“Last July when I was entertaining some other opportunities, people were trying to keep me at Maine,” said Greg Cronin, who served a year as Maine’s interim head coach before recently taking a position with USA Hockey. “They were very disappointed that I might leave. Now a lot of people have opened the door and let me leave because we’re 7-7-1 and as far as they’re concerned, I haven’t done a very good job.”
— Maine Sports Information Director Matt Bourque
The dichotomy between Cronin’s supporters — like Bourque and athletic director Suzanne Tyler — and his detractors speaks volumes. Those who choose to look only at the surface see the Black Bears’ .500 record under Cronin this year and their even worse standing in Hockey East (2-5-1 for seventh place). Then they look at Shawn Walsh’s legendary track record. To them, the difference in results tells all they need to know.
“He did a fabulous job here,” countered Walsh, who returned Dec. 24. “You can get an idea for how highly he’s respected in the hockey community by [the fact that USA Hockey hired him.] I don’t think it’s coincidental that USA Hockey opened up the position for him right when he left here. They obviously held onto that position for him because they wanted him on their staff.”
“I’m not sure if people who haven’t been around our program understand the adversity and challenges that Greg went through,” said Bourque. “It would have been easy for things to fall apart so badly that we couldn’t put it all back together. If we’re successful ten years down the road, a lot of people will have forgotten about him, but he’s the guy who will have held it all together. Greg Cronin saved Maine hockey.”
“No paycheck at the end of the season”
Cronin inherited a team last December that had just seen its head coach exiled for a year and had banned itself from the NCAA tournament. “When I first took over, I was concerned that the players would feel sorry for themselves and go into a martyr mentality,” said Cronin. “So I yelled quite a bit and I was very intense around the players. I don’t know if it got them motivated out of fear or out of respect for me, but it worked.”
“I respected the man,” said co-captain Dan Shermerhorn. “He has a lot of emotion and a large will to win. He has a fire and intensity that I haven’t seen in many people. It’s second to none.”
Although the Black Bears lost 3-2 to Providence in the title game, Cronin considered going to the championship game as a head coach one of the highlights of his career. “We would have been the second seed in the East. I think that’s a real tribute to the way we handled things last year.”
In the off-season, however, the roof caved in. The NCAA ruled that the self-imposed penalties were insufficient. In addition to severe scholarship restrictions, the NCAA banned this year’s squad from not only the NCAA tournament but the Hockey East playoffs as well. This opened the door for four potential All-Americans — Blair Allison, Jeff Tory, Brett Clark, and Tim Lovell — to leave the team, defections that would gut what would have been one of the top teams in the country. It also shattered the dreams of the players who stayed.
Cronin was left to pick up the pieces while Maine filed an appeal. He chose not to emphasize the long-shot possibility of the postseason ban being overturned, instead telling his team to assume that there would be no playoffs.
“If you go to work every week and don’t pick up a paycheck, all of a sudden you’ll say what’s the use of going to work every week?” said Cronin. “People just don’t understand this, but there is certainly something to be said about a group of players that continued to compete game in and game out even though there’s no paycheck at the end of the season.”
“The way they evaluate hockey is pathetic…. Their evaluation of the amateur rule is a joke”
Cronin pulled no punches when discussing the NCAA, hardly surprising given its effect on his team.
“I’ve seen its sharp teeth,” he said. “It’s a faceless bureaucracy that seems to control an awful lot of your life and your success as a coach. After going through an investigation and a hearing, I have a lot of respect for the responsibility of those people to police college athletics. I was impressed with the way they conducted the investigation. They were very thorough and indiscriminate in what they did.
“But if I were to group them with the Clearinghouse, which is independent of the NCAA, I would say that college athletics in the nineties is a rapidly changing environment that at this point the NCAA is not equipped to deal with.
“Three things concern me about the NCAA,” he said. “One is their stance on increasing academic standards. It cripples potential players who were not given the educational resources to achieve a high grade or SAT score. There are too many cultural differences to ensure a kid’s success in an urban environment or even in a rural environment. The NCAA is not sensitive to that.
“Two, the way that they evaluate hockey is pathetic. They look at it the same way they look at football. But we’re not playing in the same arena that football and basketball coaches recruit in. We’re dealing with a different monster called major junior that can influence a kid at fourteen and fifteen years old. We can’t even get in the kid’s mailbox with a letter. We have to wait until the kid’s a junior [in high school] before we can send him a letter, and by that time he’s already been influenced. [The NCAA] has refused to make an adaptation to that. Consequently, college hockey, in my estimation, is going down. The level is not what it used to be. We continue to lose kids to major junior.
