Ex-College and Pro Coaches Find a Home at KUA
Tim Whitehead, Kimball Union Academy boys hockey coach, speaks to his team on Jan. 21, 2014, at Akerstrom Arena in Meriden, N.H. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »
Cail MacLean, Kimball Union Academy's first-year girls hockey coach, talks with goaltender Amelie Poirier following the Wildcats' Jan. 8, 2014, practice at Akerstrom Arena in Meriden, N.H. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »
Meriden — When the University of Maine fired 12th-year men’s hockey coach Tim Whitehead last spring, the transaction was noted by Mike Doherty, Kimball Union Academy’s athletic director and himself a former college soccer coach.
“I wondered if we could one day get a guy like that here,” Doherthy said. “Then a week later, the phone rings and it’s him.”
About six weeks after that call, Doherty introduced Whitehead as the Wildcats’ newest addition. Another six weeks, and Doherty was at it again, this time bringing in former professional player and coach Cail MacLean as bench boss of the KUA girls hockey team.
To call the offseason eventful would be an understatement.
“We have as good a hockey coaching staff here as most colleges,” Doherty said. “That’s a tribute to (head of school) Mike Schafer. Whether we’re looking for a math teacher or a coach, he believes we should go after the best people we can.”
Whitehead spent the previous 17 winters as an NCAA Division I head coach, first at Massachusetts-Lowell and then at Maine.
MacLean played 11 pro seasons and captained three of the 15 minor league teams for which he played. He rose as high as the American Hockey League, a step below the NHL, and competed in more than 700 pro games.
He was then coach of the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays for two years, followed by two more campaigns as an assistant for the AHL’s Abbotsford (B.C.) Heat, top farm club of the NHL’s Calgary Flames.
Whitehead said he could have become an NHL or college assistant or a pro scout. MacLean could have reasonably expected to reach the big leagues some day. But both assessed their lives and decided that taking a professional step back was well worth the family benefits.
“Going to a place where our kids could get a good education for free and we could spend more time with them, that was a big part of our decision,” said Whitehead.
He and his wife, Dena, have a son, Zach, in middle school and a daughter, Natalie, in high school.
“We’re looking forward to staying here at least until our kids graduate from KUA,” Whitehead said. “By the time they get out of here, I fully expect we’ll want to stay here much longer.”
MacLean, who is 37 and has a 3-year- old daughter, Ashton, with his wife, Keri, relishes the chance to spend early morning time with his child and the chance to hustle home from practice to see her before bedtime.
Many people speak about the importance of family, but MacLean is clearly captivated by his.
“Since I was about 12, hockey has been my main focus,” said the Nova Scotia native, who played major junior hockey in Ontario. “It’s been a little easier to go into a situation like this, where we want the players to be well-rounded, because I want to live that way as well.”
Whitehead, 52, played at Division III Hamilton (N.Y.) College and competed for two years in Europe after his 1985 graduation. He was then an assistant at Division III Middlebury College before becoming a graduate assistant at Maine and a full-time assistant at UMass-Lowell. Four years later, he became the River Hawks’ head coach, moving on to Maine in 2001 to take over for terminally ill mentor Shawn Walsh, who died of cancer shortly before the season started.
The Black Bears lost that season’s national title game at Minnesota, but made the NCAA tournament during each of Whitehead’s first six seasons, including another title-game appearance in 2004. His 12 teams were a combined 250-171-54, but only 96-102-28 during his last six campaigns and the Black Bears slogged to an 11-19-8 mark last winter.
For a program once considered among the nation’s elite, that wasn’t good enough. Nor was the fact that season ticket holders declined from 3,600 to 1,900 during Whitehead’s tenure, then-athletic director Steve Abbott said in announcing the coach’s firing.
At KUA, Whitehead, who spends his days working to raise money for the school’s development department, has instituted a college-style strength and conditioning program. He analyzes video with his players before almost every practice. He inherited a team in flux — he’s the third coach in four years and this season’s squad returned only two players from last winter’s outstanding campaign.
“I can’t lie and say it wasn’t difficult to make this move, but now that we’ve settled in, I’m really enjoying it,” said Whitehead, whose team is 15-4-3. “It’s still 25 guys who want to get better, but they’re a couple years younger than my college players, so they need even more guidance.”
Postgraduate student and hockey player Tyler Bird, who’s committed to play at Brown University, said he had some misgivings when KUA’s previous coach departed. But those concerns were mostly mitigated when Whitehead was hired and this season’s recruiting class stuck with the Wildcats. Any remaining doubts vanished once Bird and his teammates got a look at how Whitehead’s program mostly mirrors those at the college level.
“We’re all trying to play Division I hockey, so it’s good to have a Division I coach now, to help us get there in the future,” said the Andover, Mass., native. “He makes sure we take care of our bodies. We know that every practice is important by how serious he is about it.”
At the same time, Whitehead is no tyrant. Bird said the coach has shouted at his team only once, when it was taking repeated and ill-advised penalties against Deerfield, and that he’s generally soft-spoken.
“He won’t get in your face, but he’ll also let you know when you’re doing something wrong,” Bird said. “Mostly, it’s just real good, positive feedback. He did a good job of bringing this team together quickly.”
MacLean, the girls team’s third coach in as many years, faced a different challenge, because he had never coached women or high school players before. At the ECHL and AHL level, criticism is not always gentle and competition can be cutthroat. It’s all about hockey and virtually everything else in life comes second.
“This was a big leap of faith for me,” MacLean said. “The speed and skill of (pro) players is fun to be around, but the girls here are a happy bunch and very coachable. I’ve had 20 years of intense competition, but now I get to focus on developing individuals as people and athletes, instead of just having the bottom line be the standings.”
MacLean is known throughout pro hockey for his leadership, character and maturity and he only added to those qualities by earning a business degree from The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina that offers classes to civilians. MacLean’s current players have only a hazy sense of how talented a player he was and the level at which he previously coached, but they have no trouble recognizing his expertise.
“He has high expectations, but our hockey IQ has increased so much,” said senior Hannah Madden, a Manchester, N.H., native. “Before, we just did drills to do drills, but now we realize why we’re doing them.”
Classmate Lindsey Landwehrle, a product of Stowe, Vt, agreed.
“I hear his voice in my head during games and realize what he taught in practice yesterday is happening now,” she said. “It all clicks together.”
The KUA girls are currently 6-5 after going a combined 18-28-8 the past two seasons. MacLean, who got the idea to coach at the prep school level when he heard one of his former pro teammates was doing the same, said the experience has forced him to re-examine his methods on and off the ice. His players got a chuckle out of his uncomfortable moments early on, before he figured out just how frankly he could speak and how hard he could push them.
“There were a few times where he wanted to really emphasize a point but he wasn’t sure if we could take it,” Madden said. “You could tell he was thinking about how to say things before he said them. That spoke to his character outside hockey.”
Said MacLean: “It’s such a good experience for me because it’s so humbling. I worked my whole life to get to the highest (pro) level and now here I am in rural New Hampshire, seeing if we can just put together a decent breakout.
“I think it will make me a better coach in the long run, because I’ve had to go back and look at the very basic parts of the game, and that will help me with the more complex things.”
The question remains, as it does with Whitehead, just how long will MacLean stick around? The coaches and their families live and eat on campus for free, but if their teams have consistent success, higher-level suitors will doubtless come calling.
“If I were interested in climbing the charts quickly, I wouldn’t have dropped down to this position,” MacLean said. “If I was looking to go to college, I would have tried to go directly there.
“This is more about quality of life and working and living in a community we don’t look at as a short-term stop. People have really embraced us.”
Tris Wykes can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3227.