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IMHO: The new, the gone, the going

  • Greg Fennell. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 2/15/2020 10:37:29 PM
Modified: 2/15/2020 10:40:25 PM

Digging out the desk drawer of the mind with the snowthrower on a wintry morning …

■The hiring of Travis Pelletier as Lebanon High’s baseball coach to succeed the late Doug Ashey caught me by surprise when athletic director Mike Stone delivered the news recently. After a short think, I realize it’s a smart move.

After playing at Lebanon and in college, Pelletier cut his coaching teeth working as Ashey’s lieutenant with the Raiders’ junior varsity. He added stints at Rivendell Academy and Kearsarge High, and he also worked the last few summers with Lebanon Post 22’s junior American Legion program. The experience is there.

But what makes the hiring work for me is the potential of a long-term connection. As an ex-Raider who still lives in the Lebanon area, Pelletier has maintained a tie to his hometown and its high school baseball program, even as he coached elsewhere. He takes over for a man he called a “mentor” in Ashey, who capably held the Lebanon reins for 18 years before cancer took his life in October. Ashey acquired the job after another long-time coach, Chuck Hunnewell, retired from a career measured in decades.

The reason why Lebanon High athletic programs so regularly succeed is the school does a capable job of hiring good people and retaining them. Basketball coaches Tim Kehoe and Kieth Matte are in their third decades on the bench. The same goes for boys soccer coach Rob Johnstone, even with a recent year’s absence. Chris Childs is well into his second decade with football. The longevity list goes on and on and on.

I can see Pelletier in a Lebanon dugout for a long time. That could turn out to be a good thing and a nice way to honor Ashey’s legacy.

■The news of Brian Austin’s recent death at the age of 59 stunned me, as I’m sure it did many people in Dartmouth College’s athletic department, even as they knew the cancer battle the longtime administrator was facing the past two years. (I, sadly, did not.)

I hadn’t seen much of him since giving up the Dartmouth hockey beat a while back, but I have good recollections of Austin. He would often be among the first people I’d see when I got to Thompson Arena, and he’d frequently be among the first I’d run into on the way down to the locker rooms after a game. I enjoyed our chats about how contests went and how the Big Green teams were performing.

I thought he’d be a tough nut to crack when he first joined the Big Green family from Kentucky’s Transylvania University in 2003. My first impressions of him brought up adjectives like stern and no-nonsense. I came to realize that Austin was a man of principle who would always give you a fair hearing. You might not agree with his ultimate point of view, but you could respect the man for considering what you had to say.

I sat in a back pew last weekend at Austin’s memorial service at Lebanon United Methodist Church, listening to testimonials from friends and colleagues, keeping to myself and trying not to bawl my eyes out. I learned about a man who loved his wife and daughters, who maintained a competitive and loving relationship with two brothers and whose lasting image may have been a knowing smirk that rarely seemed to leave his face.

Rest in peace, brother.

■Speaking of hockey, news of Kevin Sneddon’s imminent departure as the University of Vermont’s men’s hockey coach also saddens me.

I covered college hockey at a time when Dartmouth and UVM were still partners in the ECAC, so games with the Catamounts came twice a year and with added meaning. That meant two encounters (more come a playoff matchup) with Sneddon, who I found engaging and a willing interview.

A memory: Dartmouth and Vermont had finished a game at Gutterson Field House, and I headed off to the Big Green locker room to catch up with coach Bob Gaudet while the rest of my colleagues, all hometowners, marched off to the UVM space for a group scrum with Sneddon. I made my way toward the home lockers after I was done, but there was no Sneddon to be found. The Vermont sports information director at the time — who acted like the sun rose and set on Catamount ice and that all writers should react accordingly — told me Sneddon’s availability was done and that I would be shut out for being late.

I headed up to the Gutterson concourse, where I found Sneddon engaged in an obligatory post-game chat session with alumni and boosters in an adjacent meeting room. When the SID stormed in and again told me I couldn’t talk to the coach, Sneddon calmly defused the situation; he said he’d be glad to chat with me when he was done. He was, and he did.

Another memory: When Hartford hockey scion Wendell Barwood died in 2011, Sneddon made an effort to connect with the family. Sneddon called Barwood, a former Catamount player, in the hospital on his final birthday, promised a win and delivered one five days before Barwood died. Sneddon gave the family a puck from that game when he visited during Barwood’s calling hours; he would later add stickers to his players’ helmets to honor Barwood the rest of that season.

The Cats have long since moved to Hockey East, a decision I hated but understood. This year’s team has struggled mightily, heading into the weekend without a win in 16 league games and just three victories in 27 contests overall. There would likely have been a serious discussion about Sneddon’s future in Burlington come the end of the season. His decision to retire from coaching (at the age of 49) made it moot.

Still, I hate to see him go. I recall our last chats involved the imminent start of fatherhood for him, what a blessing it was and what a challenge it would be. It wasn’t always just about the game with him.

College hockey will be lessened for not having Kevin Sneddon in it anymore.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.




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