Ed. Note — This story will appear in Friday’s edition of The Eagle Tribune
Mark Dennehy said it was time to take a chance.
The former Merrimack coach, who was let go by the college at the end of this past season, is taking a new direction with his career after accepting a job as the head coach and director of hockey operations with the Wheeling Nailers, a minor-league affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Dennehy, 50, was introduced as the team’s new coach on Wednesday at a press conference.
“I’m at a point in my career where I’m going to take a chance on me,” said Dennehy, who is entering professional hockey after spending 24 years in the college ranks, the last 13 as the head coach of the Warriors.
The Nailers are traditionally one of the top teams in the ECHL, but have missed the playoffs the last two seasons (although the team has had a winning record in both seasons). Wheeling, a blue-collar town in West Virginia, is just 44 miles from the Penguins’ home base in Pittsburgh.
“It’s really the perfect setup,” Dennehy said. “This is the system that other NHL organizations are trying to emulate. Wheeling has sent more players to the NHL than any other team in the ECHL.”
The Penguins organizations sends coaches to the NHL, too. Mike Sullivan, the current Penguins bench boss, was coaching the organization’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre before getting promoted in 2015 and winning the last two Stanley Cups. John Hynes, who preceded Sullivan, is currently the head coach of the New Jersey Devils. When Sullivan was promoted to the NHL, Clark Donatelli, who was with Wheeling at the time, was promoted to the AHL.
“Everything is streamlined,” said Dennehy. “Clark had a lot of success here in Wheeling before going to the AHL, and he’s been great. He’s someone I’m going to lean on.”
The Nailers and Penguins also have plenty of college connections. Sullivan played at Boston University and was a teammate of Dennehy’s at B.C. High. Pittsburgh’s assistant general manager, Bill Guerin, was a teammate of Dennehy’s at Boston College. Scott Young, a former BU player and assistant coach, is currently the Penguins director of player development. Donatelli played at BU and one of his AHL assistants is former Providence head coach Tim Army, while the other assistant is former BC defenseman J.D. Forrest.
“It’s a very college-friendly organization,” Dennehy said. “I think they had a lot of respect for what we were able to do at Merrimack, and the things that we accomplished there. They understood it. They had an appreciation for what we did there.”
Guerin, who said there were more than 50 qualified candidates who applied, described hiring Dennehy as a “no-brainer.”
“His reputation in the hockey world is impeccable,” said Guerin. “He brought that (Merrimack) program to a whole knew level, and like Don (Rigby) said, ‘The most important thing along with the hockey is the type of person Mark is.”
When Dennehy was let go by Merrimack, the Wheeling job wasn’t open. But, Jeff Christian’s contract wasn’t renewed a few weeks later.
Dennehy exchanged messages with Guerin shortly after he was let go at Merrimack and the followed up with a new conversation after the Wheeling job opened. Guerin told Dennehy that the Nailers organization makes the hire, but he would have a role in the process.
“Bill Guerin sent me a note shortly after my termination,” Dennehy said, “and we exchanged some messages then, but it had nothing to do with this job. Then a few weeks later the job opened up and we talked some more.”
From there, Dennehy flew himself to Pittsburgh during the NHL playoffs to get some more information and tour the Wheeling facilities.
“I did a little bit of a recon mission on my own,” he said. “I came down when Pittsburgh was still in the playoffs and I went to one of their games — I’m sitting in Mike Sullivan’s office after a playoff game with Bill Guerin and Mark Recchi thinking to myself, ‘this isn’t bad’ — and while I was down here I drove out to Wheeling to get a feel for the town and the facilities here.”
After he decided he was interested in the position, the Nailers flew him down for a formal interview and he met with the team’s ownership and Guerin.
“It’s really an amazing opportunity,” Dennehy said. “The fact that we’re 44 miles from Pittsburgh means on off days, I can go and watch the Penguins practice or watch a game and really learn from the entire organization. Not many teams in the league have that, but we’re so close to our NHL team that it makes it a one-of-a-kind opportunity. Then you factor in everything else, how the facilities are here, how the organization is run, the people involved, and it’s something I couldn’t pass up.”
Dennehy’s knowledge of the college landscape will pay off when building a roster. Most ECHL players are on the younger side (22-28), and the league attracts a couple of hundred former college hockey players in any given season along with players who have aged out of Major Junior in Canada and European players. But unlike the AHL, where a good portion of the players are assigned to the AHL affiliate on NHL contracts, ECHL teams are made up mostly of players on ECHL-only contracts.
“We’ll get some guys who are sent down from the AHL, but a lot of it will be players we bring in,” Dennehy said. “In resembles college hockey a little bit in that way. There’s still a recruiting aspect to it.”
The recruiting will be a little different — they’ll be less miles logged — but Dennehy said the task remains the same, getting players to sign with the Nailers.
“First, it’s going to be different for me to be on a level playing field with the rest of the teams in the league,” Dennehy said. “We don’t have any disadvantages here. I know a lot of the college players already, whether we recruited them, coached them or coached against them. Our facilities here are great and that should be attractive to players. Plus, the ability to pick up the phone and call any college coach in the country and be on a first-name basis is going to help, for sure.”
Dennehy won’t even be the only Merrimack Valley native in the organization; the Nailers’ radio broadcaster and Director of Media, D.J. Abisalih, is a Methuen native.
“Over the last few months, I’ve sat back and tried to figure out what I wanted to do next,” Dennehy said. “This feels like the right time in my life to bet on myself, and when you have the chance to work with an organization like the Nailers and the Penguins, that’s not an opportunity you pass up. I couldn’t be more excited.”