When Ed Harding was first approached about taking over the University of Southern Maine men’s ice hockey program as an interim coach last December, he didn’t want the job. It would have meant replacing Jeff Beaney, a close friend, the man who coached Harding at USM and later hired him as an assistant.

But he reconsidered. Now it appears he doesn’t plan to leave any time soon.

Following a national search, Harding last week was named the head coach of the Huskies’ program. Al Bean, the USM athletic director, said the school brought in eight candidates for interviews.

“For me, it was who’s going to do this quickly and in the right way,” said Bean. “And I think it’s him. I think he gives us the best chance to improve the program, move it in the right direction, in the time frame that we’ll be happy with.

“He knows the game. He’s played it and coached it at a number of levels. He’s very well connected. I think he can move us forward in a short period of time.”

Harding, 49, certainly plans on doing just that. Asked if he had a time frame for success, he replied, “Right now.”

Harding had coached the Huskies’ final 16 games last winter, guiding them to a 5-10-1 record. He liked what he saw – especially in the last four or five games – to consider applying for the job permanently. USM finished 6-19-1 and has 13 freshmen returning.

“The kids started believing in themselves,” he said. “And I had a firsthand, bird’s-eye view of what was going on. I had an idea of what I thought we needed to be corrected.”

On the ice, he said, the Huskies need to be stronger and faster. They play on an Olympic-sized rink and, Harding said, “We need to be the best skating team in ECAC Division III college hockey.”

He has already presented his players with an offseason off-ice conditioning program. “We need to get stronger and quicker and that starts now,” he said.

His plans for the program also fit well into what Bean was looking for. Harding said there are three areas he will concentrate on:

* Getting players to attend USM for four years “and it has to be the best four years of their lives … I have a responsibility to make sure these kids are going to school, to make sure they are learning on and off the ice and to make sure they are having a great four-year career.”

* Reconnecting with the alumni. “I want them to take more ownership in the program and to feel like they’re part of the family.”

* Become more involved with the community. “It’s a passion of mine. I like to give back to the game.”

Harding knows just how important the hockey program can be to the university. In 1985, he was a player on the team that restarted the program after it was discontinued in 1979. He was a captain for three seasons, scoring 37 goals and 33 assists, and was inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame last September. He was also an assistant coach at USM, from 1993-1996.

“I would say Ed’s invested in the program,” said Bean.

Chad O’Brien, who will be a senior forward for the Huskies next year, said that is important.

“You want somebody that’s proud of the school and wants to make it better,” said O’Brien, who added that Harding changed the team’s mentality last year.

“He was able to come in and get everyone’s attention right away and get us to buy into that family atmosphere we all wanted,” he said. “He changed some things, but it wasn’t so much the X’s and O’s but that he brought us together.”

Harding has been involved with hockey at many levels. Following USM, he played professionally with the Maine Mariners and Johnstown Chiefs for one year. He has coached at the high school level and as an assistant coach on several minor league teams. He worked six years with the Lewiston Mainiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the final two seasons serving as head coach and general manager (2007-09).

His last head coaching job was with North Yarmouth Academy from 2010-11.

After he was fired by the Mainiacs, Harding returned to USM and received his degree in communications in 2010. When he left USM to play professionally, he was just shy of graduation.

“It wasn’t too difficult,” he said, of the three classes he had to take. “It was about tying up loose ends.”

Now he’s tying up one more with the hockey program.

“It’s new and it’s old at the same time,” said Harding. “I never reaped the benefits of (playing in) Gorham before. When I played in 1985, we were at the Portland Ice Arena and everything we did was there. When I came on board as an assistant, everything was still at the Portland Ice Arena. I left about two years before this building was built. That’s the new part.

“The old part is obviously my personal pride in the program.”

USM STILL HAS two coaching positions to fill.

Bean said the women’s basketball head coaching job, which became open with Gary Fifield’s retirement, could be settled in the next week. “We’re getting close,” he said.

And last week, wrestling coach Joe Pistone notified the school he was leaving to become head coach at Florida Gulf Coast University. Pistone coached USM for 12 seasons, with over 100 match wins. Last winter USM sent two wrestlers to the NCAA Division III championships.

FGCU is a Division I school, but competes in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association for teams that do not compete in the NCAA.