greatest line of all-time, Billy Rogers, Bobby Karmozyn and Howie Laporte.
Returning alongside the single All-State talent were just four players who had seen any significant ice time. As the hockey writers saw it, the Broncos’ twelve-year reign as top seed in the RI State Championship tournament would end in March, 1960. Indeed, the Broncos might not make the finals at all. Among coach “Babe” Mousseau’s tough choices was to place Jerry Zifcak, still age 13, at right wing on his second line – a decision vindicated when Jerry scored in the season opener against Warwick. He scored again in game two, added an assist, and in game three, in celebration of his 14th birthday, he notched another goal and assist. Freshman play like this today is common. But in 1959, it was extraordinary.
The favorites to settle the 1960 state title were the “Thunderbolt” of Cranston and the “Blue Wave” of Hope, the latter being the ’59 runners-up and still loaded with talent. But in game five of the season, despite their short bench, the underdog Broncos beat Hope in a close contest, 3-1, with Jerry scoring the back-breaker on All-State goalie-to-be, Mike Sears. Sports editor, Greg Green, of the Woonsocket Call was enthralled. “Little Jerry Zifcak nailed Hope’s doom…with one of the prettiest tallies of the season. He stick-handled between two Hope players behind their own cage, roared out on Sears’ right and hit the unprotected left-hand corner from an almost impossible angle.”
Denny Ballou, Jerry’s center and a junior at the time remembers how impressive the freshman was in both skills and character right from the get-go. “Despite his age, Jerry fit in with everyone. He was a gentleman in the making. With Jerry it was always about the team, not him. He was quiet and confident but did not have a big ego. A natural goal scorer with an excellent shot, he was very strong on his skates; could not be pushed off his spot by anyone. And his desire to win was unmatched, even at 14. We older players just loved him!”
Undefeated Cranston fell next to the Broncos, thoroughly upsetting the predictions and creating a torrid, five-horse race to the finish over the next seven weeks among Cranston, Hope, Woonsocket, LaSalle and Burrillville.
Then disaster struck. Or so it seemed.
As the last four games of the regular season loomed, including critical games with Hope, Cranston, and LaSalle, two Bronco starters and a competent role-player failed to meet their academic obligations. The team was reduced to just a starting lineup and two spare skaters. Coach Mousseau responded with an ironman rotation where three players never left the ice, rotating from defense to forward and back while Jerry and the remaining three skaters shifted in and out. And the result was that the Broncos ran the table, tying Cranston for first place in the season finale with a dramatic, 5-4, victory over La Salle on the strength of freshman Zifcak’s winning goal. “A dandy,” one sports writer put it, “as he completely outfoxed two LaSalle defensemen, then triggered a shot past goalie Dick Morry who never had a chance.”
Defeating Woonsocket two straight in the semi-finals, Burrillville once again faced Hope for the state championship. But in a three-game series at a jam-packed Rhode Island Auditorium it was Hope that emerged with the crown. Game one, a double-overtime, 2-2, non-contest; game two, a decisive 4-1 Hope victory; game three, a thrilling 2-1 Blue Wave triumph in overtime behind goalie Mike Sears’ brilliant play and wing Al Riley’s sudden-death goal.
But the Broncos were not done with The Blue Wave. In the New England tournament the following Thursday, the Broncos handily dispatched Connecticut champ, Hamden, then New Hampshire champ, Notre Dame, the following night. Then, on Saturday night, a raucous SRO crowd witnessed the first All-Rhode Island New England championship finale. The Broncos’ valiant little band didn’t disappoint, taking home their second six-state title in a row by turning the tables on Hope, 3-1.
For the season, Jerry Zifcak was Burrillville’s third leading scorer with 16 goals and 11 assists, a freshman BHS record, earning him an All-State Honorable Mention. After packing his skates away, the exceptionally gifted fourteen-year-old took up his catcher’s mitt and started behind the plate for the Broncos’ 1960 RI Northern Division baseball champions. He also started in September as a running back and linebacker for the BHS football team.
