Umile’s Final Ride in Durham

by | Aug 23, 2017

Walking into Dick Umile’s office in the Whittemore Center on the picturesque University of New Hampshire campus in Durham, NH is like walking into a living history book. He has pictures of his players and family on the desk and shelves, plaques honoring record setting wins on the wall, and memories to share for a lifetime.

The featured decoration is a nearly wall sized photograph of a Frozen Fenway game against long time rival Maine. One look at that picture and Umile jumps into talking about Hockey East’s high standard of play, Trevor van Riemsdyk’s recent trade to the Carolina Hurricanes, and the importance of recruiting top talent and developing your own troops in house.

The 68-year-old coach has written the history of hockey in Durham, New Hampshire, for over 30 years as a player, assistant coach, and head coach. This summer, he announced that the 2017-2018 season will be his final year as a coach. Speculation abounded regarding Umile’s retirement after last season ended, but who would want to go out on that note?

The 2016-2017 season was tough for the Wildcats. They finished with a 15-20-5 record while losing important players to injury. Their defense struggled and Danny Tirone was tested repeatedly in net with mixed results.

The offense had some moments of spectacular flash, particularly Tyler Kelleher, who netted 24 goals and 63 points, one of the greatest seasons in UNH’s esteemed history. He was one of ten nominees for the Hobey Baker Award and led the Cats to a postseason series win against the Merrimack Warriors in North Andover and forced UMass Lowell to a 3rd game in the Tsongas Center. Michael McNicholas and Jason Salvaggio also had excellent offensive seasons. Sadly, the top line was the best part of the team and you cannot win many games with only a powerful three skater unit. UNH ran out of gas. They lost 8-2 to the Riverhawks in the final game of their series and fell one game short of the Hockey East Semi-Finals in the Boston Garden.  Kelleher, Jamie Hill, and captain Matias Cleland, whom Umile claims as the best captain he’s ever coached, all graduated from UNH.

Things looked bleak at the end of last year. Fortunately, Umile is a master recruiter and the incoming freshman class should mix with the returning veterans to bring the Wildcats back to national contention.

The incoming freshman class is headlined by defenseman Max Gildon and Benton Maas, both of whom can quarterback a power play, check, and score. They should help the team immediately and be building blocks for the future of the program. They were both drafted in the NHL Draft this summer, with Gildon going to the Florida Panthers in the third round and Maas picked by the Washington Capitals in the sixth. Both took part in several showcases and tournaments and are excited to play in Durham.

They are joined by James Miller on defense and Mike Robinson in goal. Robinson is expected to compete with top goalie Danny Tirone. Tirone will be the starter this season and is expected to take another step forward after a hard ending to last year’s run. He gave up eight goals to Lowell in the final game, including six in the first period, and told his coaches he wanted to stay in the net. He buckled down, made some good saves, and earned respect from everyone in the UNH program. It is his job to lose. Robinson was drafted in the third round by the San Jose Sharks and will get into games early, but the job is Tirone’s.

The freshmen are rounded out by Eric MacAdams, Kohei Sato, and Charlie Kelleher, Tyler Kelleher’s younger brother. All three are promising talents. Charlie will not wear his brother’s number, but he has a similar body, quickness, and skillset to his sibling. He’s not putting any pressure on himself to live up to his brother’s lofty standards; there’s enough pressure on him to help UNH win. MacAdams is a hardworking skater and Sato might be the fastest skater Umile has ever seen.

The Japanese forward and the rest of the freshman class looks to join returning veterans Michael McNicholas, Dylan Chanter, Cameron Marks, Shane Eiserman, Ara Nazarian, and the rest of the Wildcats to form a dangerous team that can compete for a Hockey East crown and gets back to the NCAA tournament. Umile is excited to coach this unit. He should be. A coach of his caliber deserves to go out with a team like this.

Richard Umile was born on December 21st, 1948 to a prototypical Italian-American family in Melrose, MA. He came to love hockey at a young age. Good for him, because he grew up in one of the best communities for the sport. Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Derek Sanderson, and the Big Bad Bruins made the sport popular and kids by the dozen started playing.

Many college hockey stars, including Andy Brickley, Shawn Bates, and Keith Tkachuk call Melrose home. Umile was one of these kids and eventual college stars. He went to Melrose High School, played very well at the best high school program in the state, and earned a scholarship to play at the University of New Hampshire.

