September 18, 2011

Tyler Walsh: So like his dad, yet his path will be his own

Shawn Walsh has been gone for 10 years, but part of his legacy is a son so willing to learn.

By Steve Solloway

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
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Tyler Walsh grew up in Michigan after the death of his father, Shawn Walsh, the legendary University of Maine hockey coach. But now he’s back in Maine, at the university, and learning about the business and coaching part of college hockey from the program his father fostered.

Michael C. York/Special to the Telegram

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Tyler Walsh, lower left, appreciates the respect that was earned by his father, Shawn, who died in 2001. The rest of the family includes Travis Walsh, next to Tyler; Alejandra, front right; Shawn Walsh holds his son, Sean, and is next to his wife, Lynne.

Monty Rand/Courtesy University of Maine

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.

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