When Jerry’s sophomore hockey season began, the Broncos’ bench was still rather thin. Coach Mousseau, an adherent of the “Defense First” philosophy and placing your smartest two playmakers on the first line and the blueline, combined the two positions in Jerry, rotating him from wing to defense – Jerry getting a shift off only against weak opponents. Despite the added duty, he notched 51 total points and was the league’s 5th ranked scorer. His play throughout the season was so outstanding at both his positions that when the coaches convened to vote for the Providence Journal All-State team, they were in a quandary.
The talent that year was superb. Warwick had emerged as a title contender behind the scoring of Jack Gately. LaSalle had maybe its best team ever, winning its first New England championship, led by Roger Guillemette, Tommy Fecteau and Danny Sheehan, and having in goal Jack Ferreira, future B.U. All-American and NHL general manager. But repeating as All-State first team goalie was Hope’s Mike Sears who had beaten Ferreira in the state finals. Another shoe-in repeater at defense was Sears’ junior teammate, Bobby Gaudreau, the future All-American at Brown and 1968 Olympian. And Gaudreau, to boot, had also played the “ironman” role for Hope rotating between forward and defense, just like Zifcak.
In view of all this, the coaches and the newspaper made a unique decision. For the first time since the Journal had begun picking an All-State team in 1910, a 7th position was added, “Utilityman,” and awarded it to sophomore Zifcak.
For the season, however, Gaudreau, Sears & Hope had gotten their pound of flesh back for the stinging loss to the Broncos in the previous year’s New England final. Despite finishing at the top of league play for the 13th consecutive season, Burrillville was eliminated by Hope in the state tournament semi-finals in yet another three-game, razor-thin margin, Blue Wave-Bronco battle. Hope then topped powerful La Salle for coach Ed Mullin’s second consecutive and third career state title. Hope was upset, however, in the New England quarter-finals while Lou Cimini’s LaSalle club ran the table to win Rhode Island’s third consecutive regional championship, a New England tourney feat unmatched since the Bay State’s Malden Catholic, Melrose, and Arlington teams combined for five consecutive titles in the 1940’s.
The next season, however, 1961-62, fortune again swung in Burrillville’s direction, aided mightily by the play of Jerry Zifcak.
Once more playing the ironman role, rotating from defense to center and back, Jerry seldom left the ice and not at all in any “big” game. Again, he was an immovable block of granite “down low” in the slot, popping into the net anything made of rubber he could reach, memorably leading coach Mousseau to declare that “He’s not too tall, but Jerry Zifcak is the strongest schoolboy player I have ever seen. I bet that kid could pick up a cow if he wanted to!”
Meeting arch-rival Hope again in the semifinals, the Broncos this time, in a surprising turn, bested The Blue Wave with little trouble, winning two-straight before staging an all-out, three-game battle for the State Championship with ancient foe, LaSalle.
In game one, senior Jack Ferreira stopped 27 shots as La Salle triumphed, 3-1. Ferreira stopped another 23 pucks in game two, but Zifcak tied the series when he potted the 3-2 game winner.
In the rubber match, Ferreira was again brilliant, stopping 26 shots, excepting two fired by Zifcak and a third scored on a Zifcak assist despite Jerry having to leave the ice for a substantial time to have a gash in his forehead stitched up.
The Broncos collected their 11th State championship and Jerry the tournament MVP trophy. He tallied 78 points for the season and was a unanimous choice for the All-State team – this time, remarkably, at defense.
But the following New England tournament, though begun brilliantly by the Broncos, ended in perhaps the most bitter defeat in BHS hockey history, and certainly in Jerry Zifcak’s personal history.
In the quarter finals, Burrillville easily handled Massachusetts runner-up, Newton High, 5-0, then defeated West Haven, the Connecticut champ, 4-2, in the semis, Jerry playing the lynchpin role notching three goals and three assists through both games. But it was a different story when the Broncos met undefeated Bay State champ, Melrose, in the finale.
The indelible memory of all fans attending this game was the play, and, particularly, the cannon shot of future college All-American and World Hockey Association professional, Paul Hurley. The Red Raiders’ fabulous junior defenseman stunned the Bronco faithful when he drilled one over the left shoulder of the hapless Bronco goaltender from the Melrose side of center ice.
