Nate Leaman recalled his introduction to coaching.
He was working toward his master’s degree at the University of Maine and was an assistant coach under Gene Fadrigon at Old Town High School during the 1997-98 season.
“It was a great experience. But I felt bad for the kids. I was a little too intense for that level at that time,” laughed Leaman.
The next year, he was a graduate assistant for the University of Maine’s 1998-99 NCAA championship team.
Leaman learned a lot from the late Shawn Walsh and assistant Grant Standbrook that year and his career has taken off ever since.
After four years as an assistant at Harvard, he took over as the head coach at Union College and, in his eighth season there last year, he led the Dutchmen to their first first-place finish in the ECAC regular season standings and first NCAA Tournament berth.
His Dutchmen set the school record for wins (26) and conference wins (17).
He won the Spencer Penrose Award given to the top men’s Division I coach.
On Friday and Saturday nights, he will return to the Alfond Arena with his new team, the Providence College Friars, for a two-game Hockey East series with the Black Bears.
“It’s always special to come back to Orono,” said Leaman, who brought his Union team to Orono during the 2008-2009 season.
Maine swept Union 3-1, 5-1 but Union returned the favor the following year by sweeping the Bears 4-1, 6-3 at Union (N.Y.).
“I get to see a lot of people I know there and there were a lot of special memories,” said Leaman. “It’s a special place for college hockey.”
He downplayed his Spencer Penrose Award, saying, “It means you have some good players. Good players make a good coach.”
He didn’t have athletic scholarships at Union so he sold his recruits on “opportunity (to play right away) and a very good education.”
He now has a full complement of scholarships (18) at PC.
Walsh’s impact was significant.
“Shawn was special. He was one of the greatest coaches of all time,” said the 38-year-old Leaman. “He got everybody involved and got the most out of his players. He challenged and pushed his players all year long. The same with his coaches. He was relentless in practices (as well as games).”
Leaman has installed a Walsh-like “culture of accountability and high standards” for his players.
“The potential for this program is extremely high,” said Leaman. “They love big-time athletics at Providence and they offer a very good education. I love the support of the school and the students and Providence is a very nice place to live. We’re also in the best league in the country. Things have been great so far. I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
He also said he intends to build a program that will be consistently successful.
“It may take some time to build it the right way but if you build the foundation (properly), you can sustain it,” said Leaman, who was 138-127-35 at Union and owns the record for most coaching wins at the school. “Union should be good for years to come.”
He had winco
His Friars, who will bring a 2-1-1 record (2-0 in Hockey East), are buying into his plan.
“He’s a real good coach. He’s honest,” said senior left wing Andy Balysky. “He’s good for our team. He’s getting the best out of us. He has given us a new energy, a spark in the locker room and around campus. We’re playing a more aggressive style now.”
Senior defenseman Daniel New said Leaman is a great teacher.
“Everybody wants to come to the rink every day,” he said. “We’re excited to go out and play. We have more confidence than we’ve had in a while. It’s fun.”
Maine coach Tim Whitehead considers Leaman a “good friend” and pointed out they used to “compare notes” on opposing teams.
“This is a great opportunity for him and I’m sure he’ll do a great job,” said Whitehead, a Penrose Award winner in 2002.
Leaman and his Friars are looking forward to the series.
“(Alfond Arena) is one of my favorite rinks,” said New. “It’s such a lively environment. It’s always like a playoff weekend up there. You feed off the energy of the crowd.”
“I love going up there,” said Balysky. “The student section is crazy. Even though you’ve got 4,000 people cheering against you, it’s a really fun atmosphere.”
New said his father, Jim, goes to virtually all of his games and, being a New Yorker, he “likes to get away to where it’s quiet and there’s clean air like Maine.”
Since he has younger siblings, New said his mother (Luann) hasn’t been able to make as many games including any in Orono.
“But my dad told my mom that one rink she has to come to is Maine’s so she’s coming this weekend,” said New. “Maine has a good atmosphere for parents to watch a game. It showcases college life.”