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Back From The Dead: Merrimack Hockey Remains Risen 10 Years After Turmoil

When I think about Coach D I immediately think about how he cared about all his players. He truly wanted what was best for us. He demanded us to put school first and at the time he was telling us these things I did not fully agree with him, but today as I look back I see that Coach always had our best interest. He was the ONLY coach that I ever had that was honest and fair to his players. His only requirement was to work as hard as you possibly can. If we worked as hard as we could, we would get a chance to play. Then the opportunity was up to us. If you play well you keep playing, if you don't then you sit. Surprisingly, this is a very difficult thing to find in college sports and even harder to find in pro sports. One quick story of an example of this is prior to my first college game, I was unsure if I was going to play, so I went to coach and asked him what he thought may happen. At this point I was a 19 year old kid who just moved across the country to play and I missed home but just truly wanted to play. Coach told me that they are trying to figure out lines still and defense partners still, but after we had a brief talk he told me that I would play the first game of the season and the rest would be up to me. After that talk I knew I had to give everything I had to play and to coach's credit, he kept his word and I never sat as a healthy scratch. I gave him all I had and he always appreciated hard work. He was a good coach and I'm proud to say even a better friend.
RYAN HUTTON/Staff photo/Eagle Tribune

Merrimack hockey was nearly left for dead 10 years ago, just before Mark Dennehy was hired as head coach. Now 10 years later, Dennehy and a few of his former players took the time to reflect on what it took to keep it alive …

Two weeks ago, a group of Merrimack hockey alumni shuffled into Merrimack’s Lawler Rink on a Sunday morning for the annual alumni game. For many in the group, Lawler Rink looks vastly different now than when they played.

There are seats, for example, those old wooden bleachers are long gone. More importantly, though, there are people in those seats. The lobby out front didn’t exist when most of these former players were donning the blue and gold and the current locker room merely existed in head coach Mark Dennehy’s mind.

That’s the present.

In the past, the story of Merrimack hockey was almost a sad one. In Mark Dennehy’s 10 full seasons as head coach, the program has gone from being on death’s door to at one point in 2011, being within a couple of goals of winning a Hockey East championship.

Looking Back

Back in 2005, the Warriors were coming off a one-win season in Hockey East. There were rumors online as well as reports in The Eagle Tribune and The Boston Globe that there was a player mutiny, and the team had asked former head coach Chris Serino to step down.

For several weeks in the spring of 2005, the program was in chaos. While in Naples during the coach’s convention, it leaked to several outlets that Merrimack was entertaining the idea of leaving Hockey East. Meanwhile, back in North Andover, players were left in the dark.

Serino ultimately resigned, taking the job as head coach and athletic director at Malden Catholic, and the college hired a relatively unknown assistant coach from UMass to take over the program instead of other rumored finalists, which included then Boston College assistant and North Andover native, Mike Cavanaugh, who is now the head coach at UConn.

Dennehy had just come off a good run with the Minutemen, helping recruit a team that landed in the Hockey East finals in 2004. But people around the program wanted some homegrown blood, and many alumni were upset the college didn’t give a chance to Bobby Jay.

Of course, this wasn’t Dennehy’s fault.

Also, just months before he was hired, Merrimack was rumored to be on the verge of leaving Hockey East, and many close to the program — and even outsiders in the media — wondered how viable Merrimack’s program was not only in that league, but remaining Division I altogether.

The CHA, now a former conference, was said to be courting Merrimack and former Merrimack president Richard Santagati was publicly questioning whether or not the program should remain in Hockey East.

“The question is when you don’t perform well and not compete, does (the hockey program) remain a positive? Of course not,” he told The Eagle Tribune in 2005, following a 1-22-1 season in Hockey East play. “If we’re not competitive year-in and year-out, I think a positive can become a negative.

“If we were to remain clearly in last place or not ever get beyond .500 in Hockey East, we should assess if we can compete in the conference.”

