PEABODY — Peabody High boys hockey coach Mark Leonard has been fired.
Leonard was at the pinnacle of his career when he was inducted into the Peabody High School Athletic Hall of Fame last November.
All that changed last week when he was informed by Peabody athletic director Bob Bua that Leonard was out.
“I was hoping to ride the wave through one more down year when some of the talent from the youth program comes up,” said Leonard, the winningest hockey coach in Peabody history. “I’m so disappointed as I thought that I would have had more support after so many years, but nobody had my back. That someone who put his heart and soul into Peabody athletics can be treated this way is sad, but after what happened to (former boys lacrosse coach) Tony (O’Donnell) and (former softball coach) Butch (Melanaphy) last year, I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not right to treat people who have given so many years only to be tossed aside because of parents’ complaints. But that’s what is happening in Peabody the last couple of years. Parents complain and their solution is get rid of the coach.”
Leonard may be on to something as Peabody has been a revolving door lately when it comes to varsity coaches.
O’Donnell was in his 18th year with the boys lacrosse team (seventh as head coach), when he abruptly quit a few days into the 2018 season. He was replaced by assistant coach Greg Welch, who, citing job commitments, lasted only one season. Leo Shidler has been hired to replace Welch.
Field hockey coach Karen Atkinson also lasted only one year. She was replaced in the fall of 2018 by Tawny Palmieri, who was also hired to replace Melanaphy.
Last spring, Melanaphy led the softball team to perhaps its best season in program history at 18-4 and won its first tournament game in 10 years. Softball was the only Peabody team to win a spring Northeastern Conference title. Despite the unprecedented success, Melanaphy said Bua told him the school “wanted to go in a different direction.”
“I couldn’t believe it when the athletic director told me that after the year we had, so I have no idea what direction they want to go, maybe 4-18?” said Melanaphy. “Coaching 24 years, I expected more than just being called in by the athletic director and told I was done.”
Leonard spent 24 seasons as head coach, beginning in 1995, after two years as an assistant. In 501 games (including 24 tournament games) he posted a 228-233-40 record. Under Leonard, who won three Coach of the Year awards, Peabody captured six league titles.
In no time flat, he turned Peabody into powerhouse program, winning four straight Greater Boston League titles starting in 2000. During that span, Leonard led the Tanners to their first tournament berth in 19 years and had a run of 10 straight winning seasons from 2001-2011. His best season was 2009-2010 when the team won a record 18 games, won a Northeast Conference championship and reached the final of the Division 2 North tournament for the first time in program history.
After qualifying for the tournament in 2014-2015 (and winning a tourney game against Danvers), the Tanners fell on hard times the next three years, going a combined 4-52-4.
“From 98-99 through 2010 we were a top-five team with great teams and players, but every program has down years,” said Leonard. “Anyone who knows anything about Peabody hockey knew three years ago that the next four years we would not have the talent, we knew we had a weak group. I even brought up the idea of merging with the Lynn program, which was in the same boat as us with no talent coming in for the next two years.”
At Peabody High, Leonard was an all-star stand out in soccer, hockey and baseball.
A 2-time North Shore Hockey Player of the Year, he played four years at UConn, garnering Rookie of the Year honors and setting a program record for most points scored as a freshman.
He played professionally in the European Hockey Federation, twice leading the league in scoring.
As far as the reasons behind his dismissal go, Leonard, currently president of the Peabody Youth Hockey, said Bua cited multiple factors that Bua said led to the decision.
“I was told by the athletic director that parents complained that I was being too negative, but we had kids who had no interest in working,” Leonard said. “He (Bua) said the program was losing kids and that kids threatened to quit if I came back, but kids always say that. I didn’t have one kid quit the team in the last three years. He said the losing games was another reason. I thought high school athletics was supposed to be more than winning games.
“I was not supported by the AD when it involved issues or suspensions that were meant to send a message that I would not tolerate certain off-ice behavior by my players.”
On Monday, Bua said the decision to let Leonard go was not an easy one but, “it’s a personnel issue and I can’t really discuss it any further.”