Hockey community heartbroken over loss of ‘Smokin Joe’ Donnelly

Joe Donnelly (right) with announcing partner Pete DeSisto at last year's girls state championship game at the TD Garden. It was the last game that Donnelly called for Canton hockey. (Photo courtesy of Tanya Willow)

Joe Donnelly (right) with announcing partner Pete DeSisto at last year’s girls state championship game at the TD Garden. It was the last game that Donnelly called for Canton hockey. (Photo courtesy of Tanya Willow)

The close-knit Canton hockey community embarks on a new winter season with a giant-sized hole in their hearts following the unexpected passing of “Smokin Joe” Donnelly on November 29 at the age of 69.

A longtime Canton resident and a former coach and past president of Canton Youth Hockey, Donnelly was best known around these parts as the “Voice of Bulldog Hockey,” having done play-by-play for Canton Community Television for the past 23 years. He also served as president of CCTV and was a ubiquitous presence at the Canton Ice House, where he had worked for the past few years as an assistant manager.

Known for his outgoing personality and his passion for all things Canton hockey, Donnelly had friends and admirers all over town, and they are still trying to come to grips with his sudden passing.

Tanya Willow, CCTV’s longtime general manager, recalled how she had just spoken to Donnelly over the phone on the Monday after Thanksgiving to talk about the new studio they had recently finished at the Ice House.

“He was so excited to announce in it,” Willow relayed in an email. “Hockey’s opening day was like Christmas for Joe. Then he said he was headed to Ireland in January to celebrate turning 70. We laughed at his becoming an official ‘blue hair.’”

“He was so happy Monday, joyous really,” Willow continued. “He allowed himself that emotion. So I was happy Monday. His joy was contagious. And he cared about people. Really cared. Walked this earth aware and concerned for others. How rare.”

Bill Dadasis, co-owner of the Ice House, said the entire rink staff is still struggling to accept Donnelly’s death. “I just can’t wrap my head around it,” he said. “The staff here for days have been walking around like zombies. I’ve had staff members who have had to take personal time off because of this.”

“I can replace his position, but I can never replace Joe,” he added. “You just can’t replace that personality and having that kind of guy in the building.”

Dadasis, who had previously brought on Donnelly to work as an account manager at the Radisson Hotel in Boston, said the first person he thought of when they broke ground at the Ice House was Joe.

“First of all, he’s a hockey guy,” said Dadasis. “He was such an asset for me at the Radisson, and it was important for me to have a guy that I could trust and a guy that I knew would have my back.”

While Donnelly recently cut back his hours in order to travel more with his family, Dadasis said he seemed happy and healthy and still did “pretty much everything” at the rink — from opening the facility for early morning practices to working in the pro shop to driving the Zamboni.

“He was like the greeter,” Dadasis said. “Kids loved him, all the hockey teams knew him. He was a staple not only with parents but with the kids too. I’ve gotten so many phone calls, emails and texts from customers of the rink just to say how sorry they are.”

As a hockey play-by-play man, Donnelly was widely respected for both his announcing chops and his knowledge of the sport.

“He was such a great man,” said CCTV Programs Manager Andrea Galvin. “His enthusiasm for Canton High School hockey was contagious. I always looked forward to the season with Joe announcing play-by-play and Pete DeSisto commentating. Joe would see the action and explain it so well that it helped my camerawork.”

Galvin said Donnelly would always say at the end of every broadcast that CCTV was the “best cable staff in the world, bar none.” “It embarrassed us a little bit, but he meant every word,” Galvin said. “He appreciated our work and let it be known and that is how he was, always thanking us and others. I loved working with him and will miss him.”

Tim O’Connor, CCTV’s director of photography, said it never got old talking Canton hockey with Joe Donnelly.

“He had so much passion and love for everything encompassed by those two words,” O’Connor said, “not just games and teams but the players and their families and all of their stories, that Canton hockey in Joe’s hands was like boxing in the Rocky movies, or baseball in Field of Dreams. It was about hockey, but it also wasn’t.”

O’Connor said Canton hockey as relayed through Donnelly was “both the sweet warmth of his play by

play announcing, and also a long-running reality series … about an ever-expanding cast who grew up and slowly came and went through the years.”

“Canton hockey with Joe was as real as shivering together in the cold of the old rink, or ducking a puck off the glass right in front of you, or talking about a game of pond hockey played at Stanley Cup level, and with a dignity that is rarely found in so-called reality shows,” said O’Connor.

In addition to his passion for hockey, Donnelly also loved music and movies, and he regularly played the guitar and sang at local pubs and in friends’ homes, using the stage name “Smokin Joe.”

He was also a proud and loving family man and leaves behind his wife, Janet, his daughter Joanna D’Agostino and her husband, Joseph, his son Christopher and his wife, Leigh, and three grandchildren. He is also survived by his mother, Mary, two brothers and two sisters.

In a recent post on his Bulldogs Hockey blog, CHS boys ice hockey coach Brian Shuman announced that the Bulldogs have dedicated their season in Donnelly’s memory and he encouraged fans to attend their upcoming tournament at the Canton Ice House, which they have renamed the Joe Donnelly Cup. The tournament gets underway at 3 p.m. on December 27, immediately following the CHS girls team’s Pat Walsh Tournament, which is named in honor of another Canton hockey contributor who passed away too soon.

In his blog post announcing the dedication of their season, Shuman described Donnelly as the best high school play-by-play personality in the state, but stressed that he was also much more than that.

“Canton has lost one of its proudest citizens and nicest people,” wrote Shuman. “We will remember him and honor him everyday.”

Willow too said she has been thinking about Donnelly every day since his passing. “And your heart hurts. Just busts,” she said. “But you are also joyous, that rare emotion Joe had such easy access to, because we were each so fortunate to have such a beautiful person so central to our lives.”

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