Struggles on the ice, a crumbling building — a 2005 game against UNH, that was televised on NESN, was nearly postponed because a leak in the roof melted a hole in the ice the day of the game — and a serious lack of support meant that the Merrimack program was barely keeping its head above water. College leadership was questioning the program’s viability in Hockey East and if there were 600 fans at a home game, that was a lot.

The program was in complete turmoil, and for the most part, it was due to factors beyond the control of the head coach and its roster. That may have been the most frustrating part for those teams in the early part of the 2000’s.

Merrimack is one of the smallest schools playing Division I hockey, it’s always going to be David vs. Goliath. But at the time, Goliath was also armed with an arsenal of weapons, and David had a broken slingshot … he couldn’t afford to buy a new one.

That turmoil didn’t end when Dennehy took the job. He was stepping into a fire pit. Three years in, he had to present to a former college president why the team should remain in Hockey East.

“Let’s set a timeframe,” Dennehy said. “There is before (current Merrimack president) Chris Hopey, and then there’s after Chris Hopey.

“I remember having a meeting with a former president, before Chris, where basically I had to put together a proposal on why we should stay in Hockey East. There was a Board of Trustees member who stood up and told people on the board that he had it under good knowledge that (Hockey East commissioner) Joe Bertagna didn’t want us in the league anymore, and that couldn’t be further from the truth, Joe has been nothing but supportive of Merrimack Colege hockey.

“I literally had to make this presentation to the president and it was the third year of my tenure here. There aren’t many coaches in Division I college hockey, let alone in Hockey East, that had to do something like that. Thankfully he got it and understood the value. I told him that there were schools in other leagues that would give our college millions of dollars to change places. I told him that we could get this thing going in the right direction.”

While this was going on, the team on the ice was in the middle of a serious rebuild. The team won eight games in Dennehy’s first year and just three games in his second, scoring the now infamous 37 goals in 34 games. The program wasn’t in shambles, it was just out of gas. The roster, as it was comprised, simply wasn’t good enough to compete in Hockey East.

However, there was a core there that Dennehy thought could be built upon.

“We took our lumps and bruises the first couple of years, but I can tell you that every teammate I had at Merrimack wore their heart on their sleeve and left every bit of energy out in the ice, especially the members of the 2010 class,” said former Merrimack captain and defenseman Pat Bowen. “To see the progress from then to now is absolutely remarkable, and I take great pride in taking those first few baby steps when Coach D took over.”

Dennehy added, “I look at our team now, and trust me, that second year where we scored 37 goals in 34 games, that might have been the longest year … that year felt like 10 years. And I’ll be honest, there were some times in the last few games (during a recent 10-game losing streak) where it’s felt like double those games. But what I’m able to do is look back and really see how far we’ve come. Our team might not be playing up to its capabilities, but I know that the core of it … Justin Mills, Ryan Sullivan, Jimmy Healey, Matty Byrnes, those guys would love to be a part of this team because it’s guys who buy in.”

Early in Dennehy’s tenure, during the annual coaching convention held in Florida, former Boston University head coach Jack Parker approached him and pitched that Merrimack would be better off in another league, but Dennehy held his ground that Merrimack was just where it belonged. Parker even went as far as to promise BU would still put Merrimack on the schedule, should it decide to leave.

“Fast forward a few years later, it’s a full house, we’re getting record crowds,” Dennehy said. “To Coach Parker’s credit, and this is why he’s such a class guy, I remember the year we went to the Garden, we’re playing BU here and Glenn Hofmann was the athletic director at the time and I remember going up to Jack before the game just to catch up and see how they’re doing. Jack makes a point to grab Glenn and says, ‘You know, this guy made a fool of me. I didn’t think you guys were meant to be in this league, and now you might go ahead and win the whole thing.'”

Blue Collar Attitude

Merrimack didn’t win the whole thing in 2011, but they were close. The Warriors were tied with Boston College, 3-3, in the championship game until Cam Atkinson scored to put the Eagles ahead with 5:11 remaining in the third period.

