Commentary: Holy Cross can cast a wide net in search for Pearl’s replacement

Former Massachusetts coach Toot Cahoon (center) will get mentioned in most head coaching vacancies like the one at Holy Cross (photo: Melissa Wade).

In 1996, after two years at the helm of his alma mater’s hockey team, Paul Pearl resigned and took an assistant coaching job at Brown. It was a one-year hiatus, one where Paul Van Buskirk took over and led the team to a 14-13 record before Pearl returned.

Since the 1997-98 season, Pearl has been synonymous with Holy Cross hockey. He built the first power program of the mid-major Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, the predecessor to Atlantic Hockey.

The Crusaders won three league titles under Pearl, good enough for two trips to the national tournament. And he brought the team to its hallmark victory, a 4-3 overtime victory over second-ranked and top-seeded Minnesota in the 2006 West Regional in Grand Forks, N.D.

But with his resignation last week, the Paul Pearl era is officially over. Sources have linked Pearl to the vacant Harvard assistant position under Ted Donato, so Holy Cross athletic director Nathan Pine is tasked with bringing in someone who can help the program rebuild after a one-year dip out of the AHA’s top four.

It will be an interesting hire for Pine. Holy Cross was and is one of the AHA’s power programs. Despite last year’s 14-22-3 record, the Crusaders defeated Boston College. The two years before last season produced back-to-back 20-win records. And of the AHA schools located in the east, perhaps only Army has a more recognizable brand than the Crusaders.

But while Holy Cross is a recognizable brand, the AHA has long been college hockey’s “mid-major conference.” It’s a conference built on coaches invested in their programs — last year’s conference champion Robert Morris has had only one head coach in its program’s history (Derek Schooley), while Mercyhurst, the regular season champion, hired Rick Gotkin before the Lakers’ second year as a team.

With Connecticut’s departure for Hockey East, there hasn’t been an AHA replacement coach since CJ Marottolo took over Sacred Heart before the 2009-10 season. Before that, Dave Smith was the last hire in 2005-06 at Canisius. Ryan Soderquist has been at Bentley as a coach for nearly 15 years, and he’s still the youngest coach in Division I.

So this is an investment hire, one that has to be made with the stability of the program in mind. Holy Cross can’t run into the situation Massachusetts ran into when it was rebuffed by several candidates in the wake of Toot Cahoon’s resignation in 2012.

As a result, we look at some of the names you may hear called for the Holy Cross position as the Crusaders start their search:

Former NCAA head coaches

Don “Toot” Cahoon, former Massachusetts head coach

This is a natural case where the name has to be mentioned. Cahoon nearly retired two years before he resigned at UMass, but he has experience stabilizing programs in disarray. That’s not to say Holy Cross is in disarray, but he stabilized UMass in the wake of Joe Mallen’s firing, then built a winner.

He did go to only one national tournament (aided by future Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick), but Cahoon has a solid reputation. He could be a long shot, and honestly I’m not sure he would want to come back to Holy Cross.

But it could be the right slot in the same way Howard Schnellenberger came back with Florida Atlantic football all those years after leaving Miami. Cahoon’s name always will be mentioned for openings just because of who he is.

Bob Prier, former Princeton head coach

Like Cahoon, Prier is a name that should inevitably come up because he’s an available name who has Division I head coaching experience.

Current assistant coaches

Holy Cross seems like a logical landing spot for career-driven assistants looking for their next level of coaching. As a result, this is the largest crop and the most diverse.

Mark White, Brown associate head coach

Before joining the Brown staff, White spent three years as an assistant under Ryan Soderquist at Bentley. He’s helped take Brown to two ECAC Hockey championship weekends and an appearance in an ECAC championship game. He helped develop a system that’s gone 4-7-5 against a Quinnipiac program that’s won fewer than 20 games only once since 2009-10 (the same year he arrived).

Top to bottom, White is a solid X’s and O’s coach. Two years ago, Brown lost half of its defensive roster to injury yet still managed a 2.33 GAA as a unit with five shutouts. He is an intriguing name because of his AHA ties with Bentley, even if it was only for three years with a five-year separation. At 36, he would be the youngest head coach in college hockey.

As a recruiter, White helped bring guys like Matt Lorito, Mark Naclerio and Dennis Robertson to Brown.

Jerry Keefe, Northeastern assistant coach

Keefe is a name surfacing rather quickly in the rumor mill for this job. The 38-year-old has risen with lightning quickness, spending two years at Massachusetts-Boston, going to Brown for two years, then moving to Northeastern. He’s been successful at all three places. After back-to-back zero-win seasons, he helped lead UMass-Boston to nine and 14 wins. He went to Brown and helped lead the Bears to their first ECAC championship weekend appearance in over 10 years. He left for Northeastern and helped turn the Huskies into a 19-win team that just missed the NCAA tournament last season.

Keefe is also a proven recruiter with loyal ties to his recruits, evidenced with the Roys. He recruited Kevin Roy to Brown, but he maintained the loyalty that helped Roy commit to Northeastern when Keefe departed for Boston. He also helped bring in Michael Szmatula.

Ben Barr, Providence assistant coach

Barr is a former Rensselaer player who has developed a strong pedigree under Nate Leaman. He worked with Leaman as an assistant at Union, building the foundation for that program’s success. And he followed Leaman to Rhode Island to coach at Providence. More recently, he applied for the Lake Superior State job and has ambitions to coach at the Division I level.

His strengths are in coaching special teams and offense, and he serves as a strength and conditioning and video analysis coordinator for the Friars. He could surround himself with the right assistants that could pick up the defense and recruiting sides of things.

Joe Dumais, Union assistant coach

Dumais was instrumental in constructing Union as a school of offensive wizardry. Over his three years, he helped build Union into a top scoring team in the nation, and his work with the special teams helped make the team one of the only ones with both power play and penalty kill in the top 10.

His reputation as a recruiter is becoming more and more known, having worked as a recruiter in the junior ranks with the USHL and for the Dutchmen. He’s been primarily responsible for bringing in a freshman class that helped secure the team’s national title in April.

He has AHA ties, having coached at Connecticut for three years before moving to Union. In his final year in Storrs, the Huskies advanced to the AHA semifinals.

Division III coaches

Since the Division I coaching fraternity is so small, it’s always worth a look at someone trying like heck to crack into it. This group usually will be the most dedicated and hardest working, guys who understand how to invest and build in programs for the long haul. But they’re also the guys who have the steepest learning curve at the Division I level.

Jamie Rice, Babson head coach

Since 2004, Rice has been behind the bench of the Beavers in the ECAC East. He’s won three league titles and led the team last year to a 22-5-2 record, winning both the regular season and postseason crowns. His career .613 win percentage includes nearly 160 victories over a 10-year period.

At Babson, he also had to contend with academic standards and a stingy acceptance rate around 30 percent. That’s a number right around what he could expect at Holy Cross.

He does have Division I ties, having served as an assistant in the ECAC and Hockey East before taking the job at Babson. While the landscape of Division I has changed, it’s worth taking a look at him for the spot.

Matthew Greason, Trinity head coach

It took Greason approximately three years to turn the Bantams from a nine-win team into a power. After going 9-13-2 in his first year, the team steadily increased its win totals over two years, going 21-5 last season to win the regular season NESCAC championship.

A strike against Greason is his lack of experience. Outside of playing at Trinity and spending two years as an assistant coach, he has zero college coaching experience.