At some point in the not too distant future, Tim Whitehead once more will climb behind a hockey bench.
At the moment, however, he has something more important in mind, something involving his 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.
“I want to be a full-time dad for a while,” he said when reached by phone Wednesday. “I’m looking forward to that.”
The University of Maine parted ways with Whitehead Tuesday after 12 seasons in Orono, buying out the last 13 months of his contract for $195,000.
“I’m disappointed in the decision but obviously not surprised at all,” said Whitehead, who was hand-picked to succeed his predecessor, Shawn Walsh, after Walsh learned of a cancer diagnosis. “It’s tough on the family. This is all our kids have known, and my mom was born and raised in Portland, so it was nice to have our children grow up here.”
Whitehead said goodbye to his team on Tuesday and spent much of the rest of the day sifting through phone calls, emails and text messages from friends, colleagues and former players.
“My wife (Dena) and I have been overwhelmed with the support,” he said. “The outpouring has been unbelievable. And in the end, that’s what matters most, the relationships we’ve made.”
Maine played in the NCAA tournament seven times in Whitehead’s 12 years, including six in a row during his first six seasons. Declining attendance and a prolonged absence from the national stage were a few of the reasons cited by Athletic Director Steve Abbott for the decision to fire Whitehead.
Abbott is the fifth athletic director at Maine during Whitehead’s tenure, which also included three different university presidents and three chancellors.
“Tim handled everything with class,” Abbott said. “He took it very well. He obviously would have preferred a different resolution, but he was nothing but a gentleman over the course of the discussions as well as all our meetings since the end of the season.”
Whitehead’s final season started slowly, with only two victories in the first 15 games, but the Black Bears surged to a 9-8-6 finish and gave top-seeded UMass-Lowell all it could handle in a best-of-three Hockey East quarterfinal sweep. The River Hawks, who won the regular season and conference tournament, had to come from behind in both games against Maine and will face Yale Thursday afternoon in Pittsburgh for a berth in Saturday night’s national championship.
“We had a great second half and I was really looking forward to coaching this team next year,” Whitehead said. “But I’m very confident regardless that they’re going to have a great run.”
Whitehead said he has heard from several of the nine recruits scheduled to come to Maine in the fall and has encouraged them to come to Orono.
“Likewise for our current players, I’ve encouraged them to stay,” he said. “There’s great things in store for them next year.”
Four seniors from this winter’s team already have signed with professional teams. Joey Diamond is with Bridgeport of the American Hockey League. Kyle Beattie and Mark Nemec finished the season with Orlando of the East Coast Hockey League, and Mike Cornell is with Florida in the ECHL playoffs.
“It’s a great feeling to see these guys go on and succeed,” Whitehead said. “One thing I know for sure is that we left it all on the ice every night and in every practice.”
As for the some of the challenges involved in sustaining a national-caliber program at Maine, where funding is always in short supply, Whitehead deferred.
“This is not the time for me to address those things,” he said. “It would be like shoveling sand against the tide.”
What he did say is that “I fought extremely hard for this program,” and pointed to private fundraising efforts resulting in the construction of the Shawn Walsh Hockey Center in 2005 and the Alfond Arena expansion and renovation in 2012. He also noted with pride the growth and maturity of Walsh’s son, Tyler, a senior who served as a student assistant for three seasons.
“He’s just a wonderful kid,” Whitehead said. “I’m excited for his future.”
As for Whitehead’s future, he’s already received calls about potential coaching jobs.
“My wife and I will evaluate the opportunities we have down the road and go from there,” he said.
Most importantly, it’s been an honor to have coached here at Maine.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: [email protected]