With Merrimack’s recent on-ice struggles, Dennehy has said that the team needed to go back to being blue-collar. That’s attitude that built the foundation for that 2011 team.

It’s often said that teams take on the personality of its coach. Dennehy is as blue-collar as it gets, growing up in Dorchester and clawing his way through hockey as a kid. That effort landed him a spot at Boston College in 1987.

That blue-collar attitude is still present now, and the Warriors are trying to make it even more present moving forward, as it was back in 2011 when the team was at its highest.

“(Dennehy) was the only coach that I ever had that was honest and fair to his players,” said former defenseman Joe Loprieno, who signed with the San Jose Sharks following his junior season. “His only requirement was to work as hard as you possibly can. If we worked as hard as we could, we would get a chance to play. Then the opportunity was up to us. If you play well you keep playing, if you don’t then you sit. Surprisingly, this is a very difficult thing to find in college sports and even harder to find in pro sports.

“Prior to my first college game, I was unsure if I was going to play, so I went to coach and asked him what he thought may happen. At this point I was a 19-year-old kid who just moved across the country to play and I missed home but just truly wanted to play. Coach told me that they were trying to figure out lines still and defense partners still, but after we had a brief talk he told me that I would play the first game of the season and the rest would be up to me. After that talk I knew I had to give everything I had to play and to coach’s credit, he kept his word and I never sat as a healthy scratch.”

Clearly Dennehy believes that, in some respects, that blue-collar attitude had been lacking at least partially during the recent losing streak. He talked openly about going back to the style of hockey that the program was built on. “Meat-and-potatoes hockey,” he calls it. “Bring your lunchpail.”

“We got away from some of the things that made us successful,” he admits. “We need to get back to that. After that Notre Dame series we reeled this back in. You need to fight your nature … if you want to be special, you need to be different. You need to trust if you continue to do what you’re supposed to do, good things will happen. We have gone back to playing the way we have played in the past, starting in the defensive zone. We have to be better.”

Merrimack’s new home, sweet home

This is how Lawler Arena looked prior to recent renovations.

This is how Lawler Arena looked prior to recent renovations (click to enlarge).

Finished this past summer, the most recent upgrades to Lawler Rink is a vastly improved locker room and lounge for the players and coaches, better utilizing the existing space. The facility is state-of-the-art.

Many of these projects were under the watch of Hopey. As Dennehy says, things changed dramatically when he took over the leadership of the college, and reinvestment can be found everywhere on campus, not just within the confines of Lawler.

“Chris recognized the asset of the hockey program and recognized the value of Division I hockey,” Dennehy said. “If you look at the growth of the college, I’d like to think we helped with a little bit of a spark, but it was Chris Hopey who has recognized our value and reinvested and upped the stakes. I tell people I knew we could build a team here, but the other stuff, the locker room, the lobby, the weight room, I never envisioned that and that’s where the strength of a strong president comes in and he’s taken this program and this school to a new level.”

The previous locker room was revamped about 15 years ago, but little had been done to update it since then. Dennehy has been giving tours to former players any chance he gets of this new facility, like a child showing off his new toy Christmas morning, and there hasn’t been a former Warrior who isn’t blown away.

Merrimack's new locker room was completed prior to the start of the 2015-16 season (click to enlarge).

Merrimack’s new locker room was completed prior to the start of the 2015-16 season (click to enlarge).

“We had dinner a couple months back and he took me through the new locker room – to say I was surprised was a complete understatement,” said Ryan Sullivan, a former defenseman and captain. “But to me, the most important thing he had done is really connect and re-connect with former players. Regardless of whether you just graduated or played 20 years ago he has done such a good job connecting with the hockey alumni and really building a network and camaraderie amongst the group.

