A banner hanging above Watertown’s skating rink hails Artie Venezia as “the Godfather of Watertown Youth Hockey.” For nearly 40 years, the town’s aspiring hockey stars glided over the ice under Mr. Venezia’s watchful eyes, learning how to skate, pass, shoot, and throw themselves head- and heart-first at a challenge.
Although he was a talented athlete as a youth, Mr. Venezia was inducted into the Watertown High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2012 not for his many accomplishments as a player, but for the opportunities he gave to those seeking to follow in his footsteps.
Friends and family say Mr. Venezia was a hard-nosed coach driven by a powerful sense of charity.
“When he got behind something, it was always really from the heart,” said Steve Messina, a friend of Mr. Venezia.
Mr. Venezia, who coached youth hockey until illness forced him to stop last year, died of a rare skin ailment July 12 in Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. He was 68 and lived in Watertown.
In the late 1990s, Mr. Venezia and Messina led an effort to build a state-of-the-art fitness center in the high school’s basement and raised more than $300,000. Because the project was far short of the capital needed, they took out a $150,000 loan in their own names to finish the job.
To help pay back that loan, Mr. Venezia and Messina organized an annual charity boxing night. After nine years the debt was paid, but they kept the Fight for Fitness running for another three years, raising as much as $25,000 in a single night for local youth sports.
Arthur Michael Venezia was born in Little Rock, Ark., and his family moved to Somerville.
When he was 11, his family moved to Watertown. He graduated from Watertown High School, where he devoted himself to the hockey and soccer teams. “He was one of those certain people in Watertown you looked up to,” said Messina, who was several years younger than Mr. Venezia. “He was a local sports hero.”
Mr. Venezia also played soccer and hockey at Norwich University in Vermont.
After graduating in 1967, Mr. Venezia joined the US Army. A first lieutenant, he was stationed in Germany for two years. He returned to the United States and was hired to coach at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, where he led a hockey team coming off a 63-game losing streak to a seven-win season.
He wanted to return to Watertown, however, and did so after a year in Connecticut.
Jerry York, longtime head coach of the Boston College men’s hockey team and a Watertown resident, said he was struck by Mr. Venezia’s dedication to the community.
“He was a great combination of disciplinarian, father figure, instructor, and his relationship with players was terrific to watch,” York said. “But I was more impressed with him as a neighborhood guy. He was Watertown through and through.”
Mr. Venezia worked as a sales agent at Venice Associates in Medford for 30 years before cofounding the real estate firm Delaney & Venezia Inc.
Through his working life he coached hockey at the high school and youth levels, said his son, Michael, adding that some of Mr. Venezia’s proudest moments were spent reading the names of his former players in the box scores for prestigious college hockey programs.
Mr. Venezia was assistant head coach of the high school team during its powerhouse years in the 1980s, but perhaps his greatest achievement on the ice came in the early 2000s when he returned to the high school as head coach of a hockey team that had not won a single game the year before.
Some residents worried the school would have to drop boys’ hockey, his son said. But four years later, he had guided the program back to its storied tradition and led the team to the 2005 state tournament.
Mr. Venezia did not hesitate to push people to work harder, whether on the ice or at a charity fund-raiser, his son and Messina said. But they said his ability to turn criticism into inspiration made him a great coach.
“He was a tough coach, he was a fair coach, and he treated every kid on those teams as his own son,” said Michael.
A service has been held for Mr. Venezia, who in addition to his son Michael leaves his wife of 47 years, the former Barbara LaRose; two daughters, Linda Sutherland and Christie Diaz, both of Watertown; another son, Jamie of Watertown; his father, Arthur of Belmont; two sisters, Judith Kavanagh of Belmont and Susan of Boston; a brother, Stephen of Marblehead; and 15 grandchildren.
In his later years, Mr. Venezia often spent entire days traveling from one sporting event to the next to watch his children and grandchildren play sports.
He appreciated the passion and dedication that could be found in any sport at any level, Michael said.
“I just have always loved coaching and never want to get away from it,” Mr. Venezia said in his Watertown High Hall of Fame website entry. “No matter how much ice time someone has, you have to let everyone feel that you know they are around. All I ask is that they give me their best determination and effort. To me that’s the makeup of an athlete.”