University of Maine hockey coach Shawn Walsh, who took over a program that had won just 11 league games the previous three seasons and transformed it into a two-time NCAA champion and perennial title contender, died of complications from kidney cancer at Bangor’s Eastern Maine Medical Center on Monday.
He was 46.
Walsh suffered for 15 months from the disease known as renal cell carcinoma. He had his left kidney and left lung removed, underwent two 20-day immunotherapy treatments at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center in California and had a stem cell transplant in May.
He was admitted to EMMC with pneumonia two weeks ago and had been in the intensive care unit ever since.
Walsh died the day before the first official on-ice practice, a day he always cherished as he began the task of trying to lead his team to an NCAA title.
It was also a beautiful, sun-splashed Indian summer day, the kind of day Walsh would have loved to spend on the golf course unless there were hockey matters to attend to.
During his 17 seasons at Maine, Walsh led his Bears to 11 NCAA tournament appearances, including seven Frozen Fours and NCAA titles in 1992-93 and 1998-99. He compiled a 20-13 record in NCAA play.
He registered a career record of 399-215-44. His 399 wins rank him 11th among active coaches and 19th among all-time coaches.
He was suspended for a year for his role in NCAA violations that also resulted in a loss of scholarships and a two-year ban from NCAA play. Walsh took a job in the business sector, working for Chris Hutchins’ Alternative Energy Inc. in Bangor.
Walsh counted the days until his return to the Bears bench, according to Bangor’s Alan Miller, one of his closest friends.
“He would mark his calendar, crossing off one day at a time. He would tell me he had 220 days before he was coaching again. He was like a kid waiting for Christmas,” said Miller. “He never lamented or blamed anybody during that period.”
A testament to his coaching took place in 1999 when he guided his Bears to the NCAA title with just 16 scholarships, two fewer than allowed under NCAA guidelines. That was the final year of the NCAA scholarship sanctions for NCAA violations.
“He was considered, no questions asked, one of the best coaches in the country,” said nine-year New York Rangers scout Bob Crocker. “He was as good as it gets at the college level. His record bears it out. His presence will be greatly missed. There aren’t many Shawn Walshes in this life. This is a great shock. It’s so sad.”
Three men who played pivotal roles in Maine’s success under Walsh – goalies Scott King and Garth Snow, and center Mario Thyer – were also mourning his loss.
“He continues to have a positive impact on me,” said King, who is in his last year of orthopedic surgery residency. “He had this way of getting things out of people they didn’t know they had, things nobody else could have [gotten].
“He knew people on a person-by-person basis and knew what buttons needed to be pushed to get those extra things out of them,” added King, who had a brief stint with the Detroit Red Wings.
King said Walsh taught him the importance of “setting goals and identifying what had to be done to achieve them. His [thorough] preparation was unmatched.”
Garth Snow, who has played in 241 National Hockey League games and is currently tending net for the New York Islanders, said, “I owe everything I have ever accomplished in my field to him.
“I would not have had the career I’ve had without his guidance, for sure. One, he convinced me to come to Maine. Two, he helped me turn my hockey career and personal life around 180 degrees. His preparation and communication skills were second to none.”
Snow pointed out that Walsh was more than just a top-notch coach.
“One of my brothers [Glenn] has leukemia and Shawn was the first one to help him and my family through it. He called Glenn and let him know what he was in store for,” added Snow. “I would call Shawn to ask him how he was doing but he wouldn’t let me get a word in edgewise. He’d ask about my brother and how my career was going. He always worried about everybody else first.”
Thyer, who also made a short stop in the NHL for the Minnesota North Stars (now the Dallas Stars), not only played for Walsh but coached under him for two years.
“He always looked to bring out the best in people and I don’t know anyone who was more positive than he was,” said Thyer. “He brought so much to the program and to the whole state. He was a very smart man. And he was always very good to me.”
Walsh, an innovative workaholic, was also remembered by the state’s politicians.
“He was an outstanding coach, an integral part of the University of Maine community and an inspiration to a generation of Mainers,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe. “Over the past 15 years, Coach Walsh built up the University of Maine hockey program from a regional contender to a national powerhouse. He embodied the type of ‘can-do’ spirit he looked for in his players and, through his leadership, determination and hard work, built the finest team in the nation.”
