ORONO – Dozens of male and female hockey players hurry down the stairs each day. Busy with their thoughts, many never glance at the portrait overlooking the staircase.
Tyler Walsh does, his eyes speaking to the man on the wall. He didn’t return to the University of Maine last year to find his father, he says. In one sense he’s right. Walsh came back to campus to get his degree in business and learn the business of coaching hockey.
In another sense, and in his own understated way, he has brought Shawn Walsh back to life for those who knew him best.
“It’s incredible,” said Alan Miller, a Bangor finanical adviser and perhaps Shawn Walsh’s closest personal friend. “When Tyler talks I can hear Shawn in his voice, right down to the pitch. In many ways he’s so like his father.
“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years since I last spoke with Shawn.”
Shawn Walsh died on Sept. 26, 2001, from renal cell carcinoma that spread from kidneys to lungs. Tyler was just 10 years old and the eldest son. His parents had divorced five years earlier. Tracey Mason Walsh took Tyler and his younger brother Travis with her to Michigan, where she grew up. Tyler and Travis spent summers and every other Christmas back in Maine.
“It’s always felt like home here,” said Tyler Walsh. “My brother and I would say that all the time, no matter how long we’d been away.”
They were sons of the man who became one of college hockey’s best coaches and greatest agitators. Walsh-coached teams won the national championship in 1993 when Tyler was 2 and again in 1999. Life with Shawn Walsh on the ice or in his living room was anything but dull.
“I’ve probably heard a thousand stories,” said Tyler Walsh. Sometimes competing sides to the same story. He has met people who loved his father and Maine hockey’s success, and he has met those who didn’t like the way Shawn Walsh used people or how he challenged them. The man was a polarizing character.
“Whether they liked my father or not, people say they respected him. To be respected like he was has meant a lot to me.”
Walsh transferred to Maine after two years at Michigan State, where his grandfather also coached hockey. Ron Mason was a coaching god at Michigan State, the winningest coach in college hockey. Through his father and grandfather, Tyler Walsh caught the fever. He wants to coach hockey. After feeling he wasn’t learning quickly enough at Michigan State, Walsh emailed Maine Coach Tim Whitehead.
I want to learn, wrote Walsh. Will you help? Whitehead opened the door. Walsh joined the team last year as a manager and videographer. He has sat with the Maine coaching staff as it breaks down the video he shoots. He’s been given access to listening in on staff meetings he couldn’t get at Michigan State.
Whitehead sometimes does a double-take when he glances at Tyler. “The physical similarities are striking,” said Whitehead. “So is his drive for interacting with people. He gets energized by that. Shawn was the same way.”
Five years ago, Walsh said, he didn’t think he could have come back to campus and take on the memories of his father. Now he’s glad he did. Returning to Maine also has given him more opportunities to visit Lynne Walsh, his father’s second wife, and his stepbrother, 11-year-old Sean Michael.
Wednesday, Tyler Walsh sat in the Alfond Family Lounge at the Shawn Walsh Hockey Center, talking about his dreams and the father he’s getting to know even better. Tyler Walsh is a get-to-the-point talker with an easy smile and a quick way of connecting with people around him.
Last year he learned Ted Alfond was visiting the hockey center. Tyler Walsh asked if he could introduce himself to the son of Harold Alfond, the benefactor who stood with Shawn Walsh during the coach’s suspension for NCAA infractions. Soon the two sons were shaking hands.
At about 5-foot-8, Tyler Walsh is shorter than his dad. It’s the same face, the same steady gaze, the same crown of thick, dark hair. Of the 20 cousins on his father’s side, Tyler is the most sensitive, said Kevin Walsh, Shawn’s youngest brother. Some 10 years ago, Kevin Walsh donated the stem cells he prayed would save his brother’s life. Tyler Walsh spent the three months of his summer vacation with his Uncle Kevin. They had long, deep conversations about his father.
“He’s coming of age,” said Kevin Walsh from his Virginia home. “He’s at the point where you want to hear the stories.
“Tyler has the compassion Shawn never showed. Shawn had that edge to his personality. Tyler doesn’t. He puts others first. But he’s got his father’s toughness.” Make no mistake.
“I have three daughters,” said Kevin Walsh. His oldest is 11. “This summer I got the son I wanted. Tyler has taken pieces from all of his family on both sides. He’s his own person but you can’t argue the DNA. He is Shawn’s son.”
This summer, Tyler revealed the tattoo over his heart to his uncle. It’s the shamrock that became so identified with his father. Kevin Walsh is thinking of getting his own.
Today, Tyler has plans to spend time with Alan Miller high in the sky in eastern Maine. Miller is a pilot with his own two-seat plane. The two have not seen each other in several years. Miller has no doubts the conversation and the questions will turn to Shawn Walsh.
“I’ve got stories,” laughs Miller. “Stories I couldn’t tell a boy of 10.”
Stories that can be told to a man. It’s been 10 years of healing and not forgetting.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: