ORONO, Maine — Jay Leach was one of the architects behind the University of Maine men’s hockey program’s rise to prominence.
He joined new head coach Shawn Walsh’s staff from Merrimack College in 1984 and helped recruit and coach the Black Bears into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1986-87 and into the Frozen Four the next year before leaving to become an assistant coach for the NHL’s Hartford Whalers.
Now he is returning to the UMaine hockey program and joining recently-named head coach Red Gendron and assistant Ben Guite in an attempt to return the program to national prominence.
The 62-year-old Leach was hired as the school’s associate head coach on Tuesday. He signed a one-year contract that will pay him $90,000, according to Maine athletic director Steve Abbott.
Gendron, who replaced the fired Tim Whitehead on May 28, is pleased to have Leach on board.
“Start with what Jay did for this program in the 1980s,” Gendron said. “He was the architect behind the first teams that took Maine’s program to national prominence.
“I’ve talked to a lot of the guys who played in that era and they said Jay Leach was the biggest reason they came to Maine,” said Gendron. “He brings an aura with him.
“He is personality plus. He is as honest as the day is long,” added Gendron. “He exudes energy all the time and that energy is so helpful in recruiting. He also brings that energy and passion to coaching. He is firm, he knows what he wants out of people but he also wants to make it fun.”
Leach will spend most of his time on the ice at practices and, during games, he will be on the bench with Gendron. Guite will spend more time on the road recruiting but he will also be on the ice for practices and on the bench when he isn’t recruiting.
“I think it’s a helluva’ opportunity, honestly. I think Red proved this year that you don’t have to be a Denver, Boston University or North Dakota to win this thing [NCAA championship],” said Leach, referring to the fact Gendron helped lead Yale University to its first NCAA championship as an assistant coach this past season. “Red is a good coach and he wanted me to come. It’s always nice to be wanted.”
Leach said he was also considering some pro offers and had to be sure the university was going to make a financial commitment to the program to enable them to rebuild it.
“The bottom line is you need those types of things [to succeed] and I think we’re going to get it,” said Leach. “But we also have to do our jobs as coaches. That’s the most important thing right now. We have to work very hard to bring in the right people and to get the fans back. The fans were so important when I was there. Guys I coached in pro hockey who played at schools like Minnesota and North Dakota would always say ‘Wow, that place [Alfond Arena] was unbelievable.
“I wish I could have been a player here,” added Leach who played at the University of New Haven before embarking on a pro career. Younger brother Jon was a member of the first UMaine hockey class (1977-78 to 1980-81).
Gendron said the university is going to provide them with the resources they need.
“I wouldn’t have come here if I thought I was going to be handcuffed,” said Gendron. “President [Paul] Ferguson and athletic director Abbott made it clear they want the hockey program to be successful.
“They want us to be frugal and intelligent with how we spend money and we intend to do that,” added Gendron. “We want to be in the national picture every year.”
Leach loves to coach and said he is excited to work with Gendron and Guite and said the team has to get “bigger and [more] skilled.”
Leach said they will have to find people who are willing to help them out with fundraising and he believes they can return the program to national prominence.
He also said it was important to get the alums from every era involved with the program.
Leach has an extensive coaching background which has included stints as an assistant coach with five NHL teams (Hartford, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Jersey and Washington), a special assignments scout with another (New York Islanders) and head coaching jobs with the AHL’s Springfield Indians and Hershey Bears.
He has also served as an assistant coach for the United States team in the World Championships on five occasions and, over the past two seasons, he was with the Thunder (Ala.) AAA Hockey Club’s Under-18, U-16 and U-15 teams, serving as a mentor and coach.
Leach has lots of ties to Maine and is an outdoorsman who enjoys bird hunting and fly fishing.
His parents, Chuck and Mary, were University of Maine graduates, as were his brother Jon and sister Margaret. His mother, the former Mary Healey, is an Eastport native.
Jay and wife Jeannie have three children, Heather, Chris and McKenzie, and Heather is a UMaine graduate and former Black Bear swimmer.