Shawn Walsh, no stranger to enemies, returned to Maine hockey on Dec. 24 after serving a one-year suspension. Some welcomed him with open arms; of course, others did not.
“Shawn Walsh is the reason I came to Maine,” said assistant captain Dan Shermerhorn.
“The players know they’re getting the best,” said athletic director Suzanne Tyler.
“He should be fired,” said one state legislator and some members of the press.
— Shawn Walsh
The mixed reaction Walsh drew might have surprised those who were familiar only with his spectacular success, spanking a stillborn program into life 12 years earlier. Walsh transformed a team with an 11-52-0 three-year record in the ECAC into one which, not including forfeits, would win at least 30 games in six of the seven years prior to his suspension.
Not including forfeits … prior to his suspension.
Ay, there’s the rub. Maine forfeited 13 games in 1991-92 and another 14 in 1993-94, both the result of using ineligible players. Player ineligibility also threatened their cherished 1992-93 national championship.
Walsh’s critics combined all the forfeits, penalties and sanctions of the past few years and saw a coach with an impenetrable armor of success but with a soft ethical underbelly.
Walsh, who had remained silent during his suspension, answered his critics on the eve of his return.
“The hardest part personally was not speaking out and just taking the hits from certain individuals in the press,” said Walsh. “But when the same individuals write the same thing ten straight times you begin to wonder whether it’s you or whether it’s that media person.
“They weren’t in the board room when I met with the Committee on Infractions. My president was there. My athletic director was there. That committee knows what really happened. Unless somebody decides to write a book, nobody [else] is going to really know what went on in that boardroom.
“I think it was clear to the committee that there wasn’t any unethical conduct. Certainly there were mistakes made and I’m embarrassed about my part in those mistakes…. But I had faith that they understood that the severity of the infractions did not warrant me losing my job.”
Indeed the list of infractions seemed primarily to nickel and dime the Maine program rather than pinpoint the type of ethical bankruptcy exposed within the NCAA’s bigger-money sports. There weren’t many dollar bills on the evidence table, but the huge mounds of small change still added up.
Free meals here and there for athletes — toss a fistful of nickels on the pile. Three recruits received more than the allowed weekly phone call from Maine coaches — add a penny or two. Free trips to a skybox at a Red Sox game — dimes onto the pile, with an extra nickel for souvenirs.
Tainted money, true. Symbolic of either cutting corners or inexplicable sloppiness, true. But chump change in the ethical big picture. Problematic, but insufficient to sink a coach of Walsh’s stature.
Resting on top of the mountain, however, lay a crisp $100,000 bill.
Walsh’s contact with individuals before the NCAA interviewed them, despite warnings to the contrary, struck at the heart of Walsh’s ethical underpinnings. The Nixonian appearance of a cover-up played into the hands of his critics.
“I told the players and parties [involved] that they should tell the truth,” explained Walsh. “I told [them] to tell the NCAA everything they knew, even to volunteer anything that they suspected might be a violation…. The NCAA felt that I shouldn’t have even told them that.”
When the NCAA released its report, critics looking for a smoking gun found almost its opposite.
“The committee noted that the cooperation of the men’s ice hockey student-athletes greatly contributed to the discovery of many of the violations in this report,” read the NCAA Register report.
It continued, “The committee determined there was no indication that [Walsh] told any individuals to provide false or misleading information, and, in fact, many of the men’s ice hockey student-athletes fully cooperated with the investigators and reported violations.”
The committee meted out no further punishment on Walsh. He could return on Dec. 24 to the team he had built from nothing. The penalties, however, that they levied on Walsh’s team proved devastating. Among other things, they banned the Black Bears from all postseason play this year and stripped them of four scholarships next year and two the year after.
Four potential All-Americans — Blair Allison, Jeff Tory, Tim Lovell, and Brett Clark — chose to leave Maine because of the sanctions, gutting this year’s team.
“We replaced them with the players who were numbers 21, 22, 23 and 24 on our depth chart,” said Walsh. “That, coupled with the loss of scholarships, means that we’re going to be operating at about the same level that Notre Dame has operated under the last few years.” Notre Dame has given less than the full complement of 18 scholarships for years, with predictable results. “As you can see by what’s happened to them, it’s tough to get out of that middle-of-the-ground pack. That will be the challenge for us. I think we’re going to be a middle-of-the-ground team for a couple of years.”
