October 6, 2011

From NEHJ: Dennehy is Merrimack's miracle worker

By Brion O'Connor

Amid the din of banging sticks and pucks, the voice booms across the ice, authoritative but with a hint of mischievousness. 

Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy poses in front of a portrait of former Merrimack coach J. Thom Lawler, who won the Division 2 national championship in 1978. (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)

Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy poses in front of a portrait of former Merrimack coach J. Thom Lawler, who won the Division 2 national championship in 1978. (photo: Dave Arnold Photography)

“Marcus, you’ve got to get after that rebound if you want to score goals. You do want to score goals, right?”

Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy flashes a bright smile, and the young forward manages to grin back sheepishly, acknowledging he was caught giving something less than 100 percent. That doesn’t cut it in Dennehy’s hockey universe. Want proof? Consider that Dennehy isn’t even talking to one of his college players, but a 14-year-old summer camper. While many coaches collect a nice paycheck and then coast through these summertime sessions, Dennehy never fails to bring the enthusiasm. And the noise. Every single day.

That, in a nutshell, explains why his Merrimack hockey program is on the upswing.

“Not everyone in life is fortunate enough to love what they do, and I think Mark loves what he does every day of the week,” says Jimmy Healey, the Warriors’ second-year goalies coach. “Everyone has to work, but you might as well have a little fun while you’re at it.

“Mark has a great personality, and an easy way about himself and relating to players,” Healey says. “Players know he’s been where they’re at right now, and he’s very much a player’s coach. He wants you to challenge him, and he’ll challenge you. And that creates a great environment.”

So does winning, which is another reason the mood at Lawler Arena on Merrimack’s North Andover, Mass., campus is so upbeat. Last season, the Warriors embarked on a record-setting season — and a brief dalliance with a top-five national ranking — before finishing with a 25-10-4 record (16-8-3 in Hockey East) and a heartbreaking, 4-3 overtime loss to Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Northeast Regional.

This wasn’t the first time that the Warriors have tasted success at the Division 1 level. But it’s the first time it doesn’t seem like a fluke, or a one-and-done foray into the postseason. This Warriors squad looks to be built for the long haul, with a bedrock foundation built around the beliefs of its 43-year-old coach.

* * *

The outlook at Merrimack wasn’t always so rosy. Imagine the position Sean Frazier found himself in seven years ago, in the spring of 2005. Frazier, a University of Maine graduate, was the incoming Merrimack College athletic director. He was inheriting a program that was a perennial also-ran in Hockey East, having combined for a 78-149-27 over the past seven years under Chris Serino (Saugus, Mass.).

Although Frazier didn’t formally come on board as the Merrimack AD until July 2005, he was involved in the vetting process of selecting a new hockey coach, and he made it clear to then-president Richard J. Santagati and current assistant AD Joe Iarrobino that Dennehy was his man.

“I thought, oh my god, that’s going to be a complete rebuild, and there were a lot of politics associated with that,” says Frazier, who has since moved to Wisconsin. “The job at Merrimack was riddled with concerns. The bottom line is that Mark had to come in there and deal with an already unbelievable job, to compete in one of the elite conferences in the country, at a small school.”

So what made Frazier think Dennehy, a Boston College grad and an assistant coach at the University of Massachusetts, was the miracle worker who was going to turn Merrimack’s flagship athletic program around?

“I wanted someone who had that type of charismatic, stick-to-it type of attitude,” he says. “We needed a guy who’s going to have a familiarity with what he’s getting himself into. We needed someone who was going to come in here knowing this is going to be an uphill battle every single day. And it was clear that Mark had what it takes to get the right people on the bus.”

Healey knew the Merrimack situation firsthand. The goaltender from Newfoundland played four years at Merrimack, first for Serino and then for Dennehy after he took the reins of a struggling program in 2005. Healey says Serino’s teams were talented enough to be competitive, but not always focused enough.

“What Mark has been able to do is he’s really changed the culture within the team,” he says. “He wants hard-working kids who are willing to pay the price, whether it’s blocking shots, or doing what he asks them to do. The team comes first. Last year, we had Stephane Da Costa, who was probably the best player in the league, but Steph always carried himself as part of the team. It’s very even-keel across the team. Everyone’s in the same boat. There’s no special treatment, no one’s better than the next person. He’s done a very good job with that culture. And the players are buying in, and now we’re winning.”

