Former St. Lawrence men’s and women’s ice hockey coach Bernie McKinnon died Sunday after a battle with bone cancer. A memorial service for the recent St. Lawrence Athletic Hall of Fame inductee will be held in the next week.
McKinnon, who was the men’s varsity coach from 1971-76, was considered a pioneer in women’s coaching. He was the first St. Lawrence varsity team coach for the women’s program, from 1978 all the way until the 1995-96 season. He retired following that season, and had since written a weekly sports column for the local newspaper.
“While collegiate coaching for most involves refining techniques and building on pre-established fundamentals, Bernie took his profession as a teacher-coach seriously, and in that order,” said Wally Johnson, long-time St. Lawrence sports information director.
“He taught me the game [of hockey] — which actually involved getting out there on skates and trying some things, fortunately not with the varsity guys — and he taught a lot of St. Lawrence students not only their game, but a lot of other things as well.”
McKinnon, a native of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, was a 1957 graduate of St. Lawrence, a three-year hockey letterwinner and the team captain during his senior season. He also played in three NCAA tournaments.
McKinnon was the Saints’ freshman men’s coach beginning in 1965, and was the head varsity coach on an interim basis in 1967-68, going 14-8-1 before taking over full time in 1971. His career record as men’s head coach was 72-84-6, and 170-164-13 as women’s head coach.
“Bernie wasn’t too wrapped up in wins and losses, although he did want his teams to be the best they could be,” said Johnson. “The first time he asked me to look at his career records was after he had retired as a coach. It wasn’t, he told me, a big deal.”
Golf, on the other hand, was often a bigger deal with McKinnon.
“Playing golf with Bernie was like auditing a course in philosophy of sport,” said Johnson. “The game was serious with a little advice on club selection, shot selection and putting style being traded back and forth, but the conversations covered a vast spectrum of subjects and were worth a lot more than the low-stakes Nassau that we were playing for.
“Bernie’s legacy isn’t in wins and losses — it’s in the number of lives he touched and enriched, and that number is a huge one.”
McKinnon coached Mike Keenan and Jacques Martin while they were players at St. Lawrence. Keenan has won a Stanley Cup as coach of the New York Rangers, and Martin currently coaches the Ottawa Senators.
A one-time Joe Burke Award for outstanding contributions to women’s ice hockey, McKinnon also coached the women’s soccer program at St. Lawrence to 126 wins, two NCAA tournament appearances and a New York State championship. As women’s tennis coach, McKinnon led the team to an undefeated season in 1976.
At various times in his career, he also coached men’s lacrosse, freshmen men’s soccer, freshmen lacrosse, men’s tennis and assisted with women’s lacrosse. He was director of Appleton Arena, the Saints’ home rink, and ran the summer hockey school.
He is survived by his wife, Lennie, son, Michael, daughters, Kristy and Kitty, and several grandchildren.