ORONO, Maine — University of Maine men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead’s players believe in him and he believes in his players.
But the Alfond Arena faithful have been understandably restless.
The bar had been set high for the University of Maine’s men’s hockey team.
After six Frozen Four appearances during a string of nine consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, the Black Bears fell on hard times.
Entering this season, they had missed the NCAA Tournament for four straight seasons and had qualified for the Hockey East semis just once in five years.
But for the time being, Whitehead has silenced his critics after leading the Black Bears to a 23-13-3 season and a berth in the NCAA Tournament’s Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass. where they will face defending national champ Minnesota-Duluth at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Maine athletic director Steve Abbott didn’t say Whitehead’s job was on the line this season but didn’t deny that his performance was being scrutinized, particularly after the 3-6-1 start.
“It was a very important year for the hockey program,” said Abbott, who had Whitehead under contract for two more years after this season. “It wasn’t going in the direction we wanted it to go in. For all of us who love Maine hockey, there have been some challenges the last few years. There were some unfortunate breaks and unfortunate times and the team didn’t perform how we wanted it to.
“But Tim has remained determined and resolute through all those challenges and I can’t emphasize enough how great it is not only for the hockey team but for the whole university to have this kind of season,” added Abbott.
Abbott said he was “very proud” of the way Whitehead dealt with the situation.
“He concentrated on the job at hand and didn’t let any of the criticism affect his belief in the team and in what he was doing with the team. That proved to be a key thing,” said Abbott. “He and his staff hung together through some tough times and the players responded to that.”
Abbott was particularly impressed with the way the team rebounded from its 3-6-1 start to go 20-7-2 the rest of the way and reach the Hockey East championship game and the NCAA Tournament.
“They struggled early on but rallied together and made a remarkable transformation over the course of the season to become one of the best teams in the country,” said Abbott, who has been pleased with the team’s off-ice performance, including a 3.31 grade-point average for the team this past fall.
Whitehead said he didn’t get wrapped up in the negative undercurrent.
“Every day I wake up, I have something to prove,” said Whitehead. “That’s the way I’ve always attacked it. That’s never going to change. I’m going to continue to fight and work hard for this program. That’s what I expect of myself, my coaches and my players.
“There are some things that are out of your control and you do your best not to spend time worrying about those things,” added Whitehead. “You focus on the guys in the locker room and do everything you can to instill pride in your team. You want them to keep fighting and keep rising up. It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how you bounce back up.”
Despite Whitehead’s success, the shadow of late coach Shawn Walsh still looms and with it the criticism Whitehead receives from some while being compared to Walsh, who guided Maine to two national titles.
Peter Metcalf captained the 2001-2002 team that reached the NCAA final. It was Whitehead’s first season after Walsh died due to complications from kidney cancer.
“Tim has done a good job,” said Metcalf. “He’s a better Xs and Os coach than coach Walsh was but coach Walsh had the upper hand as a motivator. Tim is one of the smartest coaches I’ve ever played for. And he’s a really nice guy.”
Metcalf said Maine fans got used to Walsh’s charismatic and fiery style and the fact it produced two NCAA titles.
But he said not every successful coach has Walsh’s intense personality.
Maine senior defenseman and co-captain Will O’Neill was more than happy to give an assessment of Whitehead.
“I’m glad you asked me that,” he said. “He has done an absolutely tremendous job. After losing all the players we lost off last year’s team and not having a great start, he turned it on like I’ve never seen before. He watched so much extra video and he picked up every single minor detail. We became so predictable for each other.”
Senior defenseman Ryan Hegarty called Whitehead a “great coach.”
“The people who don’t think he’s the right man for the job really don’t matter, to be honest,” said Hegarty. “The guys who truly believe in him are us, the coaching staff and the athletic director. He works very hard. He’s intense although people may not see that. He’s intense in practice. We do a lot of battle drills because he wants us to compete and work hard. He brings out the best in us. He and the other coaches do a phenomenal job preparing the game plan every week.”
Whitehead considers himself a work in progress.
“Coaches, like teachers, have to constantly work at improving,” said Whitehead.
Whitehead had an NCAA-caliber team last year but it failed to make the NCAA Tournament for a variety of reasons including young, subpar goaltending and injuries. Just six players played in all 36 games.
“We’ve made a lot of adjustments to our training. We have done a lot more stretching this season and a lot more balance-oriented exercises,” said Whitehead, who credited strength and conditioning coach Terry O’Neill for his role in the regimen change. “We’ve limited our contact in practice to some extent but we practice hard. During our dry land training in September, we eliminated a lot of our games like basketball, soccer and frisbee. We stuck to things less likely to create ankle and knee injuries.”
This year, Joey Diamond missed two games because of a bruised hip, Brice O’Connor missed two with a concussion and Spencer Abbott has missed one with a head injury and could be out again this weekend.
Sullivan has provided consistently solid goaltending that had been missing and Whitehead has stressed mental toughness.
“We don’t make any excuses and we don’t let people make excuses for us,” said Whitehead.