ORONO – The eyes are blue. The thick hair and mustache are white. The name is Red.
Twenty years after he rode a bus filled with triumphant hockey players carrying an NCAA championship plaque from Bangor International Airport to a jam-packed Alfond Arena for a delirious reception, Dennis “Red” Gendron has returned to the University of Maine to accept the challenge of returning the Black Bears to their former glory.
Gendron, an assistant to the late Shawn Walsh on the 1993 national championship team, officially became the successor to Walsh’s successor Tuesday. He replaced Tim Whitehead as the men’s hockey head coach.
“I want this generation of Maine men to experience what the ’93 and ’99 teams did,” Gendron said to a gathering of more than 100 that included current Maine players, alumni, staff, coaches from other UMaine sports, and media.
A 55-year-old native of Berlin, N.H., Gendron signed a four-year contract worth $205,000 annually to take over a program that has lost more than it has won over the past six seasons, only one of which resulted in an NCAA tournament appearance.
It was Walsh, the architect of those ’93 and ’99 national title teams, who gave Gendron his start in college hockey, hiring him from a high school in St. Albans, Vt., and pairing him with venerable assistant coach Grant Standbrook, whom Gendron called “by far the greatest college hockey recruiter of all time, and who also possesses an incredible hockey mind and unparalleled teaching skills.”
From Walsh, Gendron learned lessons of leadership and organization, and how to run a college program. He had been a finalist before, for the Brown job in 2009, and for a national team development program at USA Hockey.
“For me, this is a dream job,” said Gendron, speaking in a husky voice that matched his solid frame. “Mostly because of the time I spent here in the ’90s and the wonderful relationships formed here that endure to this day.”
Stanbrook was one of the people who advised Athletic Director Steve Abbott on the search process, as was Garth Snow, the former Maine goalie and current general manager of the New York Islanders.
Joining Gendron and Abbott on a stage set up on the Alfond floor Tuesday were the university president, Paul Ferguson, and Dr. George Jacobson, professor emeritus of biology, ecology and climate change, who was the chair of the seven-member search committee.
Gendron parlayed his time in Orono into an 11-year career in pro hockey with the New Jersey Devils, and subsequent college assistant coaching jobs at the University of Massachusetts and, most recently, at Yale, the reigning national champion.
“The opportunity to come back here and begin repaying the university, the Maine hockey program, all of its former players and coaches, it seemed appropriate and necessary,” Gendron said. “What transpired for me here 20 to 23 years ago was enormous not only in my development but in preparing me for future opportunities that probably would not have been there otherwise.
“Simply put, I owe.”
Gendron met with current team members last week, as did the other three finalists for the job: interim head coach Bob Corkum, an assistant to Whitehead and a former Black Bear player; former Maine goalie, Colby coach and current New Hampshire assistant Jim Tortorella; and Mark Osiecki, former head coach at Ohio State who was fired in mid-April a week after Maine parted ways with Whitehead after 12 seasons.
“(Gendron) seems like a straightforward, stand-up guy,” said defenseman Jake Rutt of Scarborough. “He’s won at every single level. He knows how to play the game and how to play it right. And he’s going to turn Maine back on the right track.”
The Black Bears are coming off an 11-19-8 season, placing eighth in Hockey East and swept by UMass-Lowell in the first round of the league playoffs.
Attendance at Alfond — where they won only two games — dwindled to its lowest level since the 1991-92 season. Gendron saw firsthand the value of filling the arena with fans hungry for success.
“(Walsh) was a dynamic leader,” Gendron said. “One of his genuine gifts was the ability to get people excited about Maine hockey. And he made everybody feel like they were a part of it.”
Gendron looked up into the empty blue seats and remembered nights when the atmosphere was electric.
“When this place is full, if you’re a recruit, you parachute in here and this place is jammed and the student section is jammed and the freakin’ band’s going crazy,” he said, “what better place is there to play college hockey? It makes it a little easier to recruit.”
The son of a paper mill worker in northern New Hampshire, Gendron played baseball and hockey at New England College in Henniker, N.H., and spent a few collegiate summers working in Portland — lugging cobblestones for an Old Port repaving project, mixing mortar and assisting masons in the construction of a brick bank — while competing in the baseball Twilight League. He’s not afraid of work and has plenty ahead of him.
“I’m really excited,” said goalie Martin Ouellette. “We’re very excited to start working with him and come back next year, and start winning games.”
Junior Mark Anthoine drove to Orono from his home in Lewiston for the introduction.
“He’s a really down-to-earth guy and he seems like a pretty tough, competitive coach,” Anthoine said, “someone who’s going to push you every day.”
Junior Brice O’Connor, like many of the players, came away impressed with Gendron’s passion.
“You can see it in the way he talks about Maine hockey,” O’Connor said. “But on top of it is his qualifications. He’s had success at all levels. He finds a way to win championships, and that’s what we set out for here at Maine. I’m excited because he obviously has the tools to get us there.”
When asked about assistant coaches, Gendron said everyone is in play, including current assistants Corkum and Dan Kerluke.
Asked about the possibility of Stanbrook reuniting with him in Orono, Gendron smiled.
“If Grant wants to be involved,” he said, “Grant can have the keys to the castle.”
Reached by phone earlier, Stanbrook had this to say about his former colleague:
“His passion for hockey is exceeded only by his passion for Maine hockey.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:
CORRECTION: This story was revised at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 29, 2013 to reflect the correct spelling of coach Grant Standbrook’s name.