On the positive side, however, the NCAA determined in a separate ruling that Maine could keep their 1992-93 national championship. The championship had been threatened because goaltender Mike Dunham had received, through his mother, a $2,000 stipend from USA Hockey for his Olympic participation. USA Hockey had erroneously told the Dunhams that the stipend would not affect his eligibility.
“When [another school] was able to keep their championship with their use of an ineligible player similar to the Dunham situation, I knew we were going to be fine,” said Walsh. “[Their player] received the same type of stipend from USA Hockey, so we had precedent in that situation.”
Even so, Walsh added with a laugh, “The first thing I’m going to do is go into that rink and make sure that banner is still there.”
When the suspension first hit Walsh, he considered moving on. “Early on I had an offer from a professional team that I was very close to accepting,” he said. “But I would have had to sever my ties with college hockey for five years and I just wasn’t ready to do that. People that I respected said that the best thing I could do was to see this through and to come back with a positive attitude.
“That’s what I’ve tried to do. The year has been grueling but … in a lot of ways it’s been stress-free. The real tough part was not being able to talk to the players.”
In the meantime he entered the business world to support his family.
“I was fortunate to be able to land a marketing position in a new company that we started that’s been very successful,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the challenge. I don’t have quite the same passion for it that I do for hockey, but I’ve always wondered what business would be like and that’s been a good experience for me.”
Simply being away from college hockey for the first time in roughly twenty years also proved valuable.
“You get a much different perspective on college hockey and its place in the overall scheme of things,” said Walsh. “I also learned a great appreciation for the passion I have for coaching ice hockey. Sometimes you have to have it taken away from you before you appreciate how much you love it.”
“I haven’t seen them play,” said Walsh, whose suspension prohibited any contact with the team. “I’ve listened to a few of the games on the radio [and read the newspapers], but I’m going in blind. Not totally blind, but I don’t really have too many impressions formed about this particular team.”
Probably the most important personnel decision confronting Walsh will be in the nets. Freshman Alfie Michaud started the first 13 games of the season before his struggles put him on the bench in favor of walk-on Javier Gorriti.
“I’ll have to wait and see,” said Walsh. “I’ll give both of them the opportunity to see where they’re at. Things change. I remember Garth Snow as a freshman couldn’t stop a beach ball. He became a pretty good goaltender who went something like 20-0 in his senior year. So I think the key is developing the players and not necessarily making judgments on them right away.”
Walsh pointed to the arrival of 6’5″ Swedish defenseman Robert Ek and the team’s recent play as two reasons for optimism.
“You’ve got to have talent to compete, but we’ve been competitive,” said Walsh. “We have a very difficult second-half schedule because the first six games are on the road, and we’ve got three games in one week against New Hampshire and BU. But right now I’m not thinking too specifically about the short-term.
“I’m making a commitment for coming back in the long term and rebuilding the program in the long term,” he said. Walsh did, however, stop short of a guarantee that he’d be the Maine coach five years from now. “I would think so,” he said. “But you never say never. I wouldn’t have thought five years ago that I’d be having a year off.”
The scholarship limitations will slow his rebuilding effort and require greater ingenuity while recruiting. Even so, the Black Bears have already made a healthy start towards replacing the four departing seniors and improving next year’s team.
“We’ve got two defenseman [Adam Tate and Mike Garrow] who’ll join us next semester,” said Walsh. “Rather than waste a year of eligibility for them, I’ll probably just have them practice. So those two will start our recruiting class.
“The defense will be solid. Alfie will be back and Brian Masotta will be eligible. Masotta is a goaltender who transferred from RPI. He’s a fourth-round pick, so I think in goal we’ll be solid. What we’ve got to find are forwards who can score.”
Walsh has been known to locate a few of those.
“Kids that want to play in a high-profile program and have an impact much like Paul Kariya and Peter and Chris Ferraro had as freshmen are going to enjoy coming to a place like Maine. They know they can be part of turning the program back around.
“Our original torchbearers were guys like Eric Weinrich, Bob Corkum, Mike Golden and the Capuano brothers. Now we’re going to bring in the new generation of torchbearers.”