“Three, their evaluation of the amateur rule is a joke. They’re too hung up on trivial rules that they feel violate amateur status and qualify conveniently as excessive benefits. That’s a concern because it not only affects the school, it impacts the kid as well.”
“You may … have ten guys that are nailheads. They can’t add four and four”
The NCAA certainly couldn’t criticize Maine’s academic performance this year. The Black Bears posted their highest team grade point average (GPA) in many years. Cronin downplayed his role in that achievement.
“There are a couple factors that influence GPA,” he said. “Number one is the quality of students you have on your team. You may be an NCAA champion and have ten guys that are nailheads. They can’t add four and four. That impacts GPA.
“The one common denominator among the four seniors that stayed here is that all four have an agenda academically. Shermerhorn’s got a 3.6, Trevor [Roenick] has a 3.2, [Jason] Mansoff’s got a 3.3 in mechanical engineering, and Reggie Cardinal is going to graduate with a business degree which is very important to him and his family as a native American.”
That academic orientation certainly helped the team’s GPA. Even so, coaches who care about academics must instill discipline not only on the ice but in the classroom as well.
“The other factor is that I made them go to class,” said Cronin. “If they didn’t go to class or if they missed study hall, I made them run at six in the morning in the springtime, because I didn’t want to see the academics erode. I think that had an impact on their diligence in the classroom because they had to be there. But you know,” Cronin added wryly, “maybe they were just taking easy classes.”
“I give myself a D, a B and an A”
According to Cronin, there are three components to judging a college coach.
“Number one is wins and losses,” he said. “That’s the most visible thing. I would give myself a D on that because we’re 7-7-1. Now did my coaching impact those games? To some degree it probably did. Would Shawn have had a better record? Maybe he would have had one or two more wins. I don’t know.
“The second thing you judge yourself by is what you do to prepare your team, in terms of the practices you run, the preparation you do for opponents, and the post-game breakdowns [you use] to educate your players. And I’d give my staff and myself a B in that.
“The third thing you’ve got to do in a college environment to judge yourself is ask how have the players responded to you, not only as a coach but also as a person. Have they gone to class? Have they done work in the weight room? Have they handled themselves with class and dignity? Have they been socially responsible? I give myself and my staff an A for that.”
Fundamental to everything Cronin tried to accomplish was his relationship with his players.
“Not to brag,” Cronin said, “but we’ve got maybe 30 guys and I would say that anywhere between 28 and 30 guys would say, ‘Hey, that guy was fair, he was honest, and he taught me lessons about life.’ And that’s what this vocation is all about.
“The proudest moment I had in my tenure as interim head coach was at my press conference [when I was leaving]. Every single kid came up to that room and listened to me talk to the media for about half an hour. They waited for me to get done, and they all shook my hand and gave me a hug. That to me is why you’re in college athletics, to be able to have that relationship with players.”
Afterwards, Bourque said to Cronin, “I’ve never seen kids so devastated by somebody leaving. They may not say it because they want to make sure that they’re respectful of Shawn, but those kids are crushed.”
“From a human perspective,” said Cronin, “I think it’s great. When you have that kind of impact on kids, you’ve obviously done something very well to influence them in a healthy way.”
“I’m the media’s dream and an athletic director’s nightmare”
It didn’t always seem to the media and fans that Cronin’s players felt that way about him. When the colorful Cronin got talking, it made for lively reading. Sometimes, though, the reading seemed to be at the expense of his players, who might be expected to resent his comments.
“Matt Bourque says that I’m the media’s dream and an athletic director’s nightmare,” said Cronin ruefully.
Cronin’s athletic director for the past year, Suzanne Tyler, wouldn’t go quite that far but — while applauding Cronin for performing a great job during trying circumstances — did add, “He sometimes said things that I felt were private things for the men on the team. It’s not that I wished he hadn’t said some of the things. I think he wished he hadn’t said some of the things that came blurting out.”
“He wears his heart on his sleeve,” explained Shermerhorn. If Cronin said after a game that “the forwards stunk — they didn’t do anything out there,” he was echoing comments the players were making in the locker room. “He said things that a lot of us players felt but were afraid to say,” said Shermerhorn.
“I think you have a responsibility to the sports fans,” said Cronin. “If you have people who are curious about what happened to your team, why give them a bunch of scenery? Tell them where it’s at.”
Although it probably surprises some people to hear it, Cronin did have limits to what he intended to say.
