Fresh off a third-place finish at the 56th annual Flood-Marr Tournament, Kimball Union Academy head coach Tim Whitehead joins Kirk Luedeke on the latest episode of New England Hockey Journal’s “RinkWise” podcast.
Whitehead, a native of Trenton, N.J., arrived at the Meriden, N.H., prep school in 2013 with more than 15 years of NCAA Division 1 head coaching experience.
He spent five seasons at UMass Lowell (1996-01) before taking over Maine, another Hockey East program, in 2002. In his first season, he led the Black Bears to the team’s first of four Frozen Fours (and first of two national championship games) in his 12-year tenure and was awarded the Spencer Penrose Trophy as the NCAA Coach of the Year.
After leaving Orono, the established coach took over the program at KUA and led the Wildcats to the NEPSAC Piatelli/Simmons championship in his first season at the helm. The Wildcats have appeared in the Stuart/Corkery bracket each of the past six seasons since, dominating the New England prep school landscape with three straight Elite 8 championships from 2017-19.
Eleven games into the 2021-22 season — Whitehead’s ninth behind the prep school bench — the Wildcats lead the pack in NEHJ’s Power Rankings for the second straight week in the midst of their holiday break.
“It’s been great,” Whitehead said of the early going of the new campaign. “It’s been a lot of fun. We’ve got a really good group of guys.”
‘Fun’ is a keyword for the Wildcats. Even during the monotonous months of last year’s Covid-impacted campaign, which didn’t include the same number of games as usual.
KUA, however, was in the classroom, on the ice and hitting the weight room, doing regular day-to-day prep hockey activities, far more than most.
“That’s always been our focus,” the head coach said of the importance of creating an environment that makes it fun for the players to come to the rink each day, especially last year at the height of the pandemic. “We hope that 90 minutes on the ice every day is their favorite part of the day, whether we’re playing games or not.
“It’s never perfect, but you try to find that balance of competing, but also enjoying the competition. (The games) are great opportunities, they’re challenges, and we love playing great teams and close games. We loved that game with Salisbury — KUA leading-scorer Revelin Mack scored the game-winner with 13 seconds left to pull out the late 3-2 win —that’s the perfect game to be involved in.”
Aside from Whitehead, the key drivers of the program are assistant coaches Bryant Harris (Plainfield, N.H.) and Matt Underhill, who hails from Campbell River, B.C.
“We’ve been together for quite a few years now, all the way through the championships and everything, so that really stabilizes the program, and I just really feel fortunate,” Whitehead said.
The setup is a bit different than the college level, he added, where the assistant coaches are frequently out on recruiting trips and spending time away from the team.
“These guys are there every day,” he said. “All three of us, we’re all in. We’re on the ice and in the weight room every day. It’s a great development model.”
With Whitehead (a former NCAA forward), Bryant (a former defenseman at Hobart College and KUA) and Underhill (an All-American goaltender at Cornell), the staff provides a unique perspective for every player that throws on the orange and white.
“We have all three positions covered and a lot of experience between the three of us. Not just on the ice, but with teaching, coaching, the weight room, video, nutrition — all of those aspects. (The depth of the coaching here) is a big, big part of our program. We’re really fortunate.”
For more from Tim Whitehead on his career as a player and coach, insight on the prep landscape, the current state of the program at Kimball Union Academy and more, listen to the full podcast.
RinkWise is brought to you by Paul Vincent Hockey, Laura Stamm Power Skating, Sacred Heart University, University of Nebraska High School, and Bruce Haas’ “Great Game!: D-1 College Hockey: People, Places, Perspectives.”