ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine expects to have an impressive list of qualified candidates from which to choose as it begins the search for Tim Whitehead’s successor as the head men’s ice hockey coach.

UMaine on Tuesday announced it is buying out the final year of Whitehead’s $195,000 annual contract, which was set to expire on June 30, 2014.

With only 59 NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey programs in the United States, there should be a deep, rich talent pool among aspiring head coaches looking for opportunities at the highest level of college hockey.

“Hockey is critically important to this university, not just to the athletics department but to the entire school,” said UMaine athletics director Steve Abbott. “We are looking for a coach who can get us back in a position where we’re competing for Hockey East championships and national championships. That, more than anything else, is going to be the guiding factor as we go through the candidates.”

The list of candidates could include several former Black Bears players, including current associate head coach Bob Corkum and assistant coach Dan Kerluke.

Jim Montgomery, a former Hobey Baker Award finalist who helped lead the Black Bears to their first national championship in 1993, wants to see UMaine back at the top.

“As an alum, all I want is the program to return to national prominence,” said Montgomery, who is in his third season as the head coach and general manager of the Dubuque Fighting Saints, an amateur team in the United States Hockey League.

He said he is interested in pursuing the UMaine position.

“I want to be proud of the University of Maine Black Bear hockey program,” Montgomery said. “If it’s me that they would like to be the head coach, that would be fantastic. If not, I hope they find somebody else who can get it back at a prominent national level.”

Montgomery is UMaine’s all-time leading scorer with 301 points (103 goals, 198 assists) in 170 games. During 1992-93, he centered the line with Hobey Baker winner Paul Kariya and Cal Ingraham.

His Dubuque team won the league title in his first year (2009-10) and this season Dubuque enters the playoffs with the league’s best record (43-11-8). Montgomery has coached the likes of Hobey Baker Hat Trick finalist Johnny Gaudreau, who is a sophomore at Boston College.

The Montreal native spent the previous four seasons as an assistant and recruiting coordinator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He began his college coaching career as a volunteer at Notre Dame.

He spent parts of six seasons in the NHL from 1993-2005. Montgomery also played pro hockey in the AHL, International Hockey League and United Hockey League, along with stints in Russia and Germany.

“Over the next couple of days and couple of weeks we’ll see if I’m contacted and I’ll make some phone calls to see where the interest level is on both sides,” Montgomery said.

Corkum, who is in his fourth season with the program, was subdued in discussing the coaching change, but admitted he is interested in the job.

“I certainly will be applying for the position, but I think today it’s about respecting Coach Whitehead,” Corkum said. “I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude for hiring me and getting me back up here at Maine. It’s a sad day in a lot of respects.”

There is a long list of other players and coaches with UMaine ties who could be considered for the job. They include Scott Pellerin, Nate Leaman, Red Gendron, Greg Cronin and Jim Tortorella.

Other college assistants who might be ready to become a head coach are Boston College associate head coach Mike Cavanaugh, Boston University’s Mike Bavis and BC’s Greg Brown.

“I’m confident that we’re going to have a very strong applicant pool,” Abbott said. “This is a program with great tradition. In addition to having won two national championships here at UMaine, we also have a reputation for being the most exciting atmosphere in all of college hockey.”

A recent addition to the coaching free-agent list is George Gwozdecky, who was fired last week after 19 seasons at the University of Denver, where he directed the Pioneers to a 443-267-64 record and two national championships (2004, 2005).

Gwozdecky, 59, a two-time national coach of the year, was let go after Denver lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six years. His teams had won at least 20 games in each of the last 12 seasons and had made 11 NCAA appearances.

“I’m not done coaching,” Gwozdecky told the Denver Post. “I’ve spent the last 34 years coaching, mentoring, teaching young people to assist them in developing a more mature attitude towards life, and I’m excited to explore the many avenues that may be open to me.”

The only other Division I vacancy as of Tuesday was at Alaska-Anchorage, where Dave Shyiak was fired.

Corkum, a Massachusetts native, was part of UMaine’s NCAA tourney teams from 1987-89 and made two Frozen Four appearances. He enjoyed a 12-year career in the National Hockey League.

Corkum previously coached with the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs (2006-08), the USA Hockey Select 16 team (2006-08) and the Portland Junior Pirates as an assistant (2005-06). He spent two seasons as a high school assistant coach.

Pellerin is the head coach of the Bridgeport (Conn.) Sound Tigers, the American Hockey League affiliate of the New York Islanders. He spent the previous six seasons as an assistant coach with the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs.

At UMaine, he won the Hobey Baker Award as the nation’s best Division I player in 1992. Pellerin, a native of Shediac, New Brunswick, was a third-round pick of the New Jersey Devils and played 13 seasons in the NHL.

Tortorella, a goaltender at UMaine from 1984-87, is the younger brother of New York Rangers head coach John Tortorella. He is in his second season as the associate head coach under Dick Umile at the University of New Hampshire.

He took that job after directing the Division III program at Colby College in Waterville, which posted a 230-138-33 record from 1995 to 2011. He is the school’s career leader in coaching victories.

Prior to Colby, Tortorella started his coaching career with a five-year stint at Cony High in Augusta and also worked at UNH. In 2001, he was named the president of the American Hockey Coaches Association.

He also has worked on the staff of U.S. World Junior teams and is the director of player development for New England’s USA Hockey affiliates.

Cronin is in the midst of his second season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Colby College graduate returned to the NHL after guiding Hockey East member Northeastern to an 84-104-29 record from 2005-2011.

The 2009 Hockey East Coach of the Year’s lengthy coaching resume also included a stop in Orono. He began his career as a graduate assistant with UMaine (1988-90), then worked at Colorado College for three seasons (1990-93).

He rejoined the Black Bears in 1993 and served as the interim head coach during Shawn Walsh’s suspension (1995-96) for NCAA violations.

He worked with USA Hockey, then was an assistant coach for the New York Islanders from 1998 to 2003 before spending two seasons as the head coach at Bridgeport of the AHL.

Kerluke, who played for the Black Bears from 1997-2001, is in his seventh season on the coaching staff. The native of Brampton, Ontario, played one season of pro hockey before coaching Bangor High School to three straight playoff berths from 2002-2005.

Leaman is the second-year head coach at Providence College after serving as the head coach at Union College for the previous eight seasons. He guided the Dutchmen to their first NCAA tourney berth in 2011, when he won the Spencer Penrose Award as the top coach in Division I.

Leaman, a native of Centerville, Ohio, graduated from SUNY Cortland in 1997, then started his coaching career as an assistant under Gene Fadrigon at Old Town High School. He was a volunteer assistant for the 1998-99 season at UMaine, where he earned a master’s degree in biological sciences, before moving on to Harvard for four seasons.

He also was an assistant on U.S. World Junior teams in 2007 and ’09.

Cavanaugh has been a fixture at Boston College under Jerry York for 18 seasons, including nine as the Eagles’ associate head coach. He previously spent two seasons as an assistant at Dartmouth and one year with York at Bowling Green.

Cavanaugh and Greg Brown handled the team much of this season as York was dealing with eye-related health issues. Cavanaugh is known for his recruiting prowess and works with BC’s special teams.

He is a 1990 graduate of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where he also played football. The native of North Andover, Mass., spent a year after college as a player/coach in London and then was a high school assistant for one season.

Abbott said the university will form a search committee that will screen and identify candidates and report to him. Abbott will forward a recommendation to UMaine President Paul Ferguson, who will be responsible for the final decision.

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...