But surrounding Hurley was one of the most powerful teams, top to bottom, ever to appear in the New Englands. In one of the very few instances where Jerry Zifcak was shut down, Melrose covered him like a horse blanket and smoked the Broncos, 8-0.
Jerry, nevertheless, joined Hurley on the All-Tournament first team along with another Melrose player who would later figure in both Jerry’s career on ice and his personal life post-hockey: tourney MVP forward, Jim Umile.
Yet Jerry and the Broncos had one more season left to avenge the loss. 1962-63, predicted the sports writers, was going to be Burrillville’s oyster, including the shucking of any club that stood in the way of another New England championship. Jerry was joined by nine talented senior veterans, two who would join him on both the RI and the New England Tournament All-Star teams. The Broncos were deep at every position.
But archrival Hope would have none of that. Though The Blue Wave had a short bench, much like Burrillville’s in 1960, sitting on it was ’62 state scoring champ, Paul Mori, and linemates Frank D’Orio and Roger Davis, who together would score 68 goals in the ensuing regular season. And sitting next to them were sophomore phenom, Billy Christodal – bound one day for the Canadian professional ranks – and plucky goaltender, Ron “Butch” Soltys, who had been nosed out for the first team All-State spot in ’62 by Ferreira. And though in the off season Hope had tragically lost their revered coach Mullin to a heart attack, he was replaced by Leo “Duggy” Kraunelis – ironically, the most distinguished three-sport athlete in Burrillville High School history who had played his college hockey at Boston College.
Consequently, Hope surprised the favored Broncos in their first league meeting, 3-2, with Mori tying the game in the last minute with Soltys pulled for the extra skater, and then winning it with a strike in sudden death.
Then La Salle posted notice with their own, 1-0, upset of the Broncos followed by a 2-2 Hope-Burrillville tie in their second and last league clash, earning the undefeated Blue Wave the regular season title.
Hope, at that point, along with the entire hockey press, had no inkling of what Zifcak, Mousseau & Co had in store for them in the State and New England tournaments.
Both Hope and Burrillville teams overcame scares in the semifinals. LaSalle upset Hope in game one of their series while Warwick did the same to the Broncos in their game two, limiting Zifcak to a single goal while scoring a pair to win. In the rubber matches, Hope prevailed handily over the Maroon, while Warwick pushed Burrillville to the very brink, again limiting Zifcak to a single tally. The Broncos’ defense went on to play faultless hockey. For the third time since 1959, the Broncos and Blue Wave would meet to decide the Rhode Island championship. And just maybe, for the second time in that period, the New England title.
Still, the Warwick series had been an alarmingly close shave for the Broncos. Plucky Warwick had demonstrated what long had been a truism: “Stop Zifcak and you stop Burrillville.” Yet in game one of the championship series, Hope failed to do that. Providence Journal reporter, Bob Englert, elaborated: “It has never been more emphatically substantiated [stop Zifcak and you win] than it was at the Auditorium last night when the talented two-time All-Stater fired home six goals in a surprising 8-1 triumph over Hope in the opening game of their best of three final-round playoff series.”
It was an astonishing letdown. Though, indeed, Hope goalie Soltys had been knocked cold in the final bout with La Salle the weekend before, generating a trip to the emergency room, and may not have sufficiently recovered. But Hope coach, Leo Kraunelis, remained optimistic. “We’re backed to the wall now, just as we were in the LaSalle series, but we came back in that one and I feel we can do the same against Burrillville. Of course, it might not be a bad idea to put some glue on Zifcak’s stick.”
Exactly the idea.
But apparently there was some sort of mix-up at the hardware store because the brand Hope applied to Zifcak’s blade in game two would not adhere to electrical tape. Jerry scored one goal and assisted on three more while the Broncos’ defense, led by All-Staters Kenny Lafreniere and goalie, Paul Breault, applied generous amounts of a glue of their own concoction that did indeed adhere to the blades of Mori, Davis, D’Orio, and Christodal. Burrillville handily won its twelfth state championship, 4-1.
In five playoff games, Zifcak had tallied eleven goals and seven assists and repeated as MVP of the tournament. Ahead was Jerry’s third and final “New Englands,” with the memory of the Melrose debacle firmly in mind.
