Ken Ralph is facing maybe the most important decision of his lengthy career in college sports.
The University of Maine’s director of athletics must find the right person to succeed the late Red Gendron as the men’s hockey coach.
He knows it and that is why he has already talked to 159 people involved in hockey as he targets the end of next week for the naming of a coach.
The once storied program has peaked at mediocrity since the last of its 18 NCAA Tournament appearances in the 2012 season.
UMaine, which has appeared in 11 Frozen Fours and five NCAA championship games, winning titles in 1993 and 1999, hasn’t even made it to the Hockey East semifinals since 2012.
Since its last Frozen Four appearance in 2007, UMaine has posted only six winning seasons and been to the NCAA Tournament just once, 2012.
Ralph wasted no time launching an aggressive search.
The sooner a new coach is found, the better.
He was creative in forming the six-member search committee. Ralph is joined by deputy director of athletics and former North Dakota AD Brian Faison, associate AD for compliance Samantha Hegmann and three former UMaine standouts.
The trio of former players, which was instrumental in some of the program’s most memorable seasons, cares deeply about the program and in restoring its prominence.
Jim Montgomery coached the NHL’s Dallas Stars, guided Denver to an NCAA championship and led two United States Junior Hockey League title winners. The Black Bears’ career scoring leader is now with St. Louis.
Garth Snow spent 12 seasons as the New York Islanders’ general manager. The former NHL goalie joined Montgomery in helping UMaine win its first NCAA title in 2003.
Bruce Major was a freshman on the late Shawn Walsh’s second team, which went 11-28-1, then played on UMaine’s first NCAA Tournament team in 1987 and its first Frozen Four squads in 1988 and 1989.
Major knows first hand what it takes to go from the outhouse to the penthouse.
Ralph, the former AD at Division I hockey schools Colorado College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is convinced UMaine can return to its glory days with the right coach. He pointed out that three of the four schools in the Frozen Four this season are Division II schools in other sports.
UMaine in recent years hasn’t provided adequate financial resources for men’s hockey and really doesn’t deserve to have a national contender. The new head coach and his staff will be the lowest paid in Hockey East and they will have the second-lowest recruiting budget.
But UMaine fans deserve a championship contender. Even though apathy has set in and attendance is down, Alfond Arena is still one of the most vibrant venues in college hockey on game night.
Ralph is right when he says the new coach can’t dwell on the challenges. He has to accentuate the positives.
Instead of thinking of how non-descript a college town Orono is, he has to focus on the fact there are fewer distractions than at other schools. That means the athletes can devote more time to skill development and academics.
COVID-19 has greatly altered recruiting. There is much less travel, much more Zoom.
That will be beneficial to the new coach, since it will minimize the impact of the substandard recruiting budget.
Ralph said the new coach must have a sustainable, detailed plan to restore the program to elite status. He must be a top-notch recruiter and have an engaging, charismatic personality that endears him to the media, fans, university, community and the state.
That describes Walsh, who was also an innovative and energetic workaholic. There may not be another Shawn Walsh out there, but that is the right mold.
The new coach can’t be afraid to go toe-to-toe with the top programs for A-list recruits, but he has to be able to land players at or near that elite level.
Schools like 2015 NCAA champ Providence College and UMass Lowell have become perennial contenders because they get enough B+ and B players to have quality depth.
The A-list players and high-round draft picks usually only stay a year or two before moving on to pro hockey.
UMaine desperately needs a talent infusion. Walsh once said the key to landing the recruit is convincing their mothers that their son will be in good hands and will develop as a player, student and person.
A $20 million Alfond Arena upgrade provided by the $90 million Harold Alfond Foundation gift for athletic facilities improvements at UMaine will be helpful in recruiting.
Players nowadays want bling. They want flashy amenities like a video theater to watch game film and a top-level workout room.
The men’s hockey team is the flagship program for UMaine. In Division I, 16 of the 60 teams qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
If it becomes a national contender, it will benefit all the other athletic programs. It will create a buzz on campus and across the state and will make the athletic fundraisers’ job a lot easier.
UMaine can make up some of that resource deficit.
Former UMaine president Dale Lick once said he would love to have one of the nation’s best history departments, but that having a hockey team that’s a national championship contender is much more important because of the positive, far-ranging exposure it brings to the university and the state.
Ken Ralph has to get this right.