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IMHO: Kimball Union’s Whitehead happy and at home

  • Kimball Union Academy boys hockey coach Tim Whitehead in 2014. Whitehead guided the Wildcats to their third straight NEPSAC Elite Eight championship on Sunday night. Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — Tris Wykes

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

Valley News Sports Editor
Published: 3/4/2019 10:04:55 PM
Modified: 3/4/2019 10:04:59 PM

For a man with as much college hockey coaching experience as Tim Whitehead has, guiding a prep school hockey program is nothing new. It’s just different.

Still, there’s nothing much about what Whitehead did with Kimball Union Academy over the weekend that hadn’t already happened in his six years at the Meriden school. The Wildcats can’t stop winning championships, a feat they three-peated with Sunday’s 4-3 defeat of Salisbury in the NEPSAC Elite Eight boys hockey final at Saint Anselm College’s Sullivan Arena.

For those keeping track, not only is that three straight all-school crowns for the Wildcats since Whitehead arrived after closing out a college coaching career at Maine in 2013. KUA has earned a NEPSAC postseason slot in all six of Whitehead’s winters in Meriden, claiming the small-school crown his first season and making the Elite Eight semifinals the next two before claiming the whole enchilada the last three.

“Each year is unique; that’s the most important thing to remind yourself,” Whitehead explained over the phone following Sunday’s championship. “It’s not to assume that something that worked last year will work this year. There are certain things you have to do each year. … You have to be careful not to assume a team is going to respond in a certain way.”

For all of the differences between prep and college hockey, there are similarities as well, none bigger than the recruiting of athletes.

As he did both at UMass Lowell (1996-2001) and Maine (2001-13), Whitehead has to work to draw athletes to KUA. The college coach can sell the notion of building NHL-caliber players; the prep coach can push the idea of improving enough to make a college roster.

“I’m fortunate to have, in 25 years of college coaching and recruiting, a lot of experience and contacts,” Whitehead said. “That helps a lot. You don’t have a recruiting budget in prep school, so you do a lot of phone calls and online video, and you go on your own to watch games. It’s definitely different from college, where you have a full-time staff and three guys recruiting and flying to watch games. It’s different, but you have to recruit.”

That pitch includes something unique to KUA out of the wide range of prep hockey options: The Wildcats play more games.

NEPSAC allows its hockey members to schedule up to 35 contests, with the potential for three more in the postseason. Some don’t play that often, but Whitehead makes sure to hit the limit. That usually includes at least two out-of-town tournaments, the Flood-Marr outside Boston and the Nichols School tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., opportunities for players to forge relationships beyond the confines of the rink.

“We play the max,” Whitehead said. “Most of the teams in our (Lakes Region) league do, save for St. Paul’s; they’ve been in the ISL (Independent School League) and they play 25 games, so that gives us a little advantage in the recruiting area. We can have kids who are here for three years, and over those three years that’s another season, another 30 games.”

The added workload comes with a cost, one with which Whitehead readily deflects credit. While assistant coaches Matt Underhill and Bryant Harris, a former KUA hockey standout, provide on-ice help, it’s what trainer Bob Hyjek does off of it that’s been of big benefit to Whitehead’s Wildcats.

“You have to be careful; you can’t push them too hard when you’re playing, in the second half of the season, three times a week,” Whitehead said. “We stick with our workouts off the ice and taper at the right times and continue to work on our skill development and our small games throughout the year. We put in a lot of time on video to keep developing our hockey senses offensively and defensively.”

The Elite Eight — formally known as the Stuart-Corkery Open Tournament — also provides a unique opportunity not common among NEPSAC-sponsored sports. Out of about 60 hockey-playing members, NEPSAC plucks the top eight after the regular season, school size be damned, and plops them into its postseason.

KUA has approximately 340 students, roughly 185 of them boys, Whitehead said, and is considered small-school. At least half of the teams in the Elite Eight field, if not more, were either large-school, all-boys or both. Most of the Wildcats’ league foes are small schools, yet they’ve managed to make each other better over recent campaigns.

“We had six of our eight teams in the league qualify for NEPSACs,” Whitehead noted. “Tilton won (the small-school tournament), beat Holderness. The Lakes Region League has become much stronger.”

Over the phone, politely putting a hold on his team’s victory celebration while talking, Whitehead comes across as soft-spoken and courteous. He thanks you for taking an interest in his team. He answers your questions honestly. When Maine fired Whitehead six years ago, a local columnist opined that a “lack of charisma” was partly to blame, but charisma has never learned to backcheck or execute a power play.

Be that as it may, Whitehead likes the home he’s found. He discussed how his wife, Dena, has begun a second career as a Woodstock Union Middle School teacher, and she is loving it. They’ve sent a daughter, Natalie, off to Montreal to study at McGill University. Whitehead enjoys being able to coach his son, Zach, with the Wildcats. The fundraising skills required of a college hockey coach help in Whitehead’s development duties with Kimball Union.

And every fall, he gets to return to the rink and build another successful hockey team. Each season is different, but lately the results have been victoriously similar.

“It was a lot of fun this year,” Whitehead said on Sunday night. “Working with Matt, Bryant and Bob, it’s so much more fun to go through that together.”

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




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