NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — It wasn’t so much how Chris Serino felt that forced him into temporarily stepping aside as Merrimack head coach. It was more of what the 30-year veteran saw in himself that proved unsettling.
Diagnosed with throat cancer in August, Serino informed school officials on Tuesday that he was officially turning over the full-time responsibilities of running the Warriors to associate head coach Mike Doneghey for the duration of the fall semester. The third-year coach will, however, continue to perform off-ice administrative duties on behalf of the program.
By the end of December, Serino, 52, will have completed the aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments he is currently undergoing for the malignant tumor in his neck. At that time, he will be better able to evaluate the toll coaching the rest of the 2001-02 season will have on his health.
If not convinced by then he can commit to returning to the rigors of coaching Division I college hockey, Serino said he will stay off the bench for the remainder of the season.
Struggling with severe discomfort brought on by his most recent six-day chemotherapy regiment, Serino has missed several practices but just one of the five games Merrimack has played this fall entering tonight’s home date against New Hampshire. Sunday’s game at Boston University, which was televised on Fox Sports New England, marked his second game back on the bench.
When watching a tape of the telecast, what Serino found more appalling than his team’s 4-0 defeat was his own actions, prompting him to make the difficult decision.
“I get home, I’m in pain and my wife is in tears, but I really don’t understand why,” Serino said. “Then I’m watching the game at 2 in the morning looking at myself saying, ‘No wonder why I’m in this much pain.’ I mean, I can handle a lot of challenges, but I can only handle them one at a time.
“I’m frustrated because I’ve had to make a decision that really hurts me. But I know it’s the right decision to make. I looked at myself the other day (on the tape) and said, ‘You’ve got to be asinine to be doing this.’ Sunday I was having trouble just talking and you saw the other part of it. You can imagine what that will do to me over the long haul.”
After receiving the complete support of college president Richard Santagati and athletic director Robert DeGregorio, Serino informed assistants Doneghey, Stu Irving and Louis Finocchiaro of his decision. Doneghey called a team meeting Tuesday afternoon to break the news to the Warriors.
“I told him this was the biggest game of your life,” recounted DeGregorio of his Monday evening meeting with Serino. “He’s got to win this game against cancer before he can win any more hockey games. I told him he needs every ounce of his energy, both mentally and physically, to beat this thing.”
Following the announcement of his diagnosis in late August, Serino commented that once he felt he was becoming a distraction for his club he would step aside. Sunday at Walter Brown Arena is when he first sensed a problem.
“I was in real pain Sunday night,” Serino said. “Watching the tape, I could see the kids looking at me with concern to see if I was all right. That’s no way to play a game.
“I’ve been enough of a distraction to them, coming and going. I can’t get what I want to get across being there for the amount of time that I am. So I think this is the best way. I’ll do whatever they want me to do, break down the films or administrative stuff, whatever they need me to do in the background.”
Doneghey adamantly refutes Serino has been anything but an inspiration for the Warriors.
“How could a guy who bleeds blue and gold and has over 30 years of coaching experience be a distraction?” Doneghey reasons. “The guys feel for him and they miss him, but he wasn’t coach Serino. Coach could always but a positive spin on any negative situation, and he wasn’t doing that.
“He was trying to condense his coaching into the few hours he could be here,” said Doneghey, who suffered a loss to UNH Oct. 18 in his Merrimack head coaching debut. “Not that it was having a negative effect on the kids because they always listen to coach Serino. But in their minds, they could have been wondering if we’re just puppets with coach Serino pulling the strings, or were we really in charge. He cleared all that up for the team and the coaching staff.”
Merrimack junior captain Anthony Aquino admitted the club was not as shocked with the latest news as when Serino made his initial announcement in August. Just the same, he said, being without their head coach will not be easy for the Warriors.
“It kind of hurts a little bit,” Aquino said, “but at the same time he wants us to just play and not worry about how he’s doing and how he’s going to be. Whether he’s here or not, though, we’ve got to start playing well. And we’ll play just as hard for Mike, Stu and Louis as we would coach Serino.”