February 10, 2011

Hockey East Journal: Merrimack coach masters his mentor

Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy has led the Warriors to a landmark season -- and the verge of their first NCAA tournament bid. (photo: Merrimack College Athletics)

When the Merrimack assistants were breaking down video of UMass last week ahead of the Warriors’ game Saturday against the Minutemen, they couldn’t help but look at coach Mark Dennehy and chuckle.

“If they thought I was at all smart, they realized in a hurry where I got it from,” the Dorchester, Mass., native said after his Warriors put an 11-2 beating on the Minutemen.

Dennehy is in the process of applying lessons he learned as an assistant to UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon (Lynn, Mass.) from 2000 to 2005 to Merrimack, where the Warriors program is in the midst of a renaissance that is without precedent in its 23 years as a Division 1 squad. Dennehy earned co-coach of the year honors from Hockey East last season, and yet this season has been even better for the Warriors, who enter this weekend’s games in fourth place in the league and ranked 11th in the nation, a near shoo-in for their first NCAA tournament bid.

Saturday was a remarkable chapter in the evolution of Dennehy’s tenure. It wasn’t the first time his charges had beaten his old team — in fact, Merrimack had six wins in its first 15 games against UMass under Dennehy — but it felt like something of a student-becomes-the-master moment. Yet after the game, while Cahoon’s frustration with his team was evident — “It was a total disaster,” he said — on the other side of the rink at Lawler Arena, Dennehy looked much the worse for wear.

“It’s a hard game to coach, because those are two important points, and I want my guys to play hard, but there’s no one I have more respect for in college hockey than Don Cahoon,” said Dennehy, who’s certainly seen the wrong side of blowouts like Saturday’s before.

It was a banner night for the program — the 17th victory of the season, marking a new record since Merrimack joined Hockey East in 1988; the most goals scored by a Warriors team since 1997; and the first career goal for freshman Brendan Ellis — and yet Dennehy was anything but the grinning, ebullient victor one might have expected.

The lopsided result clearly hung heavy on him, and in that resigned, perhaps even guilty look in his eye, one could see the bond between Dennehy and his former boss — a bond forged through the lean early years of Cahoon’s tenure at UMass, and galvanized with the halcyon days of 2003-05, just before Dennehy left.

“I learned early on that it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey, and it’s about who you surround yourself with,” Dennehy said. “I wouldn’t trade those early years at UMass for anything. When we’re down in Naples, sitting at the Tiki Bar having a drink, Toot and I are usually laughing about those days. That was the fun, was in the building of it. Took everything he taught me there, and thank God he didn’t trademark it.”

Five and a half years after Dennehy landed in North Andover, Mass., change is obvious at Merrimack. Much has been written about the renovations to Lawler, Hockey East’s tiniest and most Spartan barn, as has been written about the team that calls it home. Saturday’s game was the eighth time the Minutemen have visited Lawler since Dennehy took over, and a few days later, Cahoon reflected on how far the program has come under his former assistant’s watch.

“I told someone before the game, all you have to do is look around the facility and it reeks of Mark’s influence,” Cahoon said. “All you have to do is look at the team he’s put together. He had to think outside of the box, and he did think outside the box. He got … guys who were considered to be not serious products for our league, and what he did was measure their character, give them a prescription and a protocol to see if they could be as good as they could be.”

Merrimack is on the rise these days, while UMass is rebuilding. The cyclical nature of college hockey demands those sorts of ebbs and flows. Five years ago, Dennehy was handed the keys to a car that could barely pull out of the garage, and he’s turned it into a dependable machine with an ever-increasing top speed. He helped Cahoon do it at UMass after spending a year as the head coach at Fairfield, following five good seasons as Cahoon’s assistant at Princeton.

“As I said to him, my career probably would have ended at Fairfield if he didn’t give me a chance,” Dennehy said Saturday. “When I took this job, it was in tough shape, and I know he’s happy for me — but he wasn’t happy for me tonight, nor should he have been.”

NEHJ Player of the Week

Chris Barton, sr., Merrimack

Barton led the Warriors to a pair of wins over the weekend, picking up nine points (two goals, seven assists), including five in the 11-2 shellacking of UMass on Saturday.

Looking Ahead

Beanpot final: Northeastern vs. Boston College, Monday at TD Garden

The “Could This Be the Year?” whispers are once again surrounding Northeastern, which hasn’t won Boston’s annual February faceoff since 1988. While the Huskies have an uphill task against the Eagles on Monday at the Garden, crazier things have happened, and there are plenty of folks in New England who’d be just fine with seeing someone other than BC or BU lift the Beanpot.

Around Hockey East

Boston College

Last Friday’s game was the first time senior defenseman Edwin Shea (Shrewsbury, Mass.) has played against his younger brother, UMass freshman blueliner Colin. Edwin’s Eagles got the best of Colin’s Minutemen in a 5-0 romp, and Edwin was a plus-2 in the win.

Boston University

Monday will mark just the 10th time in the 59 years of Beanpots that BU will not be playing in the final. The last time the Terriers missed playing for the title was 2008, when they were also dispatched in the first round by BC. Before that, you have to go all the way to 1994 to find an opening-round BU loss — that year to Harvard.

Maine

Sophomore forward Joey Diamond was suspended by the league for the Black Bears’ Feb. 4 game against New Hampshire after slew-footing BU goaltender Kieran Millan two weeks ago. The move drew some controversy, and Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna addressed it in his weekly “Commissioner’s Corner” note. One interesting part of Bertagna’s note could be read to suggest that the league had expected Maine to discipline Diamond itself.

“Sometimes action is not necessary by the league because an institution will step up and take its own action against a player or staff member,” Bertagna wrote. “This has happened a number of times in recent years. In those instances, the league supports the institution and puts the offending player or staffer ‘on notice’ from the league. Because we have schools who frequently ‘do the right thing,’ the number of discipline matters that are public are relatively few.”

UMass

The Minutemen made some less-than-desirable marks in their record book in Saturday’s loss to Merrimack. The 11 goals they gave up were the most the program has allowed since a 12-spot to Maine on Valentine’s Day 1998, and the four power-play goals were the most allowed since March 5, 2005, against Northeastern.

UMass-Lowell

Goaltender Marc Boulanger has been busy of late. He turned 35 of 38 shots aside Friday against BU, marking the fourth consecutive game he’s made at least 35 saves.

Merrimack

The Warriors’ 11-goal spree Saturday was the most by any Division 1 team this season, and pushed them into third place in the nation with a 3.81 goals-per-game average. That’s good for second in the league, behind Boston College.

UNH

Paul Thompson (Derry, N.H.) joined linemate Mike Sislo in the century club Feb. 4, becoming the 69th UNH player to reach 100 points. The other member of UNH’s top line, Phil DeSimone, is one point away from becoming the 70th Wildcat to reach the plateau.

Northeastern

Drew Daniels’ goal Friday in a 4-3 overtime loss to Merrimack was his first of the season, and also his first since moving from forward to defense this season.

Providence

The Friars played their ninth overtime game Friday against Vermont, a 1-1 tie. Their next trip into overtime will match a school record, which was last hit by the 2007-08 team. Their six ties also put them one away from a program record, set in 2003-04.

Vermont

Goaltender Rob Madore seems to have the knack for playing Providence. He’s never lost to the Friars in his three years manning the pipes for the Catamounts, with a 4-0-3 record against the Black and White.

Andrew Merritt can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com