When Maine legend Shawn Walsh died on Sept. 24, everything changed for the Black Bears. The program’s heart and soul was gone. The players, stunned at their sudden loss, might have been excused if they’d skated zombie-like through the first semester.
Wins and losses, after all, had been rendered meaningless by comparison to matters of life and death. Did it really matter anymore who won insignificant battles in the corner or who picked up the loose man on the backcheck?
Eventually, the team’s competitive instincts would kick in, but how much of the season would be lost while the Black Bears climbed out of the emotional abyss?
It was not a trivial question. Last year, Maine had taken eventual national champion Boston College late into the third period before falling one game short of the Frozen Four. This season, there were holes to fill on defense, but both goaltenders and most of the offense returned.
Would this be a year of considerable promise lost to mourning?
“[Being] without Shawn, that’s our biggest challenge,” says interim head coach Tim Whitehead, who was hired as associate head coach in August. “It’s been tough for them coming to the rink every day and not seeing Shawn. I’ve been very impressed with how they’ve handled it, but at the same time I know that’s going to be a challenge all year.”
Undoubtedly, the suddenness of Walsh’s death exacerbated what would have been an extraordinarily difficult time under any circumstances.
“Everybody came in here just so ready to go and excited. We wanted to have a positive attitude around Coach Walsh so he could overcome this,” says senior Mike Morrison. “So we were all ready to go at the start of the year. We were on a high and excited and then it happened, and it happened so suddenly.
“It was just out of the blue. One of my teammates called me and told me to come down to the rink and it was just like, ‘Wow.’ Everyone was just stunned. They didn’t know whether to believe it.
“It just sounded so unfathomable. This couldn’t have happened. This guy had had us all fooled, that he was going to beat it. There was no question about it. That’s what he told us, so that’s what was going to happen.
“But here it was, he’d died and we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to him or anything like that. It was kind of like, ‘What just happened?'”
Anyone who saw the players on the day of the funeral could see the pain on their faces. A practice had originally been scheduled for that day, but it, of course, never happened.
“Right after his death, it was a real sad time,” says senior captain Peter Metcalf. “We cancelled a lot of practices so guys could handle it emotionally the way that they wanted to handle it. You had to cater to each person’s needs.
“But eventually you have to get back at it. Eventually the goal that Coach Walsh had wanted was to win the whole thing. So we knew we had to get back at it, but those first practices guys were a little spacey.
“A lot of guys kept thinking about it. There were a lot of memories. He coached me for three years and I got really close to him and a lot of other guys did, too. It took me a couple practices to come to the realization that he wasn’t going to be there.”
Not only was Walsh’s absence felt, but also the inevitable changes that come from going from one coach’s approach to another’s. Walsh was known for his meticulous attention to detail. Those details were now being decided in different ways by Whitehead, in many cases without the new coach even being aware he was changing things.
“The first couple practices were brutal,” says Morrison. “It was just so different, especially for the veterans: the juniors and the seniors. Just the littlest things that Coach Whitehead would do that would be different from Coach Walsh.
“[You thought,] ‘No, wait a minute. That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it. You’re supposed to do it this way. You’re not supposed to skate a lap before practice. We never used to do that.’
“It was just little things like that that slapped us in the face, that hey, Coach Walsh was gone now. That guy that you just hated on the ice because he was such a tyrant in a sense, but you loved him so much because you knew he was taking care of all of us.
“He was making us better people, better hockey players and stronger mentally and physically. He just knew his players so well. He knew just looking at you whether you were having a good day or a bad day. It was that closeness that he provided to us that made him such a great coach.
“Not having him there those first couple practices had us wondering what we were doing and how we were going to go about this. Just getting used to the drills [was a struggle]. People were all over the place.”
Gradually, players began to adjust, but an exceptionally difficult opening schedule loomed for a team that still was partly in recovery mode both emotionally and mentally. A watershed moment occurred during the road trip to North Dakota on the second weekend of the season.
