Building the Foundation
Merrimack's Dennehy Credits Assistants for Turnaround
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
Phil Roy, Glenn Stewart and Darren Yopyk, have you heard of them?
If you’re a diehard college hockey fan you might remember their three stellar playing careers. Stewart was a prolific scorer at New Hampshire and Roy (Clarkson) and Yopyk (Princeton) were two standout defensemen to ever grace the ECAC.
As either current or one-time Warrior assistants, they’re three key ingredients to Merrimack’s 25-9-4 record and the Warriors’ berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 23 years.
While head coach Mark Dennehy is the foundation of the Merrimack program, you could say that these three men dug the foundation.
All those stories you used to hear from your grandfather about working 15-hour days in the factory correlate pretty well if you’re a college hockey assistant. The only difference is that instead of a hammer, your biggest tool is a BlackBerry, and instead of building cars or furniture, they’re building a hockey team.
Yopyk, an associate head coach with Mark Dennehy from 2005 to 2009, recruited much of the talent on this year’s roster, which has brought the Warriors back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 23 years and just a few goals short of a Hockey East title last weekend.
“He was my first priority when I took the job here,” Dennehy said.
Yopyk played at Princeton while Dennehy was an assistant on the Tigers’ staff and then followed Dennehy to Massachusetts, where he was a graduate assistant while Dennehy was an assistant with head coach Don Cahoon.
“It wasn’t hard to recognize the type of coach that he was,” Dennehy said. “His level of commitment is amazing and he is as much an architect of this program as I am. He recruited a lot of these guys.”
Yopyk’s forte was Western Canada, where he recruited the likes of Jesse Todd (17 goals, 14 assists), Chris Barton (14 goals, 25 assists) and defenseman Karl Stollery (six goals, 21 assists).
Also fluent in French, he served as a major influence in landing Stephane Da Costa (14 goals, 30 assists) as well.
“We aren’t always going to get those blue chip recruits,” Dennehy said. “We need to find a guy that is very good, maybe a guy the other bigger schools aren’t paying attention to, but a guy we know will play like a blue chipper. Darren was very good at recognizing that.”
Yopyk left in 2009 to take a job as head coach and general manager of the Westside Warriors (British Columbia Hockey League), a Junior A Canadian league where players look to develop their skills enough to move on to Major Junior or earn an NCAA scholarship.
It’s not a mistake that Merrimack has four Westside players on its recruit list.
“I hold his opinion as high as anyone I know,” Dennehy said. “When we recruit one of Darren’s players, I know what we are going to be getting. I know the mold they are coming from.”
Roy and Stewart have kept up that level of recruitment.
And it’s not easy leaving home for sometimes weeks at a time with young children at home.
“It’s a huge sacrifice,” Dennehy said. “My first thanks need to go to Phil’s wife Sonia and Glenn’s wife Bridget. It can put a lot of strain on a relationship and they both have young kids. It’s not easy.
“As a coach, it’s in your blood to want to get better and as a recruiter you want to be on the road recruiting the best talent you can. They probably don’t travel as much as they would like because I like to have them here for our games. Our commitment is always to the guys we have here. The level of commitment both of these guys have for our program … we wouldn’t be where we are now without them, I can tell you that.”
Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program. Roy and Stewart have been able to keep producing talent for the Warriors by recognizing diamonds in the rough.
Brendan Ellis and Jordan Heywood, two regulars on the blue line, were recruited just last season, a few months before their junior eligibility was to end.
“It’s easy to spot the fish in the water,” Dennehy said, “but it’s not always easy to get that fish on your boat.”
Heywood was recruiting in large part because Stewart had a relationship with his head coach in Victoria (BCHL).
Roy left a head coaching position at Division III Neumann to take his current job with Merrimack in 2008.
Stewart joined the staff when Yopyk departed in 2009, coming to the Warriors from Connecticut.
Jim Healey, a 2007 Merrimack grad, joined the team last season as a volunteer coach, working with the goaltenders.
“They all bring a unique approach,” Dennehy said. “They all relate really well to the players because they had such great college careers. And, it’s nice to have perspective and Phil brings the defenseman perspective while Glenn brings a forward’s perspective. Jim works with our goalies.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a more competitive bunch than this Merrimack staff.
That, of course, lends itself to some colorful debates.
“Behind closed doors I’d be lying if I didn’t say that there were some knock down drag outs,” Dennehy said. “Sometimes we’re trying to make a decision and I’m the swing vote and both of those guys will state and defend their case. But, whatever decision we make we walk out of that room and we’re all in agreement. You need to have passion to do what we do.”
For 42 of the nation’s 58 teams, the season is over. Thanks to Dennehy, his dedicated staff and their talented players, the Warriors play on.