But Dennehy, the team, the fans and the school had to be patient, staying the course through a brutal early tenure that saw the Warriors go a combined 30-89-15 (17-78-15 in Hockey East) in the coach’s first four seasons at the helm, including three consecutive last-place league finishes.

Dennehy kept working to get his guys on the bus, including the wildly talented Da Costa and superb goaltender Joe Cannata (Wakefield, Mass.), and in 2009-10 the Warriors served notice. The team finished 16-19-2, and 12-13-2 in the league, good for sixth place. In the playoffs, they pushed defending NCAA champ Boston University to a deciding quarterfinal game before bowing out of the Hockey East playoffs. Last season, the Warriors improved again, finishing fourth in the league, beating perennial powers Maine and New Hampshire in the Hockey East playoffs before losing to Boston College in the championship game.

Dennehy’s former mentor, UMass head coach Don “Toot” Cahoon (Lynn, Mass.), states flatly that he’s not the least bit surprised that that his former assistant is thriving at Merrimack.

“He’s absolutely driven,” Cahoon says. “This is the guy who had the opportunity, and I really believe this, to make millions of dollars 15 years ago, but he wanted to be a college hockey coach.”

Cahoon relates a story of how Bob Crocker (Centerville, Mass.), a former BU assistant coach and a longtime NHL scout, sold him on Dennehy.

“I was looking for an assistant coach at Princeton, and I called Bob Crocker, and asked him about Mark and other people who might be interested in coming to Princeton,” Cahoon says. “Bob told me, ‘I don’t care about anybody else. Don’t go beyond this guy. This is the guy you want to hire. This is a guy who has conviction, is a student of the game and definitely wants to do this.’“

Likewise, Cahoon says Dennehy’s decision to pursue the Merrimack head-coaching post, despite the program’s lackluster reputation and relatively scant resources, was predictable.

“First and foremost, he believed in himself and wanted to be a head coach, and then he went about not looking to make excuses for his situation but finding solutions for the situation he was in,” Cahoon says. “He pounded away at a list of solutions that he thought were doable that would make his program a whole lot more presentable, and make his program one where he could get enough good players.”

* * *

The kid from Dorchester, Mass., wasn’t a flashy collegiate player, but Dennehy was a quick study and a savvy, reliable four-year defender (8 goals, 54 points and 66 penalty minutes) for Len Ceglarski’s Boston College Eagles in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

“Mark was a really smart player. He played defense, but he could very well have been a forward,” says Ceglarski (East Walpole, Mass.). “He was very good with the puck. He made very few mistakes when the puck was on his stick. And he knew the game as well as anybody.”

Cahoon agrees: “I’ve worked with a couple of people, (BU coach) Jack Parker being the most obvious, who are really, really quick on their feet. The scariest people I’ve met intellectually are the people who are inner-city people who happen to be extremely bright. Jack O’Callahan was one of them. Jack Parker was one of them. And Mark Dennehy is another one.”

The key is that Dennehy combines his natural street smarts with a down-to-earth work ethic.

“The one thing that’s impressed me the most about Mark is there’s no ego in the sense that he knows it all,” Healey says. “He’s always very eager to learn new stuff, to learn new ways of doing things. He’s just very open about improving himself, immersing himself in different situations. He’s always reading some kind of book on coaching.

“He’s always looking at ways to better the program; not just the team, but himself, so he can do a better job down the road. He works extremely hard. The way he coaches exemplifies how the team plays, with that hard-working mentality, not taking shortcuts, because you’re going to get the payoff, the results, by doing it the right way.”

* * *

Still, the 800-pound gorilla that confronts Dennehy every day is that he must compete against true hockey powerhouses, including Boston University, New Hampshire and his alma mater, BC, that have budgets and buildings that dwarf those at Merrimack. A critical component to Dennehy’s recent success is that he’s managed that gorilla.

“He’s basically gone and got kids who fit the goals and objectives that needed to happen at Merrimack, and he did it by being very personable, being very goal-oriented, and those kids believed in him. And those families believed in him,” Frazier says. “ I think that game plan, and putting the right people on the bus, really helped out.”
Like his own high school pedigree — Boston College High always seems to be in the mix for postseason honors — Dennehy went after kids from winning programs.

“Mark has a theory about recruiting from teams that were successful. In his mind, he was recruiting guys who knew how to win,” Cahoon says. “Then, within that mix, he found some good players that were willing to continue to work, even though in some instances they were a little bit older, and passed by by other schools along the way. Mark found the good in the player, and encouraged that player to continue working on the good to develop into a better player. That’s the brilliance of the coach, of that man.”

