In 1939, a group of sportswriters in Connecticut came together to honor the best coaches and athletes in their state and over the last 80 years, the Connecticut Sports Writers Alliance has awarded their prestigious Gold Key award to men and women who have made the Nutmeg State proud.
The group will award a Gold Key to Hall of Fame wrestling coach Ricky Shook of Danbury. For the first time, it will be awarded to a coach who is primarily a wrestling coach.
Some previous Gold Key award winners include:
- President George H.W. Bush, honored for his election to the presidency and his play with the Yale baseball team in the 1940s
- Hall of Fame hockey players Gordie Howe (Detroit), Ron Francis (Hartford, Pittsburgh) and Brian Leetch (N.Y. Rangers)
- UConn coaching legends Jim Calhoun (men’s basketball) and Geno Auriemma (women’s basketball)
- Marathon legend Bill Rodgers
- Two-time World Cup champion soccer player Kristine Lilly
- Former NFL star Dwight Freeney of the Indianapolis Colts.
Shook is well known in the wrestling community in Connecticut and around New England. In 2013, he was inducted into the Connecticut chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. He is a member of the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame.
He has led Danbury to three New England championships in the last four years, 16 State Open titles and 17 CIAC Class LL championships.
Gold Key winners Bob McKee of Conard High in West Hartford and Frank Robinson, Jr., of crosstown rival Hall High in West Hartford did coach wrestling in the 1960s for a few seasons during the early years of their coaching careers, starting the wrestling programs at their respective schools. But they received Gold Key awards primarily for their excellence coaching high school football.
The Gold Key dinner was begun in 1940 and has been held yearly ever since except for a two-year break during World War II. Baseball legend Connie Mack of the Philadelphia Athletics and golfing superstar Bobby Jones were among the initial recipients.
This year’s banquet was originally scheduled to be held in April but was moved to October due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it will be held in May 2021.
Shook has been on the mat for the nearly 40 years. A 1983 graduate of Danbury High, he was a two-time FCIAC champion and a Class LL champion in 1983. He went to Central Connecticut State and was a four-year starter for the Blue Devils at 118 pounds. In 1986, he was third at Division II Eastern Regional. In 1987, Central’s first year in Division I, he was third in the New England regionals.
After graduating from Central Connecticut in 1987, he spent 11 years as an assistant coach at Danbury before taking over as head coach in 2000.
Danbury has been the state’s most dominant wrestling team for nearly 20 years. They’ve won 17 of the last 21 Class LL titles. They won 10 straight State Open championships from 2001-10 and the last four Open crowns.
Danbury won their third New England championship in four years in March. Ryan Jack became just the second wrestler in Connecticut history to win a third New England title. Three teammates earned medals in the top six of their respective weight class.
Barry Choolijian was the head coach at Timberlane Regional from Plaistow, N.H., a program that has won the New England championship a record 10 times. He retired in March.
“(Shook) understands the ingredients to create a good program,” Choolijian said. “You can’t just coach the All-Star athletes like (Ryan) Jack. You have to make other kids get better. Ricky does that.”
Paul Gallo coached at New Canaan for 30 years and his Rams have been trying to catch Shook and the Hatters for years. He stepped down as head coach following the 2019 season.
“(Danbury) has a very good youth program but when they get to the high school level, he holds them accountable and makes them work,” Gallo said. “It helps he has a great (practice) room. He gives them an opportunity to get better.”
Shook has been named state coach of the year nine times with the most recent selection last March. He was the state assistant coach of the year three times. In 2016, he was inducted into the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“Everybody thinks it’s easy — it is not,” Shook told Richard Gregory of the Danbury News Times before being inducted into the Connecticut chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2013. “We’ve got a good program and I’ve got a lot of people who help me. It’s not only me. It’s parents, coaching staff, administration, I have a great AD. It’s everyone working together. It makes it easier. But to win what we do win, it’s hard. It’s a lot of work we all put in.”