When the final buzzer sounded, Maine had closed out a return to the Frozen Four with a 4-3 win over Boston University. Captain Peter Metcalf took the Shawn Walsh jersey that has hung behind the Black Bear bench every game since the legendary coach’s death six months ago and skated onto the ice.
What Metcalf did next was not part of the team’s ritual involving the jersey; it instead came instinctively from the heart. He circled near the Maine net and held the jersey aloft. As he continued to traverse the Black Bear zone, fans who were already on their feet cheering the team’s win grew louder in their applause.
Soon it wasn’t just Maine loyalists who were standing. Befitting the community of college hockey, some rival fans paid tribute to the man who had built Maine into a Division I powerhouse only to be felled by cancer at the age of 46.
“It was a thrill,” says Metcalf. “It just rushed through my body. Obviously, we dedicated the season to him. I hadn’t even planned to do it. I hadn’t thought of it.
“I was skating around yelling out, ‘This is for him!’
“He’s proud of us right now. He’s kicking back and probably smoking a cigar or something and saying, ‘It’s better winning than losing.'”
A fierce competitor, Walsh had remained positive to the end, when his death rocked the team just as it was about to open its season. His players, who had viewed him as much father figure as coach, described his demise with words such as “unfathomable.”
The Black Bears skated zombie-like in the early going, posting a 3-4-2 record in the first nine games. There was a new leader, interim head coach Tim Whitehead, to adjust to and a sadness in their hearts.
Eventually, however, the toughness and competitive fire of their fallen leader manifested itself in the players.
“[Cancer] is my next opponent,” Walsh had said with no self-pity when diagnosed. “What’s next, Doc?”
What had been near-inconsolable loss in September became inspiration over time. A shamrock with the initials SW was added to the jersey’s sleeve. Each game, a player who had displayed Walsh’s spirit was chosen to handle the honor of hanging the coach’s ceremonial jersey on the goalpost during team introductions and then bringing it to the bench.
“He’s still a huge inspiration to us,” says senior Matt Yeats. “He built this program. Coach Whitehead took over and he’s done a great job so far, but we’re really playing for [Shawn Walsh].”
Ask Metcalf if perhaps six months later Walsh’s impact might be getting overstated by the media and the senior captain becomes emotional, needing a few seconds to compose himself.
“Just because it happened back in September [doesn’t change anything],” he says. “He’s still fresh in our minds.
“There are days when I go out and make a play and I don’t pass it hard enough and I hear him yelling in the back of my head and turn around. He’s not there, but I still hear him yelling.
“He’s still in everyone’s mind.”
Whitehead, hired as an associate head coach ostensibly to fill in during Walsh’s treatments, could have felt threatened by this devotion and the need to measure up to an icon, but instead considered it a positive.
“There was no other way to do it,” he says. “I have to be honest. You don’t want to be the guy that follows the legend. You want to be the guy that follows the guy that follows the legend. That’s very true and I knew that.
“Obviously, there’s no attempt to try to be Shawn Walsh. Nobody is. Shawn was unique and an exceptional coach. He was Maine hockey. All I’ve tried to do is be patient and recognize that it’s a process and hold the players accountable for their commitment to make this a season that Shawn would be proud of. That’s my role.
“I told them at the beginning that there were going to be a lot of highs and lows. Maybe more lows than highs. The thing we couldn’t do is waver from our commitment to make this a special season.
“I’m just very proud of them that they never strayed from that because, as you can imagine, we had some very tough moments. They’ve really pulled together.”
The Black Bears entered the national tournament with only a single loss in their last nine games, falling only to top-ranked New Hampshire in the Hockey East championship contest. They then defeated Harvard in the NCAA tourney’s first round, 4-3 in overtime, to face Boston University in the quarterfinals.
Other than my family, [coaching is] what I love to do,” Walsh had said. “That’s what I bleed, so to speak.”
This was the time of year that Walsh had loved best. In 1999, he’d led the Black Bears to their second national title. In 2000, they’d reached the Frozen Four only to fall to eventual champion North Dakota. Last year, they’d lost to Boston College, also destined for the title, in the quarterfinals.
“This was his time,” says senior Mike Morrison. “This was where he just ate NCAA hockey up. He wishes he could be with us now.
“We wanted to get out of [the East regional] on a winning note because he didn’t get out of here on a winning note last year. We’re all rising to the occasion right now.”
That they have.
Midway through the third period, Maine broke open a 2-2 game with goals by Lucas Lawson and Colin Shields. BU, however, closed the gap to 4-3 with three minutes remaining. Black Bear fans then had some anxious moments in the final minute when, with the Terrier goaltender pulled for an extra attacker, BU won two faceoffs cleanly in the offensive zone. The draws, however, slid harmlessly out to center ice, in one case right through the legs of the intended shooter.
To hear some Maine players describe it, Shawn Walsh was watching over them, making sure the little breaks went their way.
“Every little bounce that happens,” says Morrison, “we’re looking up to him saying, ‘Whew! I bet that was you!’
“We’re just trying to keep working hard like he would have wanted us to. We know that if we do our job, he’ll hopefully take care of us.”
“He helps us out,” adds Metcalf. “They could have scored at the end. Maybe he kept it out.”
After Maine’s season ended last March, Walsh had expressed no doubts that he’d be back on the bench to open this year.
“I’ll be stunned if I’m not there,” he said.
In many ways, he was right.