ORONO, Maine — They were goalies and former University of Maine men’s hockey teammates, and they have spent the past 17 seasons coaching together.
But this will be their last as Orono High School hockey coach Greg Hirsch and 16-year assistant Blair Marsh will step down after this season.
Hirsch has won two Eastern Maine Class B championships and led his Red Riot teams to five Eastern Maine championship berths in his 18 years.
Marsh joined him in his second season as the head coach.
Chris Thurlow, the other assistant, is also leaving after the season.
“It seemed like the right time to do it,” said Hirsch. “The past few years, Blair and I hemmed and hawed about how much longer we wanted to do this.”
“We have 12 seniors so we figured let’s go out with these guys. The decision felt right for us,” added the 40-year-old Hirsch. “After 19 winters of coaching, it’s time to take a step back and catch a breather … enjoy winter a little … maybe take a vacation.
“My son [Jake] is 9 now and is involved in hockey at the squirt level. And my daughter, Alexa, is an eighth-grader. I’ll be able to spend more time with them and my wife [Kristen].”
“The timing felt good,” agreed the 41-year-old Marsh. “We eventually wanted to move on with our own kids.”
Marsh has two daughters — Cassidy, 17, and Ashlynn, 2 — and a son, Caleb, 14.
“The weird thing is between coaching and doing radio [for University of Maine broadcasts] for seven years, I’ve never had a winter off from hockey,” said Marsh.
“Greg and Blair have been a great combination,” said Orono athletic director Mike Archer.
“It has been a great run. Both of them had their expertise in goaltending, but they have grown as coaches and learned to appreciate the whole game,” said Archer. “They have been through a lot together and they have been able to handle all kinds of different situations. They’ve been at the top, in the middle and at the bottom [of the Heal Points standings] and they’ve always done a fantastic job.”
Hirsch and Marsh will take fond memories with them.
“It’s been an amazing ride,” said Hirsch. “We’ve had some tremendous kids come through the program. We’ve been able to impact their lives, not only as players but as people. I’ll miss those times.”
“I’ve had a great time,” said Marsh. “We’ve had some great talent over the years. We had a lot of success early, we’ve had some tough years recently, but this group of kids made the playoffs last year and should be competitive again this year. It’s a nice way to go out.”
“Our expectations are a lot higher this year,” said Hirsch. “We know we have a great corps of returning players.”
Hirsch said coaching has been life-changing.
“Once you’ve finished your playing career, a lot of athletes find it scary,” said Hirsch, who was a five-year student at Maine after redshirting his freshman year. “They’ve done something their whole lives and then realize that it’s over. They scramble to fill the void. I was fortunate I had the opportunity to coach at Orono while I was still in college. I was looking for a way to stay in the game and to get me through the long winters.”
He credited former Maine assistant Grant Standbrook and late head coach Shawn Walsh with being a “tremendous support [system] for me. I would bounce ideas off them. They really helped me grow as a coach.”
Hirsch and Marsh both said Orono’s 3-2 triple-overtime win over three-time defending state champ Winslow in the 1999 Eastern Maine Class B final looms as the highlight.
“That was the most exciting game I’ve ever been a part of at the high school level,” said Hirsch. “It was full of two-on-ones and scoring opportunities both ways.”
Orono outshot Winslow 61-43.
Marsh said it is going to seem strange not being with Hirsch as a teammate or a coaching partner after a run of over 20 years.
“In the future, you may see us back doing something together,” said Marsh.
Hirsch quipped that the two of them have developed a similar coaching mindset over the years.
“I would see something [I would want to correct] in practice but just before I would blow my whistle, Blair would blow his and point out the same thing,” quipped Hirsch. “I’ve been fortunate to have great assistants during my time at Orono and the administration and the boosters have been tremendous.”
Both coaches did express their concern with the future of the Orono High program.
“We have 17 players and 12 are seniors,” said Hirsch. “They may have only 10-11 kids next year and it’s tough to run a practice that way.”
Archer said they will continue to explore merging with Old Town High School in the future due to the projected low numbers.
“The numbers [of players] are dropping [at all levels],” said Archer, who feels the tough economy is primarily to blame.
“Hockey is an expensive sport,” added Archer. “I’m going to have to contact [Old Town’s] administration sometime this winter about it. If we want our kids to have the opportunity to play hockey, we’re going to have to think about consolidation even if it means we have to go up to Class A.”
Bangor hockey staff revamped
The Bangor High School hockey team will have a revamped coaching staff.
Denis Collins returns for his third season as the head coach, but former assistants Matt Stairs and Dave McMahon have departed and will be replaced by the Hersom brothers, Jack and Mike, who recently concluded their first seasons as assistant football coaches at Bangor High.
Quinn Paradis and Jon Kotredes will also return.
Kotredes, who is an athletic trainer, coached two years ago but missed last year due to a training assignment.
Former major league baseball player Stairs, who is also an in-studio baseball analyst on Boston Red Sox broadcasts for the New England Sports Network, has returned to his native New Brunswick where he is coaching the Fredericton High School hockey team.
McMahon, who is also an assistant for the Bangor High School girls soccer team, simply chose not to return, according to Collins.
Collins said his staff is “very supportive” and he is enjoying working with them.
Bapst hosting tourney Saturday
The John Bapst High School hockey boosters are hosting a preseason tournament at Sawyer Arena in Bangor this weekend.
Games will start at 7:20 a.m. and continue until 8 p.m.
Joining John Bapst in the tournament will be the Brewer, Camden Hills of Rockport, Houlton-Hodgdon, Presque Isle and the Bangor JVs.
Admission is $5.