U.S. Rep. John Baldacci said, “Shawn has been an inspiration to everyone lucky enough to know him. I’ll remember watching Shawn motivate and rally his players in the locker room and think about how much he meant to those young men. I’ll recall his determination during games, knowing that his spirit and confidence often made the difference.”
One of the people who knew him best was his mentor, Michigan State coach Ron Mason.
Walsh was Mason’s third-string goalie at Bowling Green State University (Ohio) and eventually coached under Mason at Bowling Green and Michigan State before coming to Maine on April 19, 1984.
Mason is Walsh’s former father-in-law and the grandfather of two of Walsh’s sons, 10-year-old Tyler and 8-year-old Travis.
Walsh, a native of White Plains, N.Y., had been married to Mason’s daughter Tracey.
He married Lynne Vickery three years ago and has a 2-year-old son, Sean, and a step-daughter Alejandra.
“Intellectually, he was second to none when it came to organization,” said Mason. “He always did things professionally. He was huge in the college hockey world, not just as the head coach at Maine. He was a past president of the American Hockey Coaches Association and did a super job as he did with whatever he put his mind to.”
Mason added that Walsh “had some amazing sides to him.
“He could be as cocky and as brash and as much a know-it-all as anybody I know. On the other side, he was so kind. He had such a big heart,” said Mason.
Walsh, a tireless recruiter, was always a fierce competitor who insisted that his players be accountable for their performance and actions. In addition to Maine’s success, the Bears have also been one of the least-penalized teams in Hockey East as a result of Walsh’s insistence that his players be disciplined.
Maine has had the lowest or second-lowest penalty minute total in Hockey East five times over the past seven seasons.
The fifth of nine children raised by Charles and Millie Walsh brought a basic philosophy to Orono and cultivated it over the years.
Four phrases he listed on the blackboard in the Maine locker room in his first season on the job were: 1. Hard work. 2. First class. 3. Mentally strong. and 4. Togetherness.
His teams have adhered to those philosophies as his teams have gained a reputation as one of the hardest-working teams in the country and one of the stingiest to score against.
Maine has had the lowest or second-lowest goals-against total five times over the last six years.
He has occasionally incurred the wrath of referees and fellow coaches for his volatility and outspoken nature but he was also highly respected.
“He is like the Jimmy V. of our sport,” said Mason, referring to former North Carolina State basketball coach Jimmy Valvano, who also died of cancer and won an NCAA championship.
Mason and Miller also told of sharing many enjoyable moments socializing with Walsh.
“It wouldn’t matter if you were on a golf course or having a few beers with him, he was a lot of fun to be around,” said Mason, who also considered Walsh a loving and conscientious father.
“Some of the best times I ever remember were with Shawn and our group of friends,” said Miller. “He was a master organizer who could organize two or three foursomes to play golf with on a moment’s notice.
“He was the ultimate organizer and friend,” added Miller.
Walsh produced 35 NHL players and two Hobey Baker Award winners: Boston Bruins center Scott Pellerin (1992) and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim right winger Paul Kariya.
Kariya’s brothers, Steve and Marty, followed him to Maine. Steve is currently with the Vancouver Canucks while Marty is a junior and assistant captain on this year’s Maine team.
“I am deeply saddened by the loss of my university coach Shawn Walsh,” said Paul Kariya. “Coach Walsh has had a tremendous impact on my life, as well as the lives of my brothers, in our development as hockey players and young men.
“Shawn had a great passion for the game of hockey and he battled his illness with the same courage, intensity and determination,” added the eldest Kariya.
Pellerin said he “definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without going to Maine and having Shawn’s influence on my career. Everybody played with emotion and passion because that’s the way he tackled his job and his life. It was contagious.”
The current Maine players released a message that read: “Coach Walsh is so much more than just a coach to us. He is a father figure to 33 guys on this team. He will be greatly missed by all of us. His passion for the game and life will burn inside us every day.
“He never gave up on any player. He was always there for you and none of us will ever forget that. He taught us more than hockey. As much as he worked with you to make you a better player, he worked even harder to help you become a better person. He has touched so many people in his life, and no one that has ever met him will ever forget what he brought into their lives.”
Former Maine hockey assistant coach Tim Whitehead, who spent the past five seasons as the head coach at UMass-Lowell and returned last month to Maine to become an assistant coach in the program, will be the interim head coach.
Funeral arrangements for Walsh have yet to be determined.