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Back home as Framingham's new boys head hockey coach, Will Ortiz overcame prejudice and adversity in his youth to shine on the ice.
By Lenny Megliola Special to the News
It took Willie Ortiz a long time to ignore — at least try — the slurs from the stands. “They called me ‘Spic,’” he remembered. If he played basketball or baseball, would they have even noticed? Was it just because he was Puerto Rican, and playing his game on ice, which you just don’t see?
Even Ortiz concedes, “I haven’t come across any Puerto Rican hockey players.” No Puerto Rican hockey coaches either. But we’ll get to that.
“I heard the racial slurs and I thought, ‘that’s not on me; it’s on them.’” He just wanted to play, and boy could he play.
But he could be his own worst enemy sometime, once he got to Framingham High with a bucket of talent and a supply of problems. “He was a challenging young man,” said his coach, Paul Spear. And it goes with this, Spear saying “Will was as good as any player I ever had as a freshman.” Good enough to step in at right wing and lead the Flyers to big things.
Ortiz, just 14, was single-minded. “I was emotional, angry. I struggled to keep my grades up.” And his mouth shut.
“If an official made a call on him,” said Spear, “Willie might have something to say to him. If he mouthed off to an official, he was going to get a lot of attention.” The wrong kind.
“I was young,” said Ortiz. “The only thing I saw was hockey. I didn’t see academics. I saw things my way. I didn’t care what other people thought.”
And Spear thought “if I put him on the varsity it might go to his head a little.”
So Ortiz suited up for the JV team “to present him with a little adversity,” said Spear.
One night, in the stands at Loring Arena, Spear watched Ortiz’s wizardry on ice against powerful Catholic Memorial. Framingham won, 4-3. Ortiz scored all four goals. “I said, OK, guess it’s time to call him up,” Spear recalled. A month in the season had already passed.
“The CM game) was an opportunity to showcase what I could be,” said Ortiz. “I love pressure. I embrace it. Nothing was going to stop me. I was hungry.”
He started to grow in other ways around that time. The JV experience was “a rude awakening. I was good enough for varsity, but it was two or three years before I matured and embraced the journey.”
In his sophomore season Ortiz racked up 37 points. He was a star. “Willie scored more big goals than any player I had,” said Spear. In his senior year a broken hand sidelined Ortiz. He had worked up a high profile among college recruiters. He worried that they might back off after the injury. “I was depressed. There were a lot of dark hours. I wanted to play Division 1 hockey.”
He rehabbed, and got medically cleared to play again. Without Ortiz, Framingham lost to powerhouses Braintree, Milton and Needham in the Bay State Conference regular season. When the Flyers happened to meet up again with those teams in the state tournament — and with Ortiz —they won ‘em all, including 3-2 against Milton when Ortiz punched up a hat trick. He was only 5-feet-9, about 150 pounds, but nail-tough. “I never shied away from body contact.”
Spear walked away from the hockey job after last season to become Framingham’s athletic director, but on an interim basis. The deal is, if he wants to, he can take back the coaching job next season if the AD thing doesn’t work out.
That means he’d wrest the job from the new coach, Willie Ortiz, who had been Spear’s assistant the past four years. “I could be one and done,” said Spear. “If I came back…I’m not thinking about that right now.”
And Ortiz, who is 30? “I’m not looking to next year. Next year will take care of itself. I wanted this job. I fully embrace it. I’m looking at it like I’m here for the long haul.” He also teaches math at the high school and is JV baseball coach, a second sport Ortiz played in high school and at UMass-Amherst.
Ortiz grew up in the Beaver Park area, a gritty, rough-edged part of Framingham. “Every town has a bad area; Beaver Park was a bad area,” he said. “I saw some things.” Mostly, he saw trouble. His brother Tristen, now 35, got wrapped in the web on the wrong side. “He wanted money, a fast life. He got into trouble. He did what he felt he had to do” said Ortiz.
“He was exposed to a life I didn’t want. I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps. I wanted to make a name for myself.”
But there was also this about Tristen. He shielded his kid brother from the worst elements, the gunshots, drugs, the fear festering in a volatile neighborhood. “He was like a second father. He took care of me.” Tristen works for the town now.
Both parents were from Puerto Rico, the father a machine operator, the mother a receptionist. Ortiz remembers their struggles. “Two people who came over here with nothing,” said Ortiz. “We almost lost our house.”
After high school Ortiz attended Salisbury (Conn.) Prep for two years, helping the hockey team win its first New England title. It was there, he said, that he went from a C-minus student to a straight-A one. “I started taking everything seriously, not just hockey.”
He got a scholarship to UMass, had a nice freshman hockey season, then saw his ice time dwindle as other hot-shot scholarship players came in. He thought about transferring. “My father told me ‘you’re not a quitter.’ So I went back for my senior year.”
He got involved in the life and politics of the campus, looking at things beyond hockey. What were the non-athletes up to? He was interested.
Ortiz had a last hockey fling, playing a season for the East Coast Hockey League’s Cincinnati Cyclones, which went on to capture the Kelly Cup, the league’s version of the Stanley Cup.
Ortiz has a grand scheme for Framingham’s boys hockey players. He wants them to be the total package, on and off the ice. His plan: “teach, develop, inspire. I want to teach them what’s important to become men as well as hockey players. This is a journey that can become larger than themselves. I want them to be visible in the community.” He has brought in a team photographer and social media adviser.
He will borrow from Spear’s wisdom. “He was an integral part of my development as a player, as a coach and a person. One big thing I’ll take from Paul is his ability to manage (a team). He makes players better people, citizens. He made being part of Framingham hockey important to his players.”
One more thing: “we want to win,” said Ortiz
Opening night, Dec. 12, Loring Arena vs. Hingham. “I’ll be full of emotion and excitement,” he new coach admitted. “But it’s not about me, it’s about the kids.”
Lenny Megliola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @lennymegs.
Did coach Ortiz retain the former Assistant coaches? Will Chambliss be back?