“I would never criticize a specific skater like a particular forward or defenseman because that to me is way too visible and that can cripple a kid,” said Cronin. “But what people don’t understand is that the most important position is the goaltender. There aren’t three guys playing goal, there’s one guy. So it’s obvious who you’re talking about when you say you had poor goaltending.
“But when I look at our scoring chances and our grade A opportunities over the last 15 games, we were averaging 27 per game and our opponents were getting 16. If someone told me that was going to happen over 15 games, I’d figure we were going to win at least two-thirds of those games. Well, those are great stats, but if your guy isn’t stopping the puck, I don’t care how good you are, you’re going to be in a dogfight every game.”
And Cronin’s guy wasn’t stopping the puck. Alfie Michaud, recruited to back up All-American Blair Allison for a year and gradually ease into the number-one role, instead was thrown to the wolves when Allison left in the wake of the NCAA sanctions. With only walk-ons in reserve, Michaud was on his own. The original plan for Maine’s renowned goalie coach Grant Standbrook to change Michaud from a flopper to a more stand-up style during his transition year instead became a crash course conducted in front of thousands of fans. Between the high-profile pressure that comes with playing for Maine and the confusion over the style change, Michaud’s performances suffered.
Aside from a solid game or two, Michaud played poorly (3.84 goals-against average and .832 save percentage). The same has happened to many freshman goaltenders who eventually came back to perform well, some like Garth Snow and Martin Fillion even earning All-Hockey East honors. But as freshmen most were allowed to shrink back into the shadows to soothe their battered psyches or at least share the blame with another netminder instead of continuing to take their lumps in the limelight. Michaud did not have that luxury.
At times, Cronin’s blunt remarks seemed likely to exacerbate the problem. From “he looked like a fish flopping around there” to “I don’t know what Alfie’s problem is,” Cronin’s candor reached near-painful levels.
“But I tell you I took Alfie aside,” said Cronin, “and said to him, ‘Now listen, Alfie. I’m going to tell you something as a friend. I made a comment about our goaltending in the paper. I don’t regret doing it because I want to make sure people understand what’s going on with this team.
“You’re a part of this team. Publicly, maybe it’s not very good. I’m not necessarily proud of the fact that I said it. But the bottom line is that I care about you as a person. I want to see you succeed. And those comments are independent of the way I’m going to coach you and the way that I’m going to deal with you as a player. I’m going to put you back in the net and I’m going to let you get out of your rut.’
“Now I can say that [other stuff] in the paper, but he knows when I shut my door and tell him that to his face that I’ve got confidence in him and that gives him a lift.”
Unfortunately, a lift eventually proved not to be enough. In Cronin’s last two games as a Maine coach, he was forced to switch to walk-on Javier Gorriti, with mixed results.
Without question, Allison’s departure opened the biggest of many cans of worms for Cronin. Arguably, in his absence the Black Bears endured the weakest goaltending in the league. That dubious honor had fallen to New Hampshire the previous year and UMass-Lowell the year before that. Neither team could keep its head above .500, despite the All-Americans on their rosters. Not even Bruce Crowder, who earned Coach of the Year honors in two of the last three years, could coach past deficiencies between the pipes. Maine, at 7-7-1, was not alone.
Some fans recognized these problems and absolved Cronin. Others laid the blame at his feet.
“I’m more laid back than Shawn”
In many ways, Cronin inherited an impossible task. Replacing Shawn Walsh in Maine is like replacing Vince Lombardi in Green Bay, Billy Martin in New York or Red Auerbach in Boston. For many Black Bear followers, if Cronin turned water into wine, then Shawn Walsh would have produced a better vintage.
“He had big shoes to fill,” said Shermerhorn. “He wasn’t given a lot of credit for the things he did because of the allegiance to Shawn Walsh that is alive here in Maine. Everything he did was always compared to how Shawn Walsh would have dealt with it. I don’t think he had the opportunity to develop himself as an individual coach here because he was always in that shadow. It was a tough situation, but I think he dealt with it more than adequately. It was almost unfair to him that this happened, but that’s just the way the situation was.”
It was a comparison Cronin made himself.
“I was always privately comparing myself to how Shawn would handle situations,” said Cronin. “I would react to things the way I felt was appropriate, but with a certain degree of Shawn’s influence. I obviously learned a lot from him. I’ve taken as much from him as possible to shape my future as a head coach. I don’t think there’s a better coach in the country in terms of his management of his time and his schedule and his pro-activity during the week.