Yet no matter a player’s background, or pedigree, Dennehy makes one point abundantly clear: He wants kids who want to play for Merrimack, and play a Warriors brand of hockey.

“We look for a competitive spirit, a guy who wants to compete, and wants to win battles. Puck possession is always in question at Lawler (Arena), so if you’re not hungry for it, you’re not going to have it much,” Dennehy says. “At the end of the day, I want guys that want to be on our bench. They’re not looking across at the other sweaters, wishing they were over there.

“The only thing that really matters is what’s inside the glass. Everything else is periphery,” he says. “I cannot have guys who are more interested in the banners that are already up than the ones that get put up. When we start the year, the national championships that BC has and BU has have no meaning for this year. They’re snapshots in history. If a player is caught up in how many banners you have, they’re going to lose sight of the one they’re playing for. When (Bill) Parcells came to New England, he said he was looking for Patriots, not historians.”

So what does Dennehy bring to the table in terms of X’s and O’s?

Plenty, according to those who know him.

“He’s very analytical. He has taken the time to study the game from a lot of different perspectives,” Cahoon says. “He’s listened to what a lot of coaches have had to say. He’s watched people very carefully. He’s very perceptive. And I think he’s taken all of that and created his own package, which is totally unique.

“He has that ability to ascertain all that information, package it the way he’s comfortable, and then make a presentation to a group of guys and get them to buy into it.”

* * *

Clearly, Mark Dennehy is having a lot more fun these days. Why not? The Warriors appear to have a rock-solid foundation, with players who’ve bought into Dennehy’s team-first philosophy. Students and alumni have flocked to Lawler, making the 2,500-seat facility one of the most uncomfortable barns for visitors to play in.

Plus, Dennehy’s got the one thing most coaches crave — job security — after Merrimack president Christopher Hopey (Nashua, N.H.) and athletic director Glenn Hofmann ponied up a contact extension that locks up the former Boston College blueliner through the 2018-19 season. With three job openings in Hockey East alone this summer (Providence, Northeastern and UMass-Lowell), it was no secret that Dennehy was a commodity.

But Dennehy says he’s not looking for a change of scenery.

“My long-term goals are to live through the life of the contract. If I complicate it any more than that, I’ll get lost,” says the father of three. “I find I’m really at my best when I’m concentrating on the here and now, and taking care of the next task at hand.

“Any program, but in particular our program, you’re only as good as your last game,” he says. “I love waking up in the morning and not needing an alarm clock, because I love what I’m doing. It starts with ‘why?’ and I wanted to have an impact on young people.

“As long as Merrimack College thinks I’m having a positive one, then I couldn’t be happier.”

The same could be said for the long-suffering Merrimack faithful, who now have something to cheer about. Gone are the team’s top three scorers — DaCosta (who bolted early for the Ottawa Senators), Chris Barton and Joe Cucci — but the squad will feature Cannata in goal, a number of electric forwards including Ryan Flanigan and Mike Collins (Boston, Mass.), and a solid defensive corps led by Karl Stollery and towering Edmonton draft pick Kyle Bigos.

“Every year is a challenge,” Dennehy says. “You start off 0-0. It’s a new year. We’ll have a new set of goals, a new roster, and it will be a different team than the 2010-11 Merrimack Warriors.

“There’s a standard we hope to hold ourselves to, in the classroom, on the ice and in the community. And then there are goals that we set for ourselves athletically,” he says. “So instead of expecting things to happen, we’re hopefully working toward goals. We won’t be able to carry any wins, goals, blocked shots, none of that from last year. But what we can carry forward are our core principles, our persistence, our determination and our standards. Those things you can take with you from year to year.”

Dennehy also has a game plan that continues to serve him well.

“Mark’s teams play as good offensively, defensively, shorthanded and man-up as any of the teams I’ve seen the last few years,” says Ceglarski, who is still a fixture at Boston College games. “If you’re particularly good in all four parts of the game, that usually means you have good coaching.”

“Mark plays a system that gives you very little space in the middle of the rink,” Cahoon says. “He’s got great goaltending, and a quick-strike type of attack. And then he’s been really terrific with his special teams. So there’s no mystery about what the formula is. But you’ve got to try to out-execute him at his game. You can’t ignore it.”

If nothing else, Dennehy has made certain that no one will be ignoring his Merrimack Warriors for the foreseeable future.

This article originally appeared in the October issue of New England Hockey Journal. Brion O’Connor can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.