“Looking back it is pretty crazy where the program was between my sophomore and junior year when Mark came in. To hear the stories about how the program almost folded and to where it is today is really an accomplishment.”

Prior to the alumni game, Dennehy said he was impressed with how well the more recent alums have integrated with the older groups. Recently, Dennehy launched the Merrimack Player’s Club, which is another way for former teammates to reconnect with each other, and the hockey program.

Former Merrimack forward David Breen never played for Dennehy, yet says he has helped him more than any coach he’s ever played for. Breen is currently an assistant coach at Curry College and also is the director at Micro Ice Training Centers in North Andover. Prior to Curry, Breen coached Merrimack’s club team, a job he said Dennehy helped him get.

“He also took the time and explained to me his systems and philosophies, watched some of our game film, and had some of the players come support our games,” Breen said.

“He’s been a reference for me for my coaching applications, he wrote a letter of recommendation for me for grad school, and he introduces me to people, other coaches, in Naples at the coaching convention. He humors me and calls me when I have applied for the open assistant coaching positions at Merrimack and let’s me know where I stand in regards the other candidates. He’s done a ton for me. More so than other coaches I played for, and I never was recruited or played for the guy. He doesn’t owe me anything, and yet he treats me like I was a star player for the program. I have met a lot of coaches over the years from being at Curry, and he’s one of the best I’ve met.”

The locker room isn’t a place where former players will reconnect, but Dennehy said that pieces like the new player’s lounge is going to help bring teams closer together.

From a coaching standpoint, it’s like gold when it comes to recruiting.

“The locker room is four months old, and what it has done to our recruiting is that it has shrunk the decision window,” Dennehy said. “When I bring a recruit through now, instead of it being a couple of months, or ‘I want to wait until after the season to decide,’ it’s more like ‘let’s talk next week.’ Not that we’re getting all of those guys, but they know Merrimack is serious and they want to compete for a championship.

“The fruits of what we now have is in the future, and in some cases the near future, and then also we have some commitments that are further out and a lot of that has had to do with what is here now. It will come.”

It’s hard to forget about the past. Honestly, this program can’t afford to forget about the past.

In 2005, the chances of Dennehy even seeing 10 years behind the bench were slim. Heck, the program seeing 10 more years seemed awfully bleak.

Yet, here they are. At 8-14-6, the record isn’t where anyone within that new locker room wants it to be, but the program is still here. The players and captains from those early teams, and whether or not he’ll admit it, Dennehy himself, saved Merrimack hockey, because there were people within the power structure at the college that certainly wanted to see the program shrivel up and die back in 2005.

Those early teams kept it alive.

But the Warriors aren’t simply satisfied just being here.

“The goal here is to win championships,” Dennehy said.

It now seems as though the team is back on a path to finding that identity again.

“We’re doing a lot of the things we set out to do,” said Dennehy, “and we’re doing a lot of the things no one said we could do.”

What They’re Saying

Patrick Bowen (2006-10), defenseman and former captain

“Not only has the Merrimack Hockey program changed for the better, but the entire school as well.

“As a freshman I obviously loved the school, the facilities, the rink, and the staff because that was what I fell in love with during my visit. But to see the progress from then to now is absolutely remarkable, and I take great pride in taking those first few baby steps when Coach D took over the reigns. Coach D was one of the main reasons why I chose to attend Merrimack College. Yes, he was my coach, but he was also a mentor and a friend. His door was always open, whether you wanted to talk hockey, school, or life in general. To have your coach be that type of person is invaluable.

“We took our lumps and bruises the first couple of years, but I can tell you that every teammate I had at Merrimack wore their heart on their sleeve and left every bit of energy out in the ice, especially the members of the 2010 class. We didn’t reap the rewards of the previous classes, but we helped get there. Year by year we chipped our way through Hockey East, and I can tell you staying on an empty Merrimack campus for spring break senior year was the best spring break I had in college, as we prepared for the quarterfinals vs BU.