“In terms of systems, I didn’t do anything differently. The biggest change that I’m sure the kids felt is that I’m more laid back than Shawn is. That may sound strange since you hear stories about me breaking sticks and punching things.”
True, there have been more than a few stories.
Cronin on a regular basis littered his locker rooms with sticks broken in his fiery attempt to make a point. Cronin’s lone failure occurred in his final game when he tried to break a Jason Price composite. Cronin emerged from the locker room muttering to reporters that he’d almost broken his leg on “a stick that must have been made of kryptonite.”
Although no fracture occurred that evening, Cronin broke bones in his hand during last year’s Hockey East semifinals when he smashed it emphatically on a locker room table between the second and third periods. When his team promptly rallied from a deficit to win 5-2, this year’s trail of fractured Sherwoods and Eastons probably became inevitable, not to mention the locker room challenge that became his trademark: “Do I have to break my hand again?”
So … more laid back?
“I give the players a lot more latitude than Shawn does,” explained Cronin. “I would say that he puts them on a two-foot leash and I maybe give them six feet. Sometimes that comes back to haunt you because kids are kids and they’ll try to expand it from six to eight. Then you’ve got some erosion of little things that are critical to the program’s success. But obviously I was able to pull them in a little bit when I felt that was happening.
“[What I’m talking about is] off-ice team behavior. Whether it’s the length of somebody’s hair, whether someone is wearing an earring, or whether sweatsuits are being tucked in properly. Shawn’s a real stickler for little things. I just tend to say, hey, if a kid wants to wear his hair a little bit longer than what I feel is appropriate then I feel that’s his prerogative. The bottom line is that as long as they go to class everyday, compete academically, and show up for games and compete in hockey, I really don’t care what they do as long as it’s not too much of an eyesore for the program.”
Realistically, though, the on-ice performance, not earrings or length of hair or tucked-in sweat suits, formed the bottom line of comparisons between Cronin and Walsh.
“A lot of people think that Shawn is going to come in and turn this thing around,” said Cronin. Clearly Cronin has heard the phrase, with its obvious implication of who’s to blame, a few more times than he’d like. Although he sees Maine as no better than .500 this year without better goaltending, Cronin said, “I hope Shawn does [turn it around] for his sake, and even more importantly, for the players’ sake. If Shawn does well and the program does well, then the players are happy and that’s the most important thing in college athletics.”
“I started looking over both my shoulders”
“Coach Cro was in a tough situation,” said Shermerhorn. “There was a lot of praise for the seniors who came back this year. But with our commitment, we knew we’d be back for the full year. He didn’t. He had December 24th written on his calendar. He didn’t know what was going to happen after that. He fulfilled his commitment to us by sticking around until now.”
“The closer I got to the conclusion of my interim tenure,” said Cronin, “to be very honest, I started looking over both my shoulders because I could feel Shawn coming on. I’ve said all along that I’m humble enough to go back and be an assistant coach, but I think it would have been difficult for everybody if I stayed. Shawn is probably relieved to some degree that I’m not going to be there. Not because he doesn’t like me but just because it makes his job easier. He can take control without having to worry about relationships with players and what they might think about me.”
Even more importantly, Cronin considered the opportunity too good to pass up. He will be working with Jeff Jackson and Bob Mancini, former head coaches at Lake Superior State and Michigan Tech, to build USA Hockey’s Elite Development Program for 17- and 18-year-olds.
“This is an opportunity to enhance my professional career,” said Cronin, who sees himself eventually going to the NHL or becoming a head coach either in college or major junior. “How many coaches can go from college to pro hockey? It’s not going to happen. But this is an organization that literally stands between college and the NHL. I’m really excited about it.”
Cronin felt he profited from the last year, despite all the difficulties.
“I think I’ve actually learned more about myself as a human being than I have as a coach. As a head coach you feel a lot more responsible for the success of the team. There were times during the year when I’d get real dejected and frustrated with the way things were going because there were a lot of things out of my control. Clearinghouse issues, NCAA issues, injuries and things like that. I think the biggest challenge for any human being is when you get down like that to motivate yourself and find the energy to stay positive and have a healthy outlook.
“I’m going to miss college hockey. I’ve been quoted as saying that I’m sick of the NCAA and it’s too inhibiting and I’m glad I’m getting out of it, but I’m going to miss the excitement, the BU rivalry, the New Hampshire rivalry and certainly the fans at the Alfond Arena…. But most importantly I’m going to miss the kids in the Maine locker room. The relationship I had with them will last forever.
“You can’t put a price on that.”