The quarterfinals began the next Saturday in a pair of afternoon and nighttime double-headers at the Auditorium with over 10,000 fans attending, amply demonstrating the popularity of the high school game in Rhode Island, three years before an eighteen-year-old youngster from Parry Sound, Ontario, joined the Boston Bruins.
The Broncos first drew Malden Catholic, third-place finisher in the Bay State’s tournament, and were coasting with a 5-0 lead before MC jolted awake in the last three minutes of the game and struck for three goals, Zifcak having a quiet night with a single breakaway tally and an assist. The Blue Wave, meanwhile, had a much tougher time putting away New Hampshire champ, Berlin, 3-2, with Soltys playing the hero’s role stopping 29 pucks, enduring a particularly hot bombardment in the third period, while Mori, Davis and D’Orio took care of the scoring.
An SRO crowd was on hand the following Friday night for the semifinal double-header, Burrillville facing Arlington in the first game. The “Spy-Ponders” were Massachusetts runners-up, coached by Ed Burns, destined to be the most highly honored New England high school coach short of Bill Belisle, whom the Broncos had beaten for the ’59 New England title. As expected, the game was an exciting, close-run thing, a 2-1 battle won by Zifcak with a pair of assists from wing-mate, Phil Coupe, and tight play from his defense.
Hope’s opponent was defending champ Melrose, with senior Paul “The Shot” Hurley back again on the blueline. However, surrounding Hurley was an almost entirely new cast. But, as young players well-coached and led by the example such a veteran as Hurley are want to do, they were peaking at the very end of their season. Though the Red Raiders had finished fourth in the Massachusetts state tournament two weeks earlier, they had shocked Bay State champ, Walpole, 2-1, the previous Saturday afternoon in the New England quarterfinals, Hurley scoring both goals. Hope was up against it. The SRO crowd was continually on its feet much as the two clubs staged an epic battle. It took what the Woonsocket Call’s, Greg Greene, called “a spectacular goal by Frank D’Orio at 2:58 of sudden death play” to win it, thus setting up, for the second time in four seasons, an All-Rhode Island and Burrillville-versus-Hope finale for the New England Championship.
The Auditorium was rocking when the puck dropped Saturday night. Coach Kraunelis’s game plan was again a no-brainer: “Stop Zifcak.” And the wonder was that the plan worked almost perfectly. Too perfectly as it turned out.
While Jerry was limited to a single third period assist on a power play goal, and his wings Coupe and Ronnie Brissette were held scoreless, Hope had no solution for, or energy left to cover the Broncos second line of Tom Healy, C.O. Remington and Dick Polacek.
After a scoreless first period, the trio exploded for three goals in the second, Remington potting two of them within eleven seconds. Davis got one back for Hope as the period waned, and the Blue Wave held their ground for a while in the third before Burrillville defenseman, Gary Potter, drove the stake in on, as the Call’s Greg Greene put it, “the prettiest score of the night” on a power play as the Broncos “played cat and mouse with the puck as Zifcak zipped it to Coupe who in turn shoveled it to Potter who banged the target on a close-up effort from the left.” The second line finished the scoring a minute later with Healy’s goal.
For the third time in five seasons Burrillville took home the New England championship.
An unprecedented nine of the twelve All-Tournament positions were filled by Rhode Island players. Zifcak was the MVP forward; Broncos’ netminder, Paul Breault, the MVP goalie; and joining them on the first team were Broncos’ defenseman, Kenny Lafreniere, and Hope’s, Paul Mori. Filling out the second team were Soltys, D’Orio, Davis, and Christodal, along with Burrillville second line center, Tom Healy. Attendance for the three-day tournament was 20,563.
Jerry Zifcak, in total for the season scored 55 goals and tallied 31 assists, adding up to a career mark of 242 points, a Burrillville record standing today.
George Ducharme, the Providence College assistant hockey coach to Tom Eccleston Jr. at the time, as well as Jerry’s baseball coach, recalled that, “Jerry Zifcak was like a high school (Zellio) Toppazzini. He stood out there in front of the net like a rock, and almost anytime his wings got him the puck, he scored. When it comes to putting a puck in the cage, there isn’t anyone in high school I ever saw that was better.”
