Dave Huckins, who died on Sunday from cancer, made a huge impact at MVHS

  • Coach Dave Huckins of Merrimack Valley during a game against Pembroke on Dec. 15, 2015. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor file

Monitor columnist
Wednesday, September 13, 2017

His laugh was a big topic. So were the crutches he used during the biggest game of his life, shortly after spraining his ankle.

The laugh was booming, alerting you that Dave Huckins was nearby, cluing you in on his unfiltered sense of humor. As for the crutches, he waved them back and forth one day in 1989, energizing the crowd and his teammates on the Merrimack Valley High School boys’ basketball team.

He couldn’t play, so he cheered instead.

That’s what people in his inner circle told me Tuesday, two days after Huckins died following a yearlong fight against salivary gland cancer. They told me Huckins had an explosive laugh, and they told me his competitive nature was fierce.

“His favorite quote was, ‘Everything in life is a competition,’ ” said Merrimack Valley Middle School teacher Chris Irving, Huckins’s teammate on the 1989 state championship team.

“When he laughed, it might have frightened people at first, if you didn’t know him,” said Jason Smith, another teammate on that title team, who now coaches nationally ranked Brewster Academy.

And so the conversations moved in those directions, telling the story of a local kid who was great in basketball, great in business, great in marriage and great in fatherhood.

That helped people move through the interviews, but every so often, there was a pause, a cracked voice, a hint that a dear friend had died far too soon.

Huckins was 46. He married his high school sweetheart, Tracy Morin, and their union worked beautifully.

“Those of us who know them don’t remember a time before Dave and Tracy,” said Heather Cummings of Epsom, a high school friend. “They were a team from the get-go. Once they started dating, they had a bond that was obvious, and it helped them in the years ahead.”

Cummings and Morin were the team managers when Huckins was hitting all those jump shots in the late 1980s. Merrimack Valley made lots of headlines back then, boasting a program that won three state championships between 1989 and 1993.

In 1989, Huckins teamed with players such as Irving, Smith, Scott Drapeau, Paul Dean and Aaron Brochu, creating a monster lineup during a time of monster talent. Matt Alosa, Tom Brayshaw, John Viar and others made the Concord region the core of basketball in New Hampshire.

As Kevin O’Brien, Merrimack Valley’s coach during its glory years, told me: “It was an unbelievable era. It was the greatest era we ever had in this area.”

In a cruel twist of fate, Huckins missed one of the greatest games of that era, the ’89 Class I championship game at Lundholm Gymnasium at the University of New Hampshire.

He had sprained his ankle during the semifinal game, a recurring injury that plagued Huckins throughout his career. He moved on crutches simply to make it to the bench, where he watched his teammates fall behind by 18 points midway through the third quarter.

From there, Merrimack Valley staged a comeback for the ages, running ConVal out of the gym the rest of the way in a 57-54 win, the school’s first-ever basketball championship.

Huckins was a star that season, but sources I spoke to for this column made sure I knew the role he played during that historic game, when the 6-foot-3 swingman electrified the crowd and his team without playing a single minute.

It’s not a fairy tale; I was there and saw it.

Here’s what people had to say about the day Merrimack Valley needed a crutch to lean on:

Smith: “Go back and look at the videos. That comeback was spearheaded when Dave got up and turned around and waved his crutch to get the fans more vocal and engaged. That’s when we went on that run.”

Cummings: “I remember when I first heard the news (about Huckins’s death). I didn’t think of the days of struggle. I pictured his face when we won the title and he was on crutches and he could not play that night. He stood up on the bench and lifted his crutches and rallied the crowd, and we knew without Dave and his spirit that night ... we would not have won that game.”

Tracy, who wrote me an email: “Dave stood up with his crutches and waved his arm (crutch and all) and just got the crowd going crazy. The guys going back out on the floor just fed off that energy and turned the game around. I remember thinking of how proud I was of Dave for that.”

She continued: “He could have easily sat silent on the bench and felt bad because he wasn’t physically playing, but instead he found another way to contribute. He always found a way to win whether it be in sports, business or personal aspirations.”

More than anyone else, Tracy was Huckins’s teammate. In 2001 they founded Huckleberry Propane & Oil, which continues to thrive today in Boscawen.

Huckins also coached youth sports, and he coached the Merrimack Valley girls’ basketball team to its first and only state title in 2014.

Two years later came the diagnosis, and Huckins had to give up his coaching job last season. He had chewed tobacco, and while doctors told Tracy his habit didn’t necessarily cause his illness, she wrote in her email, “They could not tell us what caused it. Perhaps it was a contributing factor? We will never know. We had a few employees quit after Dave’s diagnosis which made Dave happy.”

O’Brien, who is now Merrimack Valley High’s administrator for athletics and school counseling, recalled a visit to Huckins’s home shortly before his death.

“We talked about the good old days and had some good laughs, good smiles,” he said. “Two grown men sat there and cried a little together.”

No Former teammate was closer to Huckins than Irving. He saw his friend near the end, too. They talked about youth and innocence.

“We reminisced about teen years in front of family,” Irving said. “They were stupid stories we would not want people to know about. We got together and took chances and were rambunctious.”

You’ll hear more stories on Saturday morning at 10 in the Merrimack Valley gym, where a full house is expected to pay tribute to Huckins. You’ll hear about his laugh and his crutches.

“A tremendous loss to the community,” said Paul Dean, who was co-captain with Huckins in 1989. “A tremendous loss to the high school, and a tremendous loss to the Merrimack Valley family.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304, rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)