|In his first season behind the Maine bench, Red Gendron led the Black Bears to a 9-6-1 overall mark by late December. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)|
The second time Brice O'Connor met Red Gendron, he thought his new coach was kidding around.
It was May 17, 2013, the day Gendron was announced as Maine’s new head coach. O’Connor had only briefly met Gendron before, and this time there was some time for the coach to talk with his new charges.
“He came in and met a couple of the guys, just talking with us, and he said, ‘I’ve got some homework; we’re gonna read some books,’ and I laughed. He looks me square in the eye and goes, ‘I’m serious.’
“I was like, ‘Oh boy, we’re in for something different.’”
In many ways, O’Connor (Londonderry, N.H.) was absolutely right. Gendron’s résumé includes so many different stops, at different levels and positions, it’s almost hard to believe the Boston native is only 56 years old. But he’s not exactly what you might envision a hockey lifer to be. He’s not a one-trick pony who knows how to have a conversation only about power plays and neutral-zone strategy. He’s just as comfortable talking about the prospects of this year’s team as he is the history of the state where it plays.
More than anything, he’s a teacher.
“Whether at the rink or away from the rink, he’s always trying to teach you a lesson,” O’Connor said. “We drove down to Fenway earlier in the year for a press conference, and he’s quizzing me on history about Maine, and I’m from New Hampshire, so also about New Hampshire. He just forces you to always be learning, whether it’s about hockey or anything else.”
That car ride to Boston for the Frozen Fenway announcement covered only a few of the many miles Gendron has traveled in a winding hockey career that began as a player at New England College. Following his graduation from NEC in 1979, he became an assistant at his old high school in Berlin, N.H., before taking over as the head coach at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, Vt., in 1981.
Nine years in Vermont eventually landed him a spot as Shawn Walsh’s assistant at Maine, and he couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The Black Bears had made four straight trips to the NCAA tournament in the years prior to Gendron’s arrival in 1990. They only got better, winning two Hockey East titles and becoming the kings of college hockey in 1993, when the Paul Kariya-led team lost just one of its 45 games en route to the program’s first national title, all with Gendron standing side-by-side with Walsh.
Gendron made the leap to the NHL that summer, joining the New Jersey Devils as a technical consultant. He worked in the New Jersey organization for the next 11 years, including as an assistant, a scout and two separate stints as head coach of the AHL’s Albany River Rats. In those 11 years, Gendron helped the Devils win three Stanley Cups. During that time, he also worked on a book, “Coaching Hockey Successfully,” which is now used as the advanced level coaching manual by USA Hockey.
In 2004, Gendron left the Devils’ organization to become head coach of the USHL’s Indiana Ice, a position he held for one season, until Don “Toot” Cahoon needed a new assistant at UMass, with Mark Dennehy (Dorchester, Mass.) set to take over as Merrimack’s head coach.
“Having teachers with me was really a central focus on my efforts to bring people in,” Cahoon (Lynn, Mass.) said. “I wanted educators, and Red was certainly all of that.”
Success continued to follow Gendron in Amherst, where the Minutemen made huge strides during his six seasons as Cahoon’s assistant, including the program’s first trip to the NCAA tournament in 2007. But Gendron realized his future at UMass might be limited, with Cahoon’s retirement looming, so he left for what seemed like a relatively unassuming new post as an assistant at Yale in 2011. The Bulldogs were coming off a great season, going 28-7-1 in 2010-11, but the following year — Gendron’s first — they went 16-16-3, losing to Harvard in the second round of the ECAC Hockey tournament.
Not a lot of people expected what happened next. Yale, which snuck into the 2013 NCAA tournament as the 15th seed, ended up shocking crosstown rival Quinnipiac for the first national title in the program’s history. It was the fifth time Gendron had earned a championship ring, and the second time he’d done it in the collegiate ranks.
For O’Connor, Maine’s captain this year, it’s a good reason to pay attention when Gendron speaks.
“He’s seen it all, he’s been through it all, so you sort of buy in and believe when he tells you to do something,” O’Connor said. “It’s like, ‘Man, I think this guy has a little more experience than I do. I should probably listen to him.’ ”
When you speak with Gendron, you encounter a thoughtful person who can hold forth on a variety of topics. And you often come away with some homework of your own.
“I think perhaps earlier in life than some people, I came to the realization that learning is, like, a cool thing,” Gendron said with a chuckle. “For itself. I think in the modern world, and I’m being a bit philosophical here, we all want something tangible in return for our efforts. That’s a societal thing. I think for most of us, the idea of learning for its own sake, the beauty of that is somehow lost.”
Which is not to say that Gendron is entering his new job hoping to simply learn without concern for results. It’s not the kind of position where there’s a lot of leeway, as evidenced by the firing of Tim Whitehead, who was dismissed in May despite compiling a 250-171-54 record, four trips to the Frozen Four and the 2004 Hockey East title.
That, of course, isn’t news to Gendron, who saw the culture of success found in Orono during his three years as an assistant in the early 1990s.
“You don’t fire a highly successful coach — and Tim Whitehead was highly successful, and he did tremendous things here — and be the next coach coming in here and think they’re going to give you 10 years to figure it out,” he said. “I’m old enough to know I’ve just got to do my job — I’m not trying to keep my job, I’m trying to do my job. My job is to win, and win as quickly as possible. I don’t expect to work here beyond my current contract unless I demonstrate a propensity for winning. That’s not pressure, that’s just the job.”
The expectations are high, and there’s no such thing as flying under the radar. In fact, the day after he was hired, Gendron drove into a parking garage in Portland, and the attendant immediately recognized him as the next coach of the Black Bears.
“This is a great, great place, because not only do you have the strength of each other, I don’t think there’s a program in America where the local people and the citizens of the entire state of Maine feel more closely connected,” Gendron said. “This program is beloved by everybody in this entire state, and I think that’s a source of strength.”