BANGOR, Maine — Shawn Walsh, who led the University of Maine to two national championships in 17 years, died Monday afternoon at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine, after a 15-month battle against a rare form of cancer. He was 46.
Walsh’s struggle began last summer, when he had his left kidney removed after being diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma. However, cancer remained in his body, and Walsh elected to receive two rounds of radical and intensive immunotherapy treatments.
In preparation for a stem cell transplant, Walsh had his left lung removed in March of this year. In May, Walsh underwent the transplant with cells donated by his younger brother, Kevin. That was followed by a four-month stretch of taking immunosuppressive drugs designed to allow the stem cells to attack the cancerous cells. However, it also shut down the immune system, making him susceptible to infection.
In late August, the effects were beginning to wear on Walsh.
“It’s been tougher than I thought. It’s day 107 and it’s been a grind,” he said at the time. “The last 40 days I’ve had a real lack of energy. Not enough to keep me out of the office, but it’s tiring going up steps.”
On Sept. 10, after experiencing difficulty breathing, Walsh checked himself into the hospital where he diagnosed with pneumonia. At the time, his brother Kevin said Walsh was in “great spirits,” and his wife, Lynne, said things were “positive.”
Throughout the ordeal, Walsh remained optimistic that he would be behind the bench for his 18th season in October. “I’ll be stunned if I’m not there,” he said.
The first on-ice practice of the new season for the Black Bears was scheduled for Tuesday.
Knowing Walsh’s precarious health situation, Maine recently hired former Lowell head coach Tim Whitehead as an assistant, giving the program another experienced staff member to go along with Grant Standbrook. Whitehead was named interim head coach shortly thereafter, when Walsh checked into the hospital.
Walsh took over a failing program in its first year of Hockey East play in 1984-85. He quickly built the program into a winner, eventually going 42-1-2 in 1992-93, when the Black Bears capped off the season with their first national championship.
In 17 seasons, Walsh went 399-215-44, including seven Frozen Four appearances. He coached Hobey Baker recipients Scott Pellerin (1992) and Paul Kariya (1993) and 26 other All-Americans, and ranked 11th in career victories among active coaches (19th on the all-time list).
“Shawn was one of the most skillful coaches I have ever known,” said Maine athletic director Suzanne Tyler. “His ability to get the most out of his student-athletes is unsurpassed. Perhaps more remarkable was how positive he approached everything in his life, including his illness. Despite his great odds, his pain and the distress his treatments caused, he maintained a sense of humor and an amazing drive to regain his health.
“To say he will be missed is an understatement. To say that he will be replaced is not accurate. His commitment and loyalty to the University of Maine was impressive. His loss leaves a tremendous void in UMaine athletics.”
Walsh, a one-time president of the American Hockey Coaches Association, graduated from Bowling Green in 1978, and coached the junior varsity team during his senior year under the tutelage of head coach Ron Mason. When Mason went to Michigan State two years later, Walsh went with him, and stayed as Mason’s assistant until leaving for Maine.
After two losing seasons, Maine earned its first NCAA tournament appearance in 1986-87, and proceeded to go 34-8-2 the next season as Walsh won Hockey East Coach of the Year. Maine would win 30 or more games for five straight seasons, until 1991-92, when it was forced to forfeit games for using an ineligible player.
After winning the championship the following season, Maine again came under NCAA scrutiny in 1993-94. In the aftermath of an NCAA investigation into the entire Maine athletic department, Walsh was eventually suspended for one year, the Black Bears were barred from the NCAA tournament for two, and scholarships were revoked.
But Walsh, who won the 1995 Spencer Penrose Award as national coach of the year, returned and led Maine back to prominence. In what many believe to be his finest coaching job, he led the Black Bears to another championship in 1998-99 with a team void of superstars. This past season, Maine went 20-12-7, losing to Boston College, the eventual national champion, in the NCAA East Regional in what would be Walsh’s final game.
“Shawn had many, many high points in his life: two national championships, numerous trips to the Frozen Four, and Coach of the Year honors, among them,” said University of Maine president Peter Hoff. “As most people know, Shawn worked hard and earned and enjoyed his successes.
“Shawn also had some low points, both in his personal and professional lives. Through the tough times, Shawn dealt with them with great strength and resilience. He persevered and maintained his love and commitment to the university, his program, and his adopted state.”
Walsh is survived by his wife, Lynne; daughter Allie, 11; and sons Tyler, 10, Travis, 8, and Sean, 2.