Like other lifelong residents of South Boston who were once active in sports, Arthur Fritch stepped up to give back, serving as a volunteer youth hockey coach for the last 20 years.
Along the way, he has mentored hundreds of players and led his team to win the 2005 USA Hockey Under-18 National Championship -- service to the community that earned him an “Unsung Hero” award from the South Boston Citizens’ Association last month.
But besides molding hockey players, Fritch, 55, an event manager at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, has brought his personal experience to bear off the ice, mentoring kids about the dangers of alcohol and drugs. As someone who kicked alcohol addiction himself, he spends time talking to players about how to deal with peer pressure, as well as teaching them about the perils of addiction, the importance of good nutrition, and how to take care of themselves.
“I tell them they have a choice, and try to steer them into the right direction,” Fritch said. “But that decision is up to them.”
In his two decades of coaching, Fritch said he has seen about 1,500 kids come through the South Boston Youth Hockey (SBYH) program, and that he has personally mentored 500 to 600 players.
Fritch coaches the South Boston Shamrocks, a Midget team, or 18-and-under club. Some past players include Tim Murphy, a West Point graduate, and Mark Mullen, a collegiate scout for the Los Angeles Kings and former captain of the Boston University Terriers during the 2003-04 season.
Despite all his coaching success, Fritch said he had to face his own demons before he could help others.
“About 25 years ago, I found myself addicted to alcohol and it interfered with my young family,” Fritch said. “So I sought help from friends and family, and because of that, I found a responsibility to helping others.”
Once he kicked the habit, he never turned back. When he’s not coaching or working, he helps people with alcohol addiction by volunteering at the South Boston District Court, where he has been an alcohol relapse counselor in the alcohol crisis intervention program for the past two years.
In recent years, Fritch said the economy has put a squeeze on opportunities for youths in South Boston, with some families hard-pressed to afford sending their children to college. He does his best to keep kids engaged and motivated to succeed.
“We try to keep kids involved in sports on the ice and the court,” Fritch said. “It’s a healthy alternative to a life of drugs and alcohol. From what I’ve seen, when (athletic) kids shy away from sports, they tend to get involved in drug and alcohol addiction.”
But sometimes his advice and efforts don’t get through to players. Fritch said over the last few years, he lost two young players to addiction.
“It was devastating losing them,” Fritch said. “We live in a close-knit community, and I knew their parents. It was tough on everyone, and it affected everyone involved.”
Still, he said, many of the youths he’s coached have gone on to college and become successful.
Tom McGrath, a lifelong resident of South Boston and president of the SBYH, has known Fritch for over 20 years. He said Fritch is a “go-to guy” because of his dedication and connections to people in academia and the business community.
“He has an awesome relationship with the kids, as he has been there and can relate to them,” McGrath said. “His focus is getting them onto college, and getting them jobs. He puts a lot of time into the community with the kids and his recovery program.”
One of the kids who sought Fritch for help was Tim Murphy. Murphy said Fritch was important to his development as an athlete and as a young man, while he played for SBYH and attended Catholic Memorial School in West Roxbury.
“A lot of kids I grew up with got into drugs, and some of us didn’t want that,” said Murphy, 33, a South Boston native who is now a captain in the U.S. Army. “He kept me and other kids off the streets and from hanging out on street corners.”
“Hockey gave us options,” he added. “During the mid-to-late-90s, I remember there was a lot of drug abuse and addiction in Southie, and [Fritch] would keep the rink open on Friday nights so we could skate.”
In addition, Murphy said Fritch assisted him after high school when he got into West Point. Murphy said he needed a medical waiver to attend, so he sought out Fritch, who offered help by contacting then-Congressman Joseph Moakley. Murphy ended up playing four years of hockey at West Point, and then was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas for six years. He has served in the Massachusetts National Guard in Wellesley since 2008.
“The award he received is well deserved,” Murphy said. “It’s a reflection of his hard work. He’s very unselfish and gives a ton of time to the community.”
Fritch also has made an impact in the lives of recovering alcoholics, through his community work. John C., 53, (who kept his last name private because of his participation in Alcoholics Anonymous), has known Fritch his whole life and sees him as an older brother.
“He has been a best friend and like an older brother that I never had,” he said. “Arthur put me on the right track -- took me to meetings and spent time with me.”
John said that while Fritch is dedicated to helping the youth in South Boston, he also is available to help a friend in need, at a moment’s notice.
“I didn’t have a car once, and I called him and he came to pick me up at my job in Billerica,” he said. “He’s always available.”
Other “Unsung Hero” award winners were: Bryon Tunney, Kaitlin Linehan and Fr. Joe White.
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.