‘It’s the unexpected that you worry about,” Tim Whitehead once said. “But you can’t plan for that, can you?”
The man who was the perfect choice to replace a dying Shawn Walsh behind the University of Maine hockey bench became by the end of a 12-year tenure the imperfect coach. Whitehead was relieved of his duties Tuesday. The university will buy out the remaining year of a four-year contract extension, using private money instead of your tax dollars.
That’s $195,000 plus one month’s salary to make Whitehead go away immediately. When push comes to shove there are no graceful exits, although in prepared statements Maine and Whitehead took the high road. A message left at Whitehead’s home was not returned by late Tuesday evening.
Not that there were many more questions to ask of a very decent man who had become a polarizing figure. You either looked at Maine’s inability to win another national championship and wanted Whitehead gone, or weighed the seven NCAA appearances, four Frozen Four trips and two championship games, and believed he deserved another chance.
You either applauded the team’s resilience in reaching the NCAA tournament in 2012 or criticized Whitehead for not taking his team deeper into the playoffs. Maine lost in the regional to Minnesota-Duluth.
Hours before the game, Whitehead didn’t know if a doctor would clear leading scorer Spencer Abbott, who suffered a concussion in the Hockey East tournament. Abbott played.
You loved Whitehead for his understanding and compassion in guiding Maine in the weeks and months after Walsh’s funeral. Maine made it to the championship game at the Frozen Four in St. Paul, Minn. Whitehead was the interim coach with Shawn Walsh’s name on the hockey sweater hanging behind the team bench at games. Walsh’s initials were on the players’ sleeves and Walsh’s words were still burned into the back of their minds.
With help from senior captain Peter Metcalf in particular, Whitehead made the transition work. But to some of Maine’s most fervent fans he would always be the interim coach, even when the university signed him to his first multiyear contract.
Whitehead understood that, too. “What’s the saying? You want to be the guy who follows the guy who followed the successful coach. I’m the guy following the successful coach who passed away.”
It didn’t matter to some of the loyalists that Whitehead was hand-picked by Walsh. It was a temporary assignment, I kept hearing. How they knew was another matter.
Whitehead is a perceptive, intelligent man. His dismissal should not have been unexpected. In the prepared statement, Athletic Director Steve Abbott laid the woes of this year’s 11-19-8 season and the previous four seasons at Whitehead’s feet.
“This is about our marquee program,” said Abbott. “Since 2008, UMaine has experienced declining Hockey East success, season ticket sales and overall ticket revenues, and waning student engagement in men’s ice hockey.”
You can’t refute that, no matter how often Whitehead dealt with injured players and premature defections to pro hockey. The problem of perception is always the hardest to overcome and Whitehead cultivated few allies to help him escape Walsh’s shadow. He stood on his record and his character. The record went south; the character didn’t.
Although Whitehead’s handling of Joey Diamond in the games that counted most at the end of this season was troubling. Diamond played undisciplined, selfish hockey in the series with New Hampshire and then UMass-Lowell, and Whitehead didn’t sit him down. I understand loyalty and Diamond’s contributions to the program and don’t know what was said or not said between head coach and senior captain.
But Diamond’s on-ice behavior was a terrible way to end a good college career. Was it a tipping point? Maybe not.
Funny, but after Maine tied favored New Hampshire to end the regular season, after beating the Wildcats the day before, a young writer for a college hockey website said Whitehead would get his vote for Coach of the Year. Look at where Maine had started the season, he said. Look at the improvement.
I had to smile. Different place, different perspective.
Yes, there’s cheering today. Whitehead is gone. His successor? You don’t have to listen closely to hear Jim Montgomery’s name, the hero of Maine’s 1993 national championship. He scored three straight goals in the third period on passes from Paul Kariya to pull Maine back from defeat. He moved into coaching after his playing career in pro hockey was done. Shawn Walsh in another man’s body, say those doing the cheering.
Good luck to Montgomery. Good luck to anyone who gets the job. Good luck to Whitehead. He deserves to find another head coaching job where the fit will be better.
More than 10 years ago I asked if he was able to sleep before Maine’s game against Harvard in the NCAA playoffs. He had slept well, he said. It’s the unexpected that you worry about.
Maine won that day.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at firstname.lastname@example.org