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Brick by Brick, a Mellow Marsh Rebuilds Foundation

  • Joe Marsh, Dartmouth College's interim women's ice hockey coach.

  • Joe Marsh, Dartmouth College's interim women's ice hockey coach, speaks with his players during a Jan. 19, 2018, time out at Thompson Arena.

  • Joe Marsh, Dartmouth College's interim women's ice hockey coach, watches his team during a game earlier this season.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2018

Hanover — Joe Marsh worked for a restorative carpentry firm one summer as a teenager. This was long before he became one of college hockey’s most notable coaches, guiding the St. Lawrence’s men’s team to an NCAA Division I title game and consistent national prominence. 

An observation from those sawdust-covered times, however, stuck with him.

“Foundations aren’t what you notice about a house,” said Marsh, who this week concludes a six-month stint as Dartmouth College’s interim women’s hockey coach. “But when I’m done with this… I hope the players will feel their foundation got stronger. I think they’ll be a better team down the road.”

On paper, it would be hard for things to get much worse. Barring road upsets of No. 8 St. Lawrence and No. 1 Clarkson this weekend, Dartmouth will establish the program record for fewest victories in a season, set two years back. The Big Green is 5-17-3 overall and 3-14-3 in ECAC Hockey play after skating to a 2-2 tie with Union at Thompson Arena on Saturday.

Eleven years ago, Dartmouth won the ECAC regular season and tournament titles and was only an overtime loss away from advancing to the NCAA semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons. That team featured Gillian Apps, who would go on to win three Olympic gold medals with her native Canada. The Big Green averaged 4 goals per game and played its last two contests before Thompson Arena crowds of more than 2,000.

About 200 fans — the official attendance was 584 — watched Dartmouth and Rensselaer skate to a 1-1 tie on Friday at the same location. Big Green backers surely suffered a familiar, sinking feeling after the hosts scored first but surrendered the tying goal three minutes later. Dartmouth was being badly outshot, and the 66-year old Marsh didn’t mince words during the second intermission.

“I lit them up a bit,” he said of his address to the players. “I emphasized that we have to have a sense of urgency in everything we do. Sometimes it’s good to play under duress, if you can respond.”

In a testament to the grit Marsh has instilled and to his skaters’ deep desire not to let him down, Dartmouth roared back and turned what had looked like a loss waiting to happen into a hard-earned draw. Senior Morgan Turner said Marsh’s obvious passion and positivity has rubbed off, along with plenty of wisdom.

“For him to come in here and try to turn this program around has been awesome,” Turner said. “He’s taking this year as his victory lap, but he hasn’t taken it for granted at all. 

“I don’t think any of us thought we’d get such a qualified coach, that he’d want to come in here and coach girls hockey.”

The opportunity arose when, after her first season at Dartmouth’s helm, Laura Schuler took a leave of absence to guide the Canadian Olympic team currently competing in South Korea. Big Green athletic director Harry Sheehy said he was surprised when he learned that Marsh, out of the game for five years, was interested in the interim position, but that the hire has proven to be on target.

“I can’t imagine this scenario playing out any better,” Sheehy said. “Our record is not what we want it to be, but Joe deserves a lot of credit for keeping it upbeat. A lot of teams with records like ours have tanked, and we have not.”

Marsh grew up in the Boston suburb of Lynn, Mass., the youngest of five children of a waitress and an automobile service manager. His high-scoring ways in high school led to a postgraduate year at Phillips Exeter Academy under George Crowe, who would go on to coaching stints with the Dartmouth men’s and women’s teams.

Marsh moved on to Boston College, but a lingering shoulder injury limited him there and at the University of New Hampshire, where he was a third-line player and a 1977 graduate. Looking back, Marsh felt he didn’t live up to his potential. 

“Some of the shortcomings I had really helped me as a coach,” he said. “I wasn’t as resilient as I needed to be over that period. I never really got the game out of my system.”

Marsh landed at the New Hampton School in central New Hampshire, coaching under future Dartmouth assistant and Providence and Norwich University head man Mike McShane. The new guy coached the junior varsity, taught math classes, oversaw a dormitory, drove the Zamboni and sharpened skates. He’d often dash up to Hanover to watch Crowe’s Dartmouth teams and, after succeeding McShane for two years, moved on to St. Lawrence as an assistant.

Taking over as the Saints’ boss in 1985, Marsh embarked on a 27-year career in the position, guiding the program to eight NCAA tournaments, twice earning national coach of the year honors and winning 482 games. He was known as something of a wild man, ranting and raving and punching inanimate objects, but he had mellowed some by the time health issues arose late in his tenure.

Marsh said acid reflux, possibly stress-related, led to esophageal stricture, a narrowing of the tube that connects the throat to the stomach. He’s undergone a stretching procedure for the condition nearly 20 times since 2011, but the first such event triggered an autoimmune response that in turn led to gout. 

“I drank too many beers and ate the wrong things, and it became chronic,” said Marsh, who wound up taking a year of medical leave before retiring in 2012. “I thought I was done with coaching.”

Marsh inherited a Dartmouth roster sorely lacking in top-end talent and with a number of players who couldn’t have skated for Big Green teams of even a few years ago. Turnovers aren’t an officially tracked college hockey statistic, but Dartmouth might lead the nation in them if they were. Shots miss the net, defenders fall down while skating backwards and the Big Green has surrendered five or more goals in a game eight times.

Nationally, Dartmouth mostly ranks in the mid-30s out of the 40 NCAA Division I teams, and its 1.46 goals per game is on pace to be the program’s lowest in at least 18 years. Still, there’s something there, a collective body language that rarely slumps even during blowout losses.

“It’s been awesome,” Turner said of playing for Marsh. “He hasn’t even freaked out when we cry.”

Marsh frequently professes his love for the team. His mantra is that its wins and losses show only where the Big Green has been, not where it’s going, although he acknowledges that he’s had to hit the reset button a few times.

“We don’t have time for personal pity parties,” the coach said. “If you want to act like you’re in a country-western song, keep it to yourself. The average person may not see the difference from the start of the season, but I can see improvements in very tangible ways.

“We’ve learned some hard lessons, but sometimes, those are the ones that stick.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.

Correction

The Dartmouth women’s hockey team could set a program record for fewest wins in a season if it loses this weekend’s games at No. 8 St. Lawrence and No. 1 Clarkson. An earlier version of this story inaccurately described the potential impact.