Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy can’t say that coaching was always his calling, but he did have an awakening of sorts a couple of decades ago.
Everyone knows the story of last season’s Merrimack squad, which went 25-10-4 overall, finished fourth in Hockey East and advanced to the conference title tilt at TD Garden in Boston. The Warriors came up short against Dennehy’s alma mater, Boston College, but they also earned an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament, their first since 1988, where they were edged in OT by Notre Dame.
“Our goals were really raised our last two years, and we felt we could compete for championships,” Dennehy said in mid-October.
The story of Dennehy’s road to success in North Andover, though, goes back, at least tangentially, to his own playing days in Hockey East. A four-year standout on the blue line at BC from 1987 to 1991, he helped the Eagles to the 1990 Hockey East championship, along with three regular-season conference titles and a trio of national tournament appearances, including the 1990 NCAA Frozen Four.
After playing one year of professional hockey in Scotland, where he was the third-leading scorer for the Ayr Raiders, he returned to the U.S. for a tryout with the Fort Wayne Komets, then of the International Hockey League, in the fall of 1992. He explained that was when a dose of reality set in.
“I realized I wasn’t going to be an NHL player,” Dennehy said.
He hung up his skates and moved to Vail, Colo., where he took up skiing and worked in telecommunications sales for nine months. He labeled it a valuable experience that helped him later in life.
“It was great,” said Dennehy, now a husband and a father of three. “I learned how to sell, but I realized I wasn’t cut out to do something just because of money.”
A native of Dorchester, Mass., he returned to his home state to work on a graduate degree in education at the University of Massachusetts, with an eye toward teaching. UMass coach Joe Mallen, who had coached Dennehy at BC, then asked his former defenseman if he might like to help out with the Minutemen’s practices.
Cue the epiphany.
“I stepped on the ice, and I knew it was what I was meant to do,” said Dennehy. “All the hockey I had done beforehand was a prerequisite.”
After getting his start in Amherst, Dennehy joined Don “Toot” Cahoon’s staff at Princeton for five seasons, helping the Tigers to their first-ever ECAC championship and NCAA tournament berth in 1998. He then decided to take the plunge as a head coach himself and guided Fairfield during the 1999-2000 season.
“It was fantastic, and I was really lucky,” Dennehy said. “It looked like a stopover, but those nine months of head coaching experience were invaluable. I felt a little bit ahead of the game when I got to Merrimack.”
That didn’t happen right away, as Dennehy rejoined Cahoon at UMass for five seasons before finally taking the reins at Merrimack for the 2005-06 season. The Warriors hadn’t won more than 16 games in a single winter since joining Hockey East in 1989-90, and success did not come immediately for Dennehy’s new charges, either.
“We originally set our sights low,” he remembered, regarding the expectations. “It was, ‘Let’s make the playoffs.'”
His 2006-07 team scored just 37 goals in 34 games, though, and won just three of those contests. The foundation for future success, however, was slowly but surely being poured into place. The Warriors finally got back into the Hockey East playoff picture in 2009-10, when they pushed Boston University to a decisive third game, but even greater accomplishments were on the near horizon.
“I knew we would get better through recruiting, and we really harped on the guys here making that foundation,” said Dennehy. “You bring in enough good players and the culture will change, and good things will happen.”
Dennehy, who co-earned Hockey East’s Bob Kullen Coach of the Year Award in 2009-10 and is also a two-time New England coach of the year, admitted that he has borrowed a little bit from all the coaches he’s played for or worked with.
“The best coach is a good thief,” he said. “The best part is that you’re constantly growing.”
That growth has been reflected in his players. When Dennehy first got to Merrimack six years ago, his team struggled to score more than one goal per game. By his fourth season, the Warriors led the nation in one-goal games, and last year they tallied 143 goals in all.
“We started to stem the tide, and got some Herculean efforts from some guys,” he said of the early years. “I give them a lot of credit. They worked hard to keep it afloat, and that team worked its tails off.”
Those Warriors players didn’t get to taste the success the program has recently enjoyed, but they did pave the way for those who came after them. That includes skaters like Stephane Da Costa, who signed a professional contract with the Ottawa Senators following two seasons at Merrimack, where he accumulated 91 points and earned a host of accolades.
The cupboard wasn’t exactly left bare at J. Thom Lawler Arena following Da Costa’s departure, however, as Merrimack started off the 2011-12 season with wins against Maine, Army, Northeastern and Connecticut.
“He could be the best I ever coached, but we had a pretty good team,” Dennehy said of Da Costa. “There are enough programs that probably thought that we were Stephane Da Costa and the Seven Dwarves, though, so we’ve still got plenty to prove.”
The Warriors returned Joe Cannata in goal this fall, along with Ryan Flanigan and Jesse Todd up front, and Karl Stollery and Kyle Bigos on defense. Seven freshmen have also made their debuts so far this season.
Something Dennehy can offer his recruits right now is tangible proof of success, and not just hopes for some far-off day. The Warriors have opened the season 6-0 for the first time since 1987-88.
“It’s not storytelling; it’s real,” said Dennehy. “It’s not just talk. We’ve got a track record now, and we’ve got a good base. We’re in a much better place, and guys will come to the program now with good players already in it, and a winning culture.”
That doesn’t mean they’re expecting opponents to simply roll over, based on Merrimack’s recent achievements.
“It’s business as usual,” said Dennehy matter-of-factly. “You can’t get caught up too much, and you do have to focus on the here and now.”
He thanked Merrimack’s administration for its support, particularly president Christopher E. Hopey and athletic director Glen Hofmann. The university recently spent more than $3 million on renovations to Lawler Arena, which opened in 1972.
“Without them, nothing gets done,” said Dennehy. “It really came out nice, and it’s home.”
The summer upheaval in NCAA Division I this year left Hockey East largely unscathed, with Notre Dame’s future admission the only major change so far. Dennehy is looking ahead enthusiastically as the overall hockey landscape prepares to shift in less than two years.
“It’s an exciting time,” said Dennehy, whose contract with Merrimack runs through 2018-19. “We’ll move forward, and the future looks bright as well.”
And it didn’t take very long to get there, either.