The average college hockey coach has about six months after the end of one season to plan, recruit and prepare for the next.
Northeastern University is hoping Jim Madigan (Milton, Mass.) is no average college hockey coach.
When the puck drops at Matthews Arena on Oct. 7 for Northeastern’s season-opening game against UMass, Madigan will have had all of 73 days to accomplish what most coaches have all spring and summer to do.
He was hired July 26 to replace Greg Cronin (Arlington, Mass.) as Northeastern’s head coach after a precarious few months following Cronin’s departure to the Toronto Maple Leafs. That exit followed a tumultuous finish to the 2010-11 season, in which Cronin and assistant Albie O’Connell (Watertown, Mass.) were suspended for the final six games of the regular season for a recruiting violation.
Though Cronin returned for the Huskies’ playoff run, in time to guide them to the Hockey East semifinals, they didn’t have the same verve as when they pushed Boston College to overtime in the Beanpot final a month earlier.
On June 20, Cronin ended his six-year tenure at Northeastern in favor of the assistant coaching job in Toronto, putting the Huskies in an unexpected coaching search.
June is not usually the time when schools expect to start looking for a new coach. By the time Cronin cleared his office out, new Hockey East bench bosses Norm Bazin (UMass-Lowell) and Nate Leaman (Providence) already had been on the job for nearly two months.
Yet the school had an ace up its sleeve.
Madigan was a four-year letter-winner during Northeastern’s heyday, playing for the legendary Fern Flaman from 1981-85. The Huskies in those days ran step for step with their Boston brethren, winning three of the school’s four Beanpots in a six-year span, including two during Madigan’s time on Huntington Avenue.
“I was a player here when we were the measuring stick for Beanpot success, and BU and Harvard were chasing us,” said Madigan, who finished with 34 goals and 44 assists in his 119 career games.
After his career, Madigan immediately joined Flaman’s staff as an assistant, and worked in that role until 1993. He then became the school’s assistant director of physical plant services for six years, moving on to be the director of athletic development in 1999. In 2004, Madigan became an associate dean and the director of development in the College of Business Administration.
In other words, he left the ice after four years, but he never left Northeastern. And he never left hockey. After his stint as an assistant coach ended in 1993, he became a scout for the New York Islanders. Thirteen years later, he moved on to scout for the Pittsburgh Penguins and continued that work right up until he became Northeastern’s head coach in July.
“I was groomed for this position going back to late ’80s,” he said. “I coached for seven years, they were grooming me for the role, and life takes different turns, so it didn’t work out that way. That’s when I moved on to the pro ranks. (The head coaching) opportunity came about one time before (in 1994), and it wasn’t the right time for Jim Madigan, but it was close.
“This time was the right opportunity, for the program and for me and my family.”
The right opportunity isn’t always a perfect one, though. Madigan inherits a team that was good last season, but not great, and lost some key components to graduation (forwards Wade MacLeod, Tyler McNeely and Steve Silva) and early pro defections (forward Brodie Reid and defenseman Jamie Oleksiak). He also took over with less than half the recruiting and preparation time most coaches get between seasons.
Not only was there less time to recruit, but Madigan also had to do damage control with recruits who signed on to play for Cronin, only to watch a new regime take over before they set foot on campus. Highly-touted New Jersey products John and Matt Gaudreau were at one point committed to join the Huskies, but they backed out shortly after Cronin stepped down. John will play for Boston College this fall, while Matt is set to join the Eagles next season after a year in the USHL.
Madigan and his staff rolled with the punches, though, and pulled in two new names — forward Joe Manno and defenseman Josh Manson.
Manno, who had to decommit from UMass after failing to qualify academically, earned a waiver from Providence, but the Friars didn’t have the scholarship dollars to bring him into the fold, so Northeastern became the beneficiary.
“Hockey East was my priority,” said Manno, who was headed north to play in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — and thereby nix his college eligibility — when the Friars reversed his direction. “School’s always come first, getting an education.”
For the players already on the team, it was a summer of questions. Captain Mike McLaughlin and his teammates peered through the fog of their team’s turmoil as the start of the 2011-12 season grew closer by the day.
“We just wanted to make sure we were ready for the season no matter who was coaching or behind the bench,” he said. “As far as the not knowing who was going to be coaching, yeah, it was kind of a stress factor.
“I don’t know if nervous is the right word, but we were kind of anxious,” McLaughlin said. “Some guys see the new coach as a new opportunity.”
Madigan doesn’t have any plans to overhaul Northeastern’s playing style. The Huskies under Cronin were known for hard-edged play, utilizing speed and brute force to overcome their talent shortcomings.
Madigan’s plan is to stick with what worked so well under Cronin, who led Northeastern out of the doldrums of the early 2000s and into Beanpot and Hockey East contention almost every year.
“From the outside looking in, people are going to see very much a similar style of play and brand that was implemented over the last few years,” Madigan said. “That’s been a Northeastern trademark: hard to play against, a team that’s going to be the aggressor, that will work hard, that has passion and commitment to playing.
“When people came into Matthews Arena years ago, it was a tough place to play. Greg Cronin has re-instilled that the last few years.”
Madigan said the players he’s inherited are taking to his tenure well. It helps that he’s been around the program throughout their careers, and effectively delivered former Huskies Joe Vitale and Brad Thiessen into the Pittsburgh organization. Though he’s never been a head coach, there’s little doubting his hockey bona fides, and being able to tell a player you’ve scouted for two NHL organizations certainly carries some weight when coaching needs to be done.
“They’re looking at me as a strong, smart hockey person,” he said. “We’ve had two players who I was involved with two years ago, Joe and Brad. The players that have seen me understand I have a maybe a different hockey pedigree, but a strong hockey pedigree.”
Jim Madigan has been on the road to coaching his alma mater since his skates left the ice for the last time in 1985. After 26 years of winding roads and one frenzied, frantic summer, his time is now.
This article originally appeared in the October issue of New England Hockey Journal. Andrew Merritt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.