ORONO – The “interim” has been removed.
Tim Whitehead, who led the University of Maine Black Bear hockey team to the NCAA championship game Saturday as its interim head coach, was introduced as the third head coach in the program’s modern history at the end of a post-season rally for the team at Alfond Arena on Monday.
The 40-year-old Whitehead had replaced Shawn Walsh when the 18-year Maine coach died of complications from kidney cancer Sept. 24. Walsh and assistant Grant Standbrook had called Whitehead, who had accepted a post as a scout for the Vancouver Canucks of the National Hockey League, and asked him if he would come to Maine and serve as interim head coach in case Walsh had to miss time due to the cancer.
“I’ve said all along that if it was in the program’s best interest for me to be the head coach, I’ll be the head coach,” said Whitehead. “I wasn’t going to be clamoring for the job. If I wasn’t the right guy for the job, I didn’t want it.
“But I love it here and I’m glad I’m the right guy for the job because I really enjoyed it this year,” added Whitehead. “It was very challenging but it was also very enjoyable. There were lots of highs and lows. I learned a lot. I know I’m a better coach than I was at the start of the year and I know I’m going to be a lot better coach next year.
“It’s all about improving and keeping our focus on improving as a team, both players and coaches as well as the program in general. We want to have more seasons like we had this year,” said Whitehead.
The Bears went 26-11-7, including a 15-4-3 mark over their last 22 games that included three NCAA tournament wins before Saturday night’s heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss to Minnesota in the national championship game at St. Paul, Minn.
On Saturday, Maine athletic director Sue Tyler said university officials were in the process of finalizing a search committee and would start the interview process April 17. She said a national search was required by a university system policy.
But Tyler said she received a search waiver that allowed her to offer the job to Whitehead, who has accepted it. Contract terms have yet to be finalized.
“My original thought was that we had to do a complete search process. But I knew there was another option,” said Tyler. “I just didn’t want to get Tim’s hopes up. I didn’t get a chance to work on it [search waiver] until today [Monday].”
University of Maine public affairs director John Diamond said, “The university has a policy that we have to go through a formal search, but in unusual circumstances we can appeal for a waiver.
“This one was a no-brainer. With Tim’s performance and the conditions under which he led this team this year made it clear he would be the best choice for the program. He had the clear support of virtually everybody and it makes little sense to go through the process if he was going to be a candidate because he is as good as we could have possibly hoped for given our situation and his performance,” Diamond added.
Whitehead is a finalist for the Spencer Penrose Award given to the nation’s top Division I coach. It is his third nomination in six years. He had two during his five-year stint as head coach at UMass-Lowell.
Whitehead said he would “love” to have all three assistant coaches back. Standbrook, who also serves as recruiting coordinator, is rumored to be considering retirement and Matt Thomas is a second-year volunteer assistant.
Campbell Blair was hired after Walsh died to become the second paid assistant coach.
“I can’t tell you how fortunate I was to have those three guys working with me,” said Whitehead. “They are all very selfless and that’s what you need. Everyone was totally committed to the team. They put their own egos and opinions aside once a group decision had been made.”
The Maine players were pleased with the news.
“It’s great for us. He led us this far this year and better things are to come,” said junior center Tommy Reimann. “What he has done this year, coming in so late, was pretty unbelievable.”
Junior right winger Gray Shaneberger concurred.
“This is exciting. It is definitely well-deserved. He did a tremendous job,” said Shaneberger. “He’s kind of similar to coach Walsh in that they have a similar knowledge of the game. They focus on the little things. We practice and practice those little things and they lead to wins.”
Senior right winger Niko Dimitrakos said Whitehead’s laid-back style was a departure from Walsh’s fiery presence.
“Obviously, every guy is different,” said Dimitrakos. “Coach Whitehead’s style works. He is a cool, calm, relaxed guy. He doesn’t feel that you have to be all over guys. He knows his Xs and Os, knows what to do in the locker room and how to control his team.”
Whitehead said his team will have two weeks off before returning for spring dry-land training.
He said he considered this season “very rewarding.”
“It was a great experience although we don’t feel that way right now. We’re still bitter about the loss. But, with time, the positives should outweigh the negatives,” said Whitehead, who was 76-95-12 in his five years at UMass-Lowell.
Maine first-year right winger and goal-scoring leader Colin Shields said having a familiar face behind the bench next season is “good for everyone.”
Whitehead said the incoming recruiting class is a good one and the staff hopes to attract a few more players.
The Bears will lose four seniors to graduation: goalies Mike Morrison and Matt Yeats, right winger and leading scorer Dimitrakos, and senior captain and defenseman Peter Metcalf, Maine’s second-leading scorer.
Dimitrakos and Metcalf combined for 101 points.
During the rally, Tyler, UM President Peter Hoff, Friends of Maine Hockey president Betty Donovan, vice president of student government Matthew Gagnon and Walsh’s widow, Lynne, addressed the approximately 500 people at Alfond Arena as did Whitehead and the four seniors on the team.
“It is impossible to show too much love and appreciation for what this team has done,” said Lynne Walsh, whose son Sean Michael stole the show by joining Dimitrakos and Morrison at the podium.
Her sentiments were echoed by the other speakers. The fan support was lauded as was the determination, grit and work ethic of the team.
Metcalf and Dimitrakos were emotional on the podium as they thanked the fans, the coaches and their teammates.
Hoff said, “The last time I spoke on this bare floor, it was Sept. 30 and my heart was filled with a lot of sorrow [at Walsh’s memorial service]. Shawn Walsh was a good friend and a great leader. Now I feel a lot of gratitude. The university is very, very fortunate to have one of the finest hockey programs in the world.”
Several standing ovations were given to the speakers.