He is at once a mentor and a symbol, a source of fond memories and an inspiration, a coach … and a ghost.
Look on the oversized scoreboard at the Xcel Energy Center, and you see him. Watch ESPN and you see him. Listen to players and opponents and even his successor, interim University of Maine hockey coach Tim Whitehead, and you hear about him.
He is Shawn Walsh. And here in St. Paul, Minn., site of the Frozen Four, it seems he is everywhere.
The Black Bears are back in the national championship game, you know. They’ll face Minnesota tonight. Tim Whitehead will be behind the bench. And still, everybody is talking about Walsh. Sports Illustrated. ESPN. All of them.
The story is a classic tragedy. Popular coach succumbs to cancer. Team struggles. Rallies. Chases a dream. Wins? Loses? The final chapter, of course, has yet to be written.
The story is so convenient, everyone writes it. It’s so implausible, not many believe it. … not really. But the script keeps getting longer. The Black Bears keep following it. And you begin to wonder.
With a child at her feet and a flock of reporters waiting for the chance to ask her … one more time … about her late husband, Lynne Walsh stands in a corridor and beams.
Two-year-old Sean Michael Walsh wields a hockey stick and flails it back and forth at her feet, making grown men look for cover.
You try to be graceful, and sensitive, and still ask the question that you figure needs an answer.
Is the media making this all up? Are we creating a story where there isn’t one? Is all this talk of the mystical and the spiritual just a bunch of reporters looking for an angle?
Lynne Walsh, graceful despite the endless questions that make her deal, again and again, with the fact that the man she loves is no longer with her, smiles. Then she tells you she has wondered the same thing.
“I guess in my mind, I was thinking to myself, ‘You know, Shawn was such a wheeler and a dealer. He loved to make bargains and everything,” she says.
“I was wondering if maybe on the way up to heaven he was kind of like making these deals with God, or something. You know? ‘I’ll give you this if you give me that,’ or something.”
If you give my team another national title …
She turns her attention to Sean Michael, who is performing the kind of stickwork for which the Black Bears would earn a two-minute vacation, and gently chides him.
“Just be careful, she says. “See this man walking behind you, honey?”
Sean Michael does, but keeps on flailing. Lynne Walsh smiles. Her son is stubborn, just like his dad. And fun-loving … just like her husband.
Sean Michael has 25 surrogate fathers now, and all of them are changing out of sweaty uniforms just a few feet from where he stands. He was in the dressing room just minutes before, entertaining the Bears by slapping a roll of athletic tape around.
Would he have done that if Shawn Walsh were around? Perhaps. But the players’ reaction? That would have been different.
All of that changed back on Sept. 24, when the longtime UMaine coach died.
Players struggled and coped and grew up a bit more. And some reached out more than others.
Like Mike Morrison. He’s the UMaine goalie Walsh always managed to bench when the postseason rolled around. And he’s one of the players who’ve taken a special place in Sean Michael’s life.
“We looked at the whole Sean Michael situation and felt bad that he didn’t have that big brother or father figure any more,” Morrison says. ‘We kind of wanted to be that in his life, and keep a smile on his face.”
On Thursday, Morrison was a star. But on Tuesday, as the Bears prepared to fly to Minnesota, he played another key role.
Morrison, who sat on the bench back in 1999, when the Bears won their last national title, played his teammates a videotape he’d made during that Frozen Four. Behind the scenes. Candid. Pregame. Postgame. Everything.
And of course, Shawn Walsh was the star.
Morrison remembers the theme that stands out.
“He said this before the game: ‘If we win this game, and if we win this championship, no one will ever take that away from you. And together we’ll walk forever,” Morrison says.
“That was the line he said. Together, we’ll walk forever. That was it.”
The video, Morrison said, is safe: Even though it was mentioned on ESPN’s broadcast, it wasn’t shown. He left it in Orono.
“It’s private,” he says, explaining that his former coach was always a “top-secret” kind of guy.
It was special to me. And I’m glad I get to keep my hands on it.”
There is one more copy, though. Morrison took the original to Lynne Walsh earlier this year, and she copied it herself.
She sat and watched as her husband spoke to a team that’s chasing the same dream as this year’s crop of Bears.
But that was another team. Another time. Another coach.
Maybe. Or perhaps there really is something else at work here. Perhaps the old wheeler-dealer did find a way to make one last bargain.
“I feel like Shawn is here,” Lynne Walsh said Thursday.
She said she made that realization when she walked into Xcel Energy Center for the semifinal game and realized the beautiful new facility was her husband’s kind of place.
“I had a moment when I started thinking to myself, and I started feeling sad, and thinking, ‘God, I wish he was here with me,”‘ she says. “And it’s like I had this voice that said, ‘I am here.”‘
Lynne Walsh pauses and swallows hard as her eyes grow moist. Then she smiles.
“So, I think he is,” she says. “I think he is.”
John Holyoke is a NEWS sportswriter. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 990-8214.