University of Maine associate head coach Jay Leach is no stranger when it comes to building or rebuilding a hockey team.
He spent four years as an assistant under the late Shawn Walsh from 1984 to 1988, helping turn the University of Maine Black Bears from an 11-win team to a Frozen Four team during that short period of time.
He then moved on to pro hockey where he spent 22 seasons working for the Hartford Whalers, New York Islanders, Los Angeles Kings, Atlanta Thrashers, New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals. He was an assistant coach and also served as a head coach with American Hockey League teams in Springfield and Hershey.
Now he is back in college hockey and is trying to help head coach Red Gendron return the Black Bears to prominence after missing the NCAA Tournament five times over the past six years under former head coach Tim Whitehead, who was fired in April.
Leach is having a good time in his return to Maine.
“It has been a little bit of a learning curve. But I really enjoy working with the kids,” said the 62-year-old Leach, who returned to Maine after working with the Atlanta-based Thunder AAA Hockey Under-18, U-16 and U-15 programs. “There’s no question that they want to learn. They’re looking for anything that can help them. They’re serious about what they’re doing. They’re respectful. They’ll come here in the morning to work on skills and if they have some time between classes, they’ll come down here, put their stuff on and go out on the ice.
“They’ve bought into the system. They execute as well as they can. If they don’t, they hear about it,” said Leach.
He said the coaches have been satisfied with the team’s 7-6-1 start but added that there is a long way to go.
“They’ve played well. But they can get better. They can take another step. They haven’t reached the high water mark yet,” said Leach, whose younger brother Jon was in the first hockey class at Maine from 1977 to 1981. “As they get better individually, they’ll help the team more.”
He said the team has “let some games get away.”
“We should have won the first game at Vermont [3-2 loss]. We have to learn how to win on the road. And that will happen,” said Leach, referring to Maine’s 0-5-1 road record.
Maine is 7-1 at home.
Leach said it has been awesome working with Gendron and fellow assistants Ben Guite and Ray Jean and they have created a “family environment” for the team.
The college game has changed noticeably over the past 25 years, he added.
“The coaching has stepped up. Everybody has good coaches. You’re making more adjustments during the course of a game like they do all the time in basketball and football. Before, the main thing was sticking to your systems. That was archaic when you think about it,” said Leach.
He also said there is more parity in college hockey and players are “more focused.”
“They have a better understanding of what they have to do to improve,” said Leach. “You have more kids who can skate, shoot and handle the puck a little bit.”
Leach also noted that hockey has grown dramatically, nontraditional hockey states such as California are turning out some top prospects, and there is more media exposure.
“Hockey is a bigger part of the sports universe than it ever was,” he said.