“The Thursday night before our game we just all kind of looked at each other,” says Morrison. “Peter Metcalf and I spoke up and just said, ‘Hey, we’re doing something wrong here. We’re going to get smoked tomorrow night.’ And everyone kind of admitted to it.
“Coach Whitehead had given us a brief speech before that and that started the whole thing. He had noticed it for us and really gave us a positive speech that was spoken so well to pump us up. After that we as captains and seniors got together and pulled everyone aside and we all had a nice meeting, just the players.
“[We] said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to start working hard here. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re going to win this weekend or even come close to competing against these guys or any other team.'”
The wakeup call was thus delivered. The Black Bears lost the opener to North Dakota, 3-2, but rallied the next night for a 5-1 win.
“Ever since then,” says Morrison, “I think we’ve been tighter as a team.”
Many of those struggles were predictable and no surprise to Whitehead, though that didn’t necessarily make them any easier to handle.
“There’s a process that you go through, as anybody who’s lost somebody very close to them — somebody that has a daily impact on their lives — knows,” says Whitehead. “It’s not an overnight process.
“As the weeks go on, you get adjusted to living without that person in your life every day. That’s just something that takes time. How quickly that happens is different for each guy because everyone is different. Shawn’s impact on each player was different. We just have to focus on working hard and sticking together as a team.”
Over time, the players have adjusted and stopped reflexively viewing Whitehead through the filter of what Walsh would have done.
— Maine interim coach Tim Whitehead
“It’s worn off a lot,” says Morrison. “It’s weird. I never thought it would wear off this quick. You still have that memory of how Coach would have done this or when he would have held that meeting or what time this would be at.
“So you still kind of notice it, but all of us realize that this is a new coach. This is Coach Whitehead and I don’t care who you got to replace Coach Walsh, they were going to be so much different than Coach Walsh was.
“A totally different person who would run things differently. We’ve just come to respect that.
“Coach Whitehead has a lot of pressure on him. He’s done an unbelievable job. He’s handled it so well. This is a national powerhouse [that was] led by a legendary coach and now that legendary coach is gone and the new coach has taken over the helm. He’s got a lot of expectations and he’s handled it very coolly and calmly.”
Which is not to say that Whitehead’s position is a comfortable one. If Maine has a great year, he will have only achieved what had been expected. And if the Black Bears disappoint…
“I know there aren’t a lot of people who envy my position right now,” says Whitehead with a rueful laugh. “I understand that. At the same time, I have a responsibility. Shawn called me in the summer to see if I could help him, not just as an assistant but also as an interim head coach in the event that he was out for long periods of time.
“I accepted that responsibility, so I’m going to follow through on it. Nobody is going to measure up to the standard of being the next Shawn Walsh. I’m not going to pretend to.
“It’s going to take a team effort to be [successful]. I’m committed to following through with my responsibility. I just want to help the team in any way that I can. Obviously, that’s something that I know is going to be quite a challenge, but it’s a challenge I’m prepared to face. I’ve been through some tough situations before.”
All of which does not mean that Shawn Walsh is fading into the background with little remaining impact on the team. His presence goes beyond the shamrock with the initials SW on each player’s jersey or the Walsh jersey that a different player brings to the bench for each game.
“Guys haven’t forgotten,” says Metcalf. “They’ve put [their memories of him] aside and bring them out when they need to.”
Such as when the going gets tough in the third period or disappointment strikes, or simply during the pregame pep talks.
“I think someone has said his last name before every one of our games in the locker room before we’ve gone out,” says Morrison. “Sometimes it’s been just in a quick sentence or sometimes just to throw a little reminder that if you’re scared or can’t take a hit or don’t think you can skate the extra 10 feet, just remember that Coach Walsh would have done it so let’s do it.
“There’s always that extra drive and motivation that we want to win it for him and give it our all like he always gave to us.”