Jerry’s wing, Phil Coupe, wrote, “I was continually amazed at his ability to score despite being continually double-teamed by opponents who recognized that the key to stopping Burrillville was shutting Jerry down. He was not a big man, but his hockey instincts, his strength, and his iron will made him virtually unstoppable.”
Words Unlimited, Rhode Island’s sportswriters association, bestowed Jerry’s final 1963 honor, the Rhode Island Schoolboy Athlete of the Year, noting his baseball and football achievements where his All-Star play behind the plate and in the backfield also led those teams to championships.
Before entering Providence College, where he would play for Zellio Toppazzini, Jerry took a post-grad year at New Prep in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
New Prep, a finishing school at the time for some of the top schoolboy hockey talent in New England, played a 31-game schedule that season that included 21 games against college freshman and JV teams, the likes of BU, BC, PC, Harvard, etcetera. And in a happily ironic twist, Jerry was put at center between a pair of wings he had first crossed sticks with in that woeful game against Melrose in the New Englands. On his left was Jim Umile, the Melrose MVP forward of that tournament; and on his right, second team Melrose All-New England forward, Paul Flaherty. Naturally, this was a terrific line. And for Jerry and Jim it was the beginning of a life-long friendship.
“I was surprised we both wound up at New Prep,” recalls Umile. “This ended up being a great relationship. His personality was dry, but always happy and laughing. As an athlete, he was very humble, never talking about himself and how good he was or what he had done. But as a player he was skilled, smart, tough, and constantly wanted to win. We played all those college freshman teams and we beat most of them. And the ironic thing is we then both wound up at Providence College.”
Lou Lamoriello, just beginning his illustrious career and in his second season as coach of the PC freshman team, placed Zifcak at center with Umile and Mount St. Charles grad, Larry Trembley, on the wings. The trio would remain the Friar’s top scoring unit through the next two varsity seasons under coach Toppazzini.
“Off the ice,” said Umile, “we hung together often. We became so close I ended up in his wedding party and friends with his wife, Paula, and their kids, and often I still see his son, Kevin.”
Jerry ended his PC career after his junior season as he and Paula decided to start a family. Kimberly arrived first, then Kevin while Jerry embarked on a successful sales career. They settled in Burrillville where Jerry became a mainstay of the town’s Little League baseball and youth hockey organizations.
When the Broncos’ hockey fortunes went into decline after their last appearance in the state finals and the New England tournament in 1976, Jerry played a large role in turning the situation around.
Thomas Eccleston Jr., the founder of BHS hockey, returned as coach of the Broncos in 1986 and won four Metropolitan B titles in five seasons. It was a string of success that continued under his successor, Mike Menard, who credited a good measure of that success to Jerry’s impact within the Burrillville Junior Hockey League as both a coach and mentor of coaches.
Always friendly, calm, plain spoken but positive, Jerry’s was a voice that was heard and heeded by both the players on his bench and his colleagues throughout the organization. Burrillville youth teams began to win again and so did the high school varsity.
Jerry died in 2001 after a long battle with brain cancer, just two months after his election into the inaugural class of the Burrillville High School Athletic Hall of Fame as highest scoring hockey player in the program’s history and perhaps its most well-loved. Hundreds attended his wake and followed his funeral cortege. Jerry’s #7 hockey jersey was subsequently retired. A large framed photo of a smiling Jerry unlacing his skates in the locker room, the 1962 State Tournament MVP trophy at his feet, hangs proudly in the Levy Community Rink in Burrillville.
In 2016, when Jerry was Inducted into the Rhode Island Interscholastic League High School Athletic Hall of Fame, his citation began, “Considered one of the greatest hockey players in the history of Rhode Island high school hockey, Gerald Zifcak helped put the small town of Burrillville on the map with his phenomenal play on the ice.”
On the preceding page was the citation for his daughter, Kimberly, who under the guidance of Jerry and Paula grew up to be one of only two athletes in Burrillville High School’s illustrious athletic history to be named a high school All-American.
“He was the best!” said Jim Umile of his friend, Jerry Zifcak. “The best athlete, person, family man and friend. He is greatly missed.”
By Bill Eccleston