The NCAA Division I hockey tournament begins Friday. Has it already been 24 years since the University of Maine won its first national championship?

Or 18 years since the second? Then there were the heartbreaking one-goal losses in the 2002 and 2004 title games.

Sean Walsh has watched every game, the championships viewed on old VHS tapes.

“I remember sitting in the basement, probably 6, 7 years old – my dad’s office was in the basement – and there was a VHS player,” Sean said. “And all the tapes were in the closet. It was full of them. Racks on top of racks.

“I would just pop them in and watch them.”

Sean saw in those old tapes what many of us were privileged to watch in person – a Shawn Walsh-coached University of Maine team competing at the highest level.

The one constant, recognizable figure was Walsh, with his salt-and-pepper crop of hair, standing behind the bench, eyes intense. He would be patting a player on the shoulder pad or directing his index finger toward an official. Always in motion.

“I hear he got pretty fired up,” Sean said, smiling. He has heard it a lot.

Sean Michael Walsh, 17, has grown up listening to stories about his dad, William Shawn Walsh.

When Shawn Walsh died of cancer in September 2001 – only six months after coaching his last game – he left a legacy of building a national hockey power and creating an enthralled fan base throughout the state.

Everyone knew who Shawn Walsh was, and everyone had an opinion, whether it was positive about his winning, or negative about his brashness and trouble with NCAA regulations.

But Sean Michael was only 2 years, 3 months old when his dad died. When he was little, everyone wanted to tell him about Shawn.

“People would walk up to me. It was a little weird,” Sean said. “I would think, ‘who is this guy?’ I just wasn’t ready for it.

“As I’ve grown up, I’m absolutely embracing it. I love the fact that he’s my father.”

Sean, a senior at Cheverus High – a captain on the hockey team that reached the Class A South final – has plans after graduation. Sean will attend Canisius College in Buffalo. He may study business but also wants to learn about coaching hockey.

“My brother (Tyler) was the director of hockey operations there and knows the coach pretty well, so I reached out to him,” Sean said. “I said I want to do whatever I can to get my foot in the door.”

The coach, Dave Smith, told Sean to come and be ready to work.

Tyler Walsh, by the way, is now the head coach at North Yarmouth Academy.

Because of his dad and Tyler, did Sean Walsh feel coaching was his only destiny? That’s what Sean’s mother, Lynne Walsh, feared.

“I’ve tried to dissuade him at times … maybe he thinks he has to take this path,” Lynne said. “He has ensured me it is all about his love for the game.”

Sean grew up passionate about hockey. He watched those tapes in his dad’s office. And Shawn’s successor at Maine, Tim Whitehead, welcomed Sean to Alfond Arena any time, and Sean took advantage.

The drama of listening to a coach’s speech in the locker room, then entering a full Alfond Arena, only added to Sean’s passion.

Before the sixth grade, he and Lynne moved to Scarborough. Sean enrolled at Cheverus his freshman year but was cut during hockey tryouts, and there was no junior varsity team that year.

“I was very frustrated but I took it as a learning experience,” said Sean, who never exaggerated opinions of his ability.

“I’ll be honest. I think I was probably in fifth or sixth grade when I realized I’m not going anywhere (as a player). I wasn’t the best hockey player. I’ve always been a hard worker but the skill wasn’t there. I thought maybe playing isn’t going to work out for me, but I love the game and so I want to coach.”

He did make the team the next year and eventually became a leader.

Those leadership skills surfaced elsewhere at Cheverus, where Walsh became active in campus ministry where he was chosen to lead retreats, mentoring freshmen in one, and inspiring his peers in another.

There’s a spiritual side to Sean, a side that also surfaced in his dad in Shawn’s last year. And there’s the obvious trait of a leader, shared by both.

I remember listening to Shawn during the postgame press conference after Maine won the 1999 national championship. Asked what he was going to do next, Shawn simply spoke about going home and being with Lynne, who was expecting.

When Shawn Walsh died two years later, he left a legacy for hockey fans, and he left behind a boy, the youngest of his three sons. The boy is growing up. He can be feisty – a minute or two was spent in the penalty box – but also compassionate. He can be mischievous but also responsible.

Shawn, you should see Sean now. You’d be proud.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

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Twitter: @KevinThomasPPH