November 18, 2012

From NEHJ: Family guy

By Andrew Merritt

Dick Umile has three daughters: Katie, Courtney and Kristin. He’s also the grandfather to seven grandchildren. But starting in September each year, the Umile family swells with the addition of a few dozen young men in their late teens and early 20s. 

Dick Umile has brought the Wildcats to four Frozen Fours in 17 NCAA tournament appearances. (Photo: UNH Media Relations)

That’s the ethos of UNH hockey: The team is a family. It starts with the man who has coached the Wildcats for more than two decades. A Melrose, Mass., native whose own high school coaches instilled the values and excitement in him that led him to want to be a coach, Umile has built one of the nation’s most consistently successful hockey programs.

On Oct. 12, that distinction was made even more indelible when the Wildcats beat St. Cloud State 5-3, giving Umile his 500th career victory. Already one of the winningest coaches in college hockey history, Umile passed Boston College’s Snooks Kelley, who was 11th on that list, a week later with a win over Boston University.

What Umile has built in his 22 years in Durham is a high-octane offense, a pipeline to the NHL and a devoted following by the thousands that pack the Whittemore Center each frosty winter weekend. But more than that, he has built a family, one that is an extension of his own in many ways.

One of the elder members of that family is Connor Hardowa, the captain of this year’s squad. The Edmonton native said he “didn’t even know New Hampshire was a state” when assistant coach Scott Borek visited him while he was playing junior hockey in Spruce Grove, Alberta. Coming to school in an unfamiliar place, though, wasn’t a tough decision.

“I committed before I even came out here,” he said. “I just loved the place, the coaches, the community, and the whole campus was pretty attractive to me. I walked in and saw a game against BU, and it was pretty special to watch, the atmosphere and the fans.”

Hardowa also saw a culture at UNH that is largely due to Umile — the coach and the man. “I think he kind of establishes the team as a family, and everybody becomes accountable for their own actions on the ice and off the ice,” Hardowa said. “He takes everybody in and kind of gets to know you, feels everybody out, feels out their likes and dislikes, what they respond to as a player.”

For Umile, it’s a natural effect of the life he’s led and the way he was brought up. Whether the players buy in, he said, is up to them. “I would hope so, but the bottom line is that’s what it is, that’s who I am,” he said. “My family’s important to me, and when they come up, I share it with them.”

That sharing aspect goes beyond simply the expectations Umile has for his players and program. The seven grandchildren — Jack, Charlie, Lily Rose, Jamie, Cameron, Tyler and Quinn Robert — are frequent presences at home games.

“They feel comfortable with the team,” Umile said. “And the players reach out, they’re good to the kids, and it’s obvious that it’s important to them too.”

Umile has also made a tradition of bringing the players up to his house on Bow Lake, some 16 miles northwest of campus, for a preseason cookout. Umile doesn’t call it “team building,” per se, perhaps because that’s something limited to what a group of hockey players and coaches do.

“We’ve been doing that the last four or five years. We always do something, go to a park, have a cookout, play softball or Wiffle Ball or something,” he said. “It just brings the freshmen and the upperclassmen together, just enjoy the day.”

The Umile family — the one that isn’t comprised of forwards, defensemen and goalies — still gets together in the Melrose or Beverly, Mass., area most Sundays for a big Italian dinner, though it’s grown harder to wrangle everyone in recent years as more and more grandchildren have taken to the ice themselves, “playing hockey all over the place,” Umile said.

It just so happens that the grandfather spooning out portions of pasta is also one of the most successful men in his profession. He’s taken the lessons learned from his Melrose High coaches — World War II veterans Joe Hoague in football, Henry Hughes in hockey and Bob McIntyre in track — as well as his peers. “You take a little bit from everybody, steal a little bit from the colleagues that you coach against,” he said with a chuckle. And he’s been successful on several levels.

As a coach for 10 years at Watertown High School, he guided the Raiders to two Middlesex League titles and earned the Boston Globe’s Division 1 coach of the year award. He then went to Providence College to be an assistant on coach Mike McShane’s (Wakefield, Mass.) staff for two years.

Then, he tried sales. “Another classmate of mine asked me to come work for him, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that’s not what I wanted to do,” Umile said.

UNH coach Bob Kullen hired Umile as an assistant in 1988. When Kullen took a leave of absence in the fall of 1990 due to a recurrence of the rare blood disease amyloidosis, Umile took over as the Wildcats’ interim head coach. Kullen died about a month later, and Umile took over permanently. That next spring, Umile earned the Hockey East Coach of the Year award — only that was no longer the name of that honor. In 1991, it had become the Bob Kullen Coach of the Year Award.

Umile has earned the award five more times since. He’s also brought the Wildcats to four Frozen Fours in 17 NCAA tournament appearances, and the team has never missed the Hockey East playoffs in his 22 years. UNH has produced 28 All-Americans, 10 Hobey Baker Award finalists (including 1999 winner Jason Krog) and a bevy of professional players, including Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk, Anaheim’s Daniel Winnik and Marlborough, Mass., native Bobby Butler.

“I think it’s a real credit to Dick. He’s done an incredible job at New Hampshire, bringing them almost every single year to a national power,” said BC’s Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.). “They’re always well-respected, his teams. He’s a genuine good guy.

“I like how he presents his program, I like how he develops his program, the consistency to his teams. They play hockey the right way. … He tries to win games. He attacks, he coaches what I think is the right way to coach.”

York did have one request for Umile, though.

“I just wish he’d retire — he’s getting harder to beat.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Andrew Merritt covers Hockey East for New England Hockey Journal and hockeyjournal.com.

Twitter: @A_Merritt
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