“There’s a different feeling walking into the rink today. The wooden bleachers are now seats, that have bodies in them, the locker room is one of the best in the country, the weight room has more weights and space that I can imagine — kudos to Coach Kamal for all his hard work and dedication — as I think back to the old room which felt like a closet, which I loved at the time, and the school spirit at the games is unrivaled. For a school of Merrimack’s size to compete with the best programs in college hockey is a true testament to Coach Dennehy and what he has done for the school and the program.”

Ryan Sullivan (2003-07), defenseman and former captain

“I am not sure if I have any specific stories but I just wanted to comment on what a great job Mark has done on turning the program around. We had dinner a couple months back and he took me through the new locker room – to say I was surprised was a complete understatement. But to me, the most important thing he had done is really connect and re-connect with former players. Regardless of whether you just graduated or played 20 years ago he has done such a good job connecting with the hockey alumni and really building a network/camaraderie amongst the group.

“Looking back it is pretty crazy where the program was between my sophomore and junior year when Mark came in. To hear the stories about how the program almost folded and to where it is today is really an accomplishment. So as you can tell, I have nothing but great things to say about the program and its status today. I remember Mark once told me he thought he would come in and “flip the house” but shortly realized he had to bulldoze it down to the foundation and re-build….and he has certainly done that.”

David Breen (2002-04), forward

unnamed“So in this picture, I’m using a broken one piece, where I had to saw off the bottom in order to insert a blade. If you notice, the stick shaft is actually upside down. I also had to use a graduating senior’s blades, like he was no longer on the team, because I never had sticks for the year. I wanted wood sticks, but they were never ordered.

“I don’t want to be too negative though. I was given a chance to play Division 1 college hockey at the school that I always wanted to play for, and I was more than happy just to be there.

“So I never played for Mark. I transferred to Trinity the year that Mark was coming in. I had already decided to make the move prior to Mark’s hiring. But, he has always been phenomenal to me. When I wanted to get into coaching, he took the time to sit down and talk with me. He was open and honest about the industry, where I stood at the time, and offered his advice on what to do.

“He helped me get the club coaching job at Merrimack Club hockey. He also took the time and explained to me his systems/philosophies, watched some of our game film, and had some of the players come support our games.

“He’s been a reference for me for my coaching applications, he wrote a letter of recommendation for me and grad school, and he introduces me to people (other coaches) in Naples at the coaching convention. He humors me at calls me when I have applied for the open assistant coaching positions at Merrimack and let’s me know where I stand in regards the other candidates.

“He’s done a ton for me. More so than other coaches I played for, and I never was recruited or played for the guy. He doesn’t owe me anything, and yet he treats me like I was a star player for the program. I have met a lot of coaches over the years from being at Curry, and he’s one of the best I’ve met.”

Joe Loprieno (2006-09), defenseman and former captain

“When I think about Coach D I immediately think about how he cared about all his players. He truly wanted what was best for us. He demanded us to put school first and at the time he was telling us these things I did not fully agree with him, but today as I look back I see that Coach always had our best interest.

“He was the only coach that I ever had that was honest and fair to his players. His only requirement was to work as hard as you possibly can. If we worked as hard as we could, we would get a chance to play. Then the opportunity was up to us. If you play well you keep playing, if you don’t then you sit. Surprisingly, this is a very difficult thing to find in college sports and even harder to find in pro sports.

“One quick story of an example of this is prior to my first college game, I was unsure if I was going to play, so I went to coach and asked him what he thought may happen. At this point I was a 19 year old kid who just moved across the country to play and I missed home but just truly wanted to play. Coach told me that they are trying to figure out lines still and defense partners still, but after we had a brief talk he told me that I would play the first game of the season and the rest would be up to me. After that talk I knew I had to give everything I had to play and to coach’s credit, he kept his word and I never sat as a healthy scratch. I gave him all I had and he always appreciated hard work. He was a good coach and I’m proud to say even a better friend.”

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