NORTH ANDOVER — Mark Dennehy said after Saturday’s 4-3 overtime loss to Boston College in Game 2 of the Hockey East quarterfinals that he realized expectations were higher for this year’s team.
Ed. Note — This story will appear in Monday’s edition of The Eagle Tribune
The Warriors were a senior-laden group, and teams like Boston College were going to be young and inexperienced. Dennehy admitted after the game Saturday that expectations weren’t met, and acknowledged that the record needed to be better.
Despite sweeping UMass Lowell out of the Hockey East playoffs last weekend, on the road, the Warriors were still a 10th-place team and the season had just come to an abrupt end, thanks to Chris Grando’s shorthanded goal.
Sunday, Dennehy was let go as head coach, ending a 13-year run that, despite this season’s admitted unreached expectations, should be remembered for getting the program to heights never thought possible.
According to sources, Dennehy was informed of the decision after the Warriors fell in Game 2 of the Hockey East quarterfinals against Boston College on Saturday.
“On behalf of Merrimack College, we thank Mark for everything he did for the hockey program and for the Merrimack community, and we wish him well,” Merrimack AD Jeremy Gibson said in a statement.
Associate head coach Curtis Carr will remain with the team and run the day-to-day operations of the program; the Merrimack athletic department announced that a national search for a new head coach will begin immediately. Associate head coach Bill Gilligan was also relieved of his duties yesterday, as well as the staff’s volunteer assistants.
According to college officials, the school had hoped to see more growth in the hockey program in recent years; the Warriors haven’t finished with a winning record since 2012.
Merrimack finished this season 12-21-4, in 10th place in Hockey East. The 21 losses for the Warriors this season are the most since 2014, when they finished 8-22-3. This season marks only the second 20-loss season in the last nine years for Merrimack. But prior to Dennehy’s hiring in 2005, the Warriors lost 20 games in six out of eight seasons.
Dennehy posted a record of 168-243-60 at Merrimack; the Warriors were 122-135-41 since the start of the 2010-11 season.
The record is what it is, to borrow a phrase. Whether or not the record was worthy of a coaching move is up for debate, but what isn’t up for debate is Dennehy’s everlasting impact on the Merrimack program.
Dennehy took over a program in 2005 that was in turmoil. Chris Serino resigned as head coach, but behind the scenes, he was forced out. Former president Richard Santagati was speaking publicly, to the media, questioning Merrimack’s viability as a Hockey East program.
Turmoil might be an understatement. The program was in a tailspin.
The packed Lawler Arena you see today was instead not-so-filled with about 600 fans scattered across old wooden bleachers. The players were wearing jerseys that were probably three or four years old, with just the nameplates replaced, while other programs were replacing uniforms on a year-to-year basis. It was so bad, that for a period of time, NESN refused to broadcast games from the building.
Dennehy took over an eight-win team and the results on the ice the first two seasons weren’t great; Merrimack won just three games his second season, as he ripped the program down to its foundation and began to rebuild it. Behind the scenes, Dennehy was winning battles with administrators.
Those first two years were hectic. The college had leadership changes in the president’s role, and Dennehy had to fight for his program in meetings with the administration. While worried about recruiting and building a roster that could compete, he was also meeting with administrators trying to explain why Hockey East, and Division I, was the best fit for his program. Darren Yopyk, a former assistant, was recruiting players and hoping that there would be a team for them to come to.
Dennehy had been through this before. His only prior head coaching experience was one year at Fairfield University in Connecticut … the school dropped hockey after that.
Six years after taking the job, and politicking behind the scenes to keep the program from going under, Dennehy had the Warriors in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the Hockey East era, and the Warriors were battling Boston College for a Hockey East championship at TD Garden.
Around the time of the run to the Garden, there was also more investment behind the scenes. There were renovations to Lawler Arena, and a few years later, the entire athletic complex underwent an overhaul.
In recent years, the college has invested millions of dollars into the athletic complex, including revamping the Merrimack locker room facilities — a much-needed upgrade — two years ago. The dollar amount reached into the millions of dollars, according to sources, and college officials, it seems, wanted more return on that investment.
Expectations will be a word used a lot as this story unfolds. Dennehy admitted this year’s team didn’t reach them, and the college will say that expectations have risen, and they aren’t what they used to be; they expect more.
You can say what you want about this year’s record, and Dennehy himself admitted that it was a disappointing season, but you can’t argue the fact that Dennehy fought to keep the program alive, when no one else in the college’s prior administration wanted to.
Dennehy is inherently a fighter, a tough kid from Dorchester who wasn’t going to take no for an answer 10 years ago. Merrimack fans should be glad he didn’t, they probably have a team to cheer for because of it.
Dennehy resurrected Merrimack hockey from the grave 13 years ago. The successes the program reached under Dennehy, specifically from 2010-12, were never thought possible five years before that. Now, as this move tells us, the college expects more. Some have debated if higher levels of success are even possible. The college obviously feels that they are.
There has been speculation that forces behind the scenes precipitated a fallout between Merrimack and Dennehy, but the college says it came down to wins and losses, emphasizing the desire for more wins.
This won’t be the last time you see him behind a bench, though. He’s too good a coach, and too respected in the game.
Meanwhile, Merrimack will move on, looking to tab the candidate they think can get the program to that next level. They said in a press release on Sunday that a national search will get underway immediately, and given the amount of dollars invested in the last several years, money doesn’t seem like it will stand in the way of them hiring a candidate; if they feel that candidate is the right person for the job, they’ll pay whatever it takes. Merrimack officials have made it clear that they’re “all-in” on hockey.
But this change shouldn’t diminish the legacy Dennehy leaves behind at Merrimack. It’s not only something to be proud of, it’s something that most people thought was never possible.