At Maine, Gendron finds another challenge he willingly accepts

That thick thatch of snowy white hair atop Dennis Gendron’s head may have been a bright crimson shade when he first started coaching over three decades ago.

Even so, he is still known to all as “Red,” and appropriately so, for the fiery competitive burn in his gut.

Which goes a long way to explaining why Gendron, a 55-year old hockey lifer, would leave behind the tweedy Ivy League life as an assistant coach at Yale for the rigors of a rebuilding project at Maine.

Even if he could rest on his laurels after helping the Bulldogs to their first national championship, he wouldn’t.

That’s just not Red.

“Oh, sure,” he said moments after being introduced as the fourth head coach in Maine’s history. “I could have retired at Yale, barring some unforeseen circumstances. That would have been easy to do. Most people who know me find me to be pretty passionate and unafraid to accept a challenge.”

Gendron is plenty familiar with challenges.

Among the toughest nut to crack will be winning over the hardcore Maine fan base.

It was the clamor emanating from Black Bears Nation for the head of former coach Tim Whitehead, who had taken Maine to a pair of Frozen Four title games during his 12 year tenure, that helped lead to Whitehead’s dismissal in April.

Red Gendron first joined Maine in 1990 as an assistant to Shawn Walsh (photo: Melissa Wade).

Thus, in the wake of last year’s 11-19-8 mark, just the third losing season in Whitehead’s term, the school’s first open search for a head coach since 1984, which netted it the legendary late Shawn Walsh, was set in motion.

Gendron, who was hired after an extensive search, said he is well aware of what the Black Bears mean to the hockey-mad Pine Tree State.

“There’s no place in the East,” he said, “where a whole state is as passionate about a program as the folks in Maine. That’s something that ‘Walshie’ created while he was here. He made it ‘Maine’s Team.’ I understand that. I came into that with eyes wide open.”

Then again, he’s seen that all that passion firsthand.

Plucked out of obscurity back in 1990 from behind a Vermont high school bench by Walsh, Gendron has tasted great success at both college and pro levels.

That includes two national championships — including Maine’s 1993 title — and three Stanley Cup rings from his time as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils.

Along the way, he’s coached in the AHL, the USHL and, before his recent two-year stint at Yale, spent six seasons as an assistant to former Massachusetts coach Don “Toot” Cahoon.

Yet if you ask the Boston-born Gendron, all that success stems from Walsh’s willingness to take a chance on an unheralded high school coach whose desire far outweighed his resume.

“Shawn Walsh always wanted to hire the best people he could find,” said Gendron, who earned his master’s degree during his three-year stay at Maine. “It didn’t matter who you were or what your background was. He just wanted hungry people. I owe him for that. And quite frankly, none of the other magnificent things that have happened to me [since then] would have been possible if I hadn’t parachuted into Orono 23 years ago.

“The place and the people who were there meant a lot to me. My time at Maine [then] will pay huge dividends for what we will be doing [now].”

Gendron’s vision for the Black Bears includes hanging some newly-won banners in the Alfond Arena rafters and producing alums who go on to NHL glory.

In other words, a tap of the refresh button on Maine’s storied past, one that could include a return of semi-retired legendary assistant coach and ace recruiter Grant Standbrook.

“If Grant wants to come back to Maine, Grant can come back to Maine,” Gendron said. “It’s up to him. It’s as simple as that. I will wait for him to decide what he wants to do.”

In the process, Gendron vows, in time, to make the Black Bears well worth the watching, and perhaps even the toughest ticket in the state.

“I don’t know how good we’re going to be as a program,” he said. “But we’re going to be long-term greedy and we’re going to build for the future. We’re going to play fast. We’re going to train to play fast. And that’s it. That’s not something that I invented, that’s for sure. We think it’s a fun way to play. I’ve seen it work. It’s going to be great.”

And you can write that in “Red.”