Shawn Walsh will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the great coaches in the college hockey game. His all-time record is impressive enough: 399-215-44 with four Hockey East regular season crowns, three Hockey East tournament titles and two national championships. Those accomplishments, however, can only be truly appreciated when put into the context of the program he inherited.
Maine hockey had existed for only six years and had posted a cumulative 11-52-0 record in the three seasons before his arrival. Following two more losing seasons with Walsh at the helm, the Black Bears earned their first NCAA tournament berth in 1986-87 and the program was off and running. Walsh became synonymous with Maine hockey and arguably was second only to Stephen King as the state’s most visible ambassador.
“He put Maine on the map,” says Northeastern coach Bruce Crowder, who began his coaching career as an assistant under Walsh. “He gave the people of Maine something to rally and cheer behind. They could compete against anybody in the country to the point of being able to win two national championships.”
That success raised the bar for every other program in the sport.
— Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, on Shawn Walsh’s contributions to the game
“One of the reasons Hockey East is as strong as it is,” says Crowder, “is because of Shawn Walsh. He came in here and he changed the methods of recruiting that the New Hampshires and BUs and BCs used to do for years. Next thing you know, he was getting players to go up to Maine. Then it became, ‘keeping up with the Walshes.’
“You look at kids like the Capuanos — [David and Jack] — that Shawn took right out of Providence’s back door in the middle ’80s. That got people’s [attention]. Because of that, it made our league stronger. It made all the coaches work harder.”
Of course, Walsh’s skills extended beyond just recruiting. His abilities as a bench tactician, a communicator with young men and an inspirational and gifted leader and promoter of the Black Bear program upped the ante for coaches everywhere. No detail was too small, no edge that he might give his team too insignificant, be it fresh underwear for players during tournament overtimes or written game day schedules that kept his team organized.
“Because of all the things he did,” says Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna, “and how good he was and how complete he was in thinking of everything, it made everybody else be better coaches and in the process raised the whole ship. There’s no denying that.”
Walsh strove not only to make the Black Bear program the best it could be, but also the league and college hockey in general.
“I got a call from him on the answering machine the Monday after the [Hockey East] tournament with his observations on how to make the tournament better next year,” says Bertagna. “He would do that all the time. They would not just be the obvious or major league issues, but things like the tournament gift for players or the hotel rooms.
“The one that caught me this year is that he said, ‘You know, when the FleetCenter gives the tickets to the four semifinalist schools, they ought to give the tickets out so that when you’re on the bench, you can look across the ice and see your fans [as opposed to having them behind you]. So if you score a goal, you can look across and get lifted by your fans’ reaction.’
“I guarantee you, nobody else thinks to that level of detail.
“He was like that when he was the head of the [American Hockey] Coaches Association and I worked with him as the executive director. He had a zillion ideas.”
And an inexhaustible passion for the sport.
“We had a couple all-star games with our seniors vs. Canadian university seniors in early April,” says Bertagna. “With most guys it was a long season and they’d just as soon give that [coaching] assignment back. But he jumped into it. He had the power play packet for one guy, special teams for this guy and this other guy was going to work with the defensemen.
“Everything he did was complete, organized, creative and enthusiastic.”
Small wonder, then, that a former player like Chris Imes would find some professional hockey teams he played for after his stellar career at Maine to be run in a slipshod, second-rate fashion compared to the first-class organization Walsh ran.
“I played [for an IHL team] one year and it really was a bad, bad year,” Imes would say with a rueful laugh. “It was a bad organization. You don’t want to knock the coach or anything, but it was just a bad, bad, all-around team.
“We had a lot of good players, but we just didn’t have the organization. Everything was poorly run.”
Not so at Maine. After the breakthrough 1986-87 season, the Black Bears were a national force almost every season. Walsh’s players would include two Hobey Baker Award winners, 28 All-Americans, eight U.S. Olympians, two Canadian Olympians and 35 National Hockey League players. For every Paul Kariya who might arrive in Orono as a ready-made superstar, there were countless other players whose eventual success came in great measure to Walsh’s ability as a teacher and molder of young men.
“I owe everything I have ever accomplished in my field to him,” said Garth Snow to the Bangor Daily News. “I would not have had the career I’ve had without his guidance, for sure. One, he convinced me to come to Maine. Two, he helped me turn my hockey career and personal life around 180 degrees.”
Jack Capuano, a former coach and now Senior Vice President for the East Coast Hockey League’s Pee Dee Pride, echoes Snow’s words.
“I know that I wouldn’t be where I was today without him,” says Capuano. “I’ve had success as a coach, and I owe that to him. I learned how to get the most out of my players.
“The hockey side speaks for itself. But it’s the kind of person he was that mattered. He taught you about life. … You had to respect a guy who wanted to make you a better person.”
Those sentiments about Walsh’s impact on his players as a people, not just as athletes, figure prominently in the words of virtually every former Black Bear and highlighted the tribute written by this year’s team.
“Coach Walsh is so much more than just a coach to us. He is a father figure to 33 guys on this team. He will be greatly missed by all of us. His passion for the game and life will burn inside us everyday.
“He never gave up on any player. He was always there for you, and none of us will ever forget that. He taught us more than hockey. As much as he worked with you to make you a better player, he worked even harder to help you become a better person.
“He has touched so many people in his life, and no one that has ever met him will ever forget what he brought into their lives.”
Merrimack coach Chris Serino certainly won’t. Walsh, out of breath and only days away from the hospitalization that he would never emerge from, telephoned his fellow coach to encourage Serino in his own fight against cancer.
“Somebody as sick as he was,” said Serino, “to take the time and talk to me on the phone for over an hour telling me, ‘Don’t worry. You can beat this thing.’ It’s just incredible. Not many people have the character to do that with the condition that he was obviously in at the time.”
Shawn Walsh: great coach… great for the game… great guy.
His passing leaves us with a sense of ineffable sadness. We are richer for having known him, poorer for having lost him.
Thanks to the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune‘s Kevin Conway for use of his Chris Serino quote.