He couldn’t play his freshman year, due to NCAA rules at the time, but he was around the team, watched the great players on both sides and learned from them. “I remember watching Ken Dryden play for Cornell against us. His own teammates couldn’t score on him in warmups and the crowd went crazy for it” he mused with his trademark smile on his face. He sat and watched and when his sophomore year arrived, he made an on ice impact.

After scoring a team high 29 goals in his sophomore year, he was voted the team’s MVP. He remains humble looking back on his playing career. “I could do a bit of everything. But I played with a great player named Louis Frigon, who played like (Phil) Esposito. I’d go in the corners, get the puck, pass it to him and he’d score.” Frigon may have been the leading scorer in those years, but Umile was respected enough to be voted as the team’s captain in his senior year.

After graduation, Umile returned to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to teach biology and serve as an assistant coach at his alma mater in Melrose. After two years there, he took the head coaching job at Watertown High School, leading the once proud program to dominance again. For eleven years, Umile’s Red Raiders were a pinnacle team in the Commonwealth. He also took a job scouting for the St. Louis Blues on the side in his final two years coaching in Watertown.

In 1985, Umile was approached by his college teammate Mike McShane to join the coaching staff at Providence College as an assistant. Thanks to Lou Lamoriello’s influence, the Friars were the most desired team to be with, so Umile joined on.

In 1987, after only two years, Umile submitted his resignation from Providence so he could spend more time with his family. He worked in the clothing business with college teammate Billy Munroe for a year down in Falmouth. He could not stay away from coaching for long.

In 1988, Wildcat Head Coach Bob Kullen was vacationing in Falmouth while recovering from a heart transplant. He ran into Umile and asked if he wanted to return to Durham and be an assistant coach at his alma mater. “UNH has always been in my blood, so I said yes. Probably wouldn’t have been for any other school.” Umile explained as his smile expanded and then vanished when talking about his transition from assistant to head coach. Kullen’s transplant helped, but did not solve all his problems.

Early in the 1990-1991 season, Kullen’s health took a sudden downturn. His body rejected the transplanted heart. “He stayed home for our major trips. He couldn’t travel or even skate for the practices, so I ran the practices for the early stages of the season. We went out to Colorado to play the Air Force Academy. We had a two-game series against them and he died late Friday night back here. That Saturday was the first game I coached as the head coach against Air Force.” On November 2nd, 1990, Bob Kullen died and UNH handed the reigns to their fourth different head coach in six years. In the face of tragedy, stability and excellence emerged.

Umile has held the job ever since Kullen’s passing and has led the Wildcats to marvelous success. New Hampshire has won seven Hockey East Regular Season championships, two consecutive Hockey East Tournament championships in 2002 and 2003, and made four trips to the Frozen Four in 1998, 1999, 2002, and 2003 with Championship Game appearances in 1999 and 2003.

The only thing that has eluded the Wildcats in 27 seasons under Umile is a National Championship. The closest they’ve come to winning was in 1999 when they fell 3-2 in overtime of the championship game to their bitter rivals, the Maine Black Bears.

The Wildcats also fell 5-1 to Minnesota in the 2003 National Championship game. Despite the painful misses, Umile is on the short list of the greatest college hockey coaches ever.  Coach Umile is now the 9th winningest coach in the history of Division 1 Collegiate Hockey and the third winningest active coach, with 586 wins. He is only 14 wins away from becoming the 9th D1 coach with 600 wins.

With all the success, he has made Durham, NH into a destination for quality hockey players who want to become professionals. Incoming Freshman Max Gildon said it perfectly: “I know the history behind UNH and I’m just hoping I can be a part of bringing the program back to the top. I think we really are going to start that turnaround if you will, next year and I think we’re going to have a good year.”

After this season, Mike Souza will take over for Umile. He will be blessed with one of the best jobs in college hockey and given the expectations of living up to one of the best the sport has ever seen. Dick Umile has crafted a 28-year tenure in Durham and deserves a chance to compete in the final year of his legendary career.

He gets one last ride to lead the Wildcats in rivalry games against BU, BC, and Maine. He has assembled a talented team that should get back to the Boston Garden to play for the Hockey East Title again and hopefully will go back to the NCAA Tournament again. The program is in a good position for life after Umile. But his positive demeanor, accessibility, pride, and love of the game cannot be repeated. Take time to appreciate the class and legacy of Dick Umile. So few are so great for one school for so long.

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