Cape Ann lost a local sports icon last Saturday, as Jack Canniff died at the age of 77 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Canniff is known around these parts for his time at Gloucester High School, where he coached the Gloucester hockey and football teams and taught algebra for an 11-year span beginning in 1956. He is the winningest hockey coach in school history as he won 117 games, despite coaching during an era in which the schedule included far fewer games than now. He won an astounding 75-percent of his games and since 1967, all but two Gloucester hockey coaches either played for Canniff or coached with him. He is a member of the Gloucester High Hall of Fame.
After his time at GHS, Canniff became the head men's hockey coach at UMass Amherst from 1967 to 1979, where he was also highly successful. He led UMass to the 1972 ECAC Division 2 national title and was elected to the UMass Hall of Fame in 2008. He was also named ECAC Coach of the Year in 1972 and was UMass' all-time leader in career victories with 120 until current head coach Don Cahoon passed him last season.
"One of (Canniff's) strongest traits as a coach was his toughness," said current Gloucester hockey coach Don Lowe, who played for Canniff at both Gloucester and UMass and was a close friend. "His toughness always showed through his players. You could see his toughness in the way he battled his illness. He had a stroke (in 1997) and most people wouldn't have bounced back from that.'
"When Jack coached Gloucester it was the beginning of the term 'Gloucester Hockey,' meaning you never give up even if you don't have the most talent. His locker room presence was unbelievable."
Lowe, who estimates he probably talked to Canniff twice a week for the last 15 years, viewed Canniff as not only a friend but a mentor. He uses the same strategies on the ice today that Canniff used 40-plus years ago.
"I try to instill the same toughness into our program," said Lowe, who was a defenseman and graduated from Gloucester in 1968. "We use a little bit of the same system and teach the kids to have pride in themselves."
Canniff, an Arlington High School graduate, was a phenomenal athlete, excelling in both hockey and baseball. In fact, he was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers out of high school, but opted to stick with hockey. He then went on to graduate from Boston College.
Canniff was brought to Gloucester by legendary Fishermen football coach Nate Ross. He helped Ross coach the football team but really made his mark with the hockey team, earning two undefeated seasons along the way.
Then when it was time to build UMass, he did that.
"He built that team from scratch," said Lowe. "By his third year at UMass, they were in the playoffs."
Those who knew Canniff speak about how much he loved Cape Ann and how fond he was of his players and students. It's no doubt that the feeling from Cape Ann residents was and will be reciprocated.
Material from a press release was used in this report.