St. Lawrence Fights Through Growing Pains as it Presses On Without Joe Marsh
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Nine Division I teams changed head coaches over the offseason, but none of them did it like St. Lawrence did.
Just weeks before the start of the season, St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh, the man behind the Saints bench for 26 seasons, took an indefinite leave of absence for medical reasons.
Last season, Marsh missed two separate periods of time for medical reasons as well, battling an esophageal disease that constricted his throat, making eating, breathing and swallowing difficult. He had surgery, then further surgery after complications.
That process likely contributed to a flare up in a long-time arthritic condition, making it hard for Marsh to skate or even wear a shoe. Meanwhile, he still faces ongoing throat surgeries.
Marsh took an indefinite leave because he didn't want to be in and out like last season. But the move came at an inopportune time. Just months earlier, top assistant Bob Prier, who was more or less being groomed to replace Marsh one day, left to take the head coaching position at Princeton (filling one of those nine aforementioned head coaching openings). St. Lawrence was thrown into a bit of temporary disarray.
"He was my best friend really. We were very close," Marsh said of Prier. "I miss him as a friend. His wife and my wife were great friends, their kids were like our surrogate grandkids. So you work to maintain it best you can. And now that the smoke cleared, you're happy for him. He earned it."
Though the transition was sure to be difficult, St. Lawrence made a move to replace Prier that turned out to be pivotal, luring one-time Saints captain Greg Carvel back from the NHL. A feisty two-way player for the Saints from 1989-93, Carvel had a lengthy stint as a pro assistant, most recently in Ottawa.
Carvel joined Mike Hurlbut, another alum — a stalwart defenseman on the last St. Lawrence team to make the NCAA championship game, in 1988.
"There's obviously differences in style and personality (from me), and they're very similar (to each other) in a good way," Marsh said. "They were very similar as players — real good players. Both were real good students, a great sense of purpose, they're both extremely hard workers, very reliable. Their work ethic is incredible."
Hurlbut said it was definitely different and everyone had to adjust.
"Joe is not replaceable by any means," Hurlbut said. "We're (just) trying to work really hard and get the guys on the same page and keep them focused. ... We both bring a lot of passion and pride to the program. We're trying to do the best we can to return St. Lawrence to the elite status in the ECAC and nationally too. I'm confident."
Confident or not, the players faced an adjustment. Marsh's strength came not from the Xs and Os necessarily, but in his motivational and inspirational abilities. One of the most glib, humorous speakers in college hockey — and one with a rock-solid reputation — Marsh has always translated that to the locker room by getting players to play hard for him.
"It's been hard for every guy who came here to play for Joe Marsh, because's he's our motivator, our inspirer and a legendary coach," Saints captain Jacob Drewiske said. "So it's kinda a bummer that's he not around to do what he always does. But we know how important his health is, and having a 50-percent Joe Marsh here just doesn't feel right."
Hurlbut agreed, "I never ran across a coach like that. You want to play hard for a coach like Joe Marsh. He's hard to replicate. Every coach has their own style. I have a lot of experience with different coaches to draw upon, but he's a unique individual."
Unable to match Marsh's attributes, the new coaches — led by philosophies Carvel imported from the pros — got to work on the tactical side of things.
"College hockey is certainly not as structured as the NHL. And Greg had a tremendous amount of experience at the NHL level," Hurlbut said. "It's tic-tac-toe up there and college hockey isn't like that. But he's tried to bring it in, and through the use of video — we're not trying to take away creativity, but we just wanted consistency. Every shift and line is expected to do the same forecheck."
And Marsh had no problem letting the new coaches instill whatever system they wanted.
"I told (Carvel), 'Do what you would do in any situation,'" Marsh said. "'Be yourself. You don't have to dumb it down. It's very important for you to have these kids reach for you, instead of feeling like we're not in the NHL and have to water it down.' And there's a lot to reach for."
That was a big change, however, for those that weren't used to it. St. Lawrence was expected to be back on the upswing this year. Instead, it was 0-5 to start the season. Suddenly Carvel and Hurlbut had to hear whispers about whether these guys weren't up to the task.
"It took us a lot longer than we wanted to adjust to the new systems Greg Carvel brought in," Drewiske said. "It was a run-and-gun show. We would work hard, but not smart, and other teams took advantage of that. Now we are trying to work hard and smart."
The tough schedule to open the season didn't help — two games against a strong Ferris State team, followed by a 10-3 pounding at Michigan, a brutal 6-5 loss to RIT, and a tough ECAC opener against Union.
But between the RIT game and the ECAC opener, the Saints had a long break, and that allowed things to take shape. Since then, St. Lawrence's play has been much improved, including three consecutive ECAC wins after the opener.
"That's really where they did a great job circling the wagons," Marsh said. "They had time, they worked them hard, but with an elevated sense of purpose to it."
Drewiske said, "Every team has to go through a learning period. Some learn faster than others. We're slowly learning what type of team we are. There are no blue-chip recruits here. Michigan or Boston College can make 5-10 mistakes because they can put up five goals. We have to make sure our mistakes are limited."
Marsh, for one, never lost confidence in his proteges.
"They have guys believing in what's going on," Marsh said. "If I did come back, I wouldn't disrupt that one single bit. I'd have to come in and alter my role a little bit."
Which begs the question, what will happen if and when Marsh returns? When will it happen? How will it happen?
For now, the 60-year old Marsh checks in about three times per week, just talking about the players but not interfering with any coaching. He goes to some games, but mainly stays away, so that he's not a distraction and because it's hard for him to just watch.
But he yearns to return somehow, even if he doesn't have a timetable yet.
"People are saying 60 is the new 50. I hope so," Marsh said. "At the same time, I've had a great run up here. I feel a tremendous sense of ownership on the program. I've never coached anywhere else. It's much more than just a job for me. I care about what's going to transpire after I leave. You're thinking down the road, it might be two years, I see this as a precursor, a dress rehearsal for when the date comes."
Even when Marsh returns, the program will be handed off at some point. Maybe Prier comes back one day, but if not, Hurlbut could wind up being the man for the job. He didn't consider it a few years ago, but now it's something he could see happening.
"I got into the coaching ranks primarily due to Joe Marsh," Hurlbut said. "He had me come here as a volunteer when I wasn't looking. After 13 years of playing, I wanted a break from hockey. But I got to enjoy the college game again, and six years as a volunteer gets the bug in you. I'm working with the same age group that I was basically playing with the last few years. And we have a really receptive group to what we have to say. I have a lot of work to do on the coaching end with systems and what not, but over the last 3-4 years, I've learned a tremendous amount from Bob (Prier) and Joe in the time I've been back. Even as a player, I can remember what an influence Joe was on me."
So it's all very up in the air still. For now, however, Marsh is content with letting Carvel and Hurlbut handle things. The only major concern is recruiting, both because of the uncertainty and because it's harder for Carvel and Hurlbut to get out to see players.
But Marsh believes that will work itself out too. Most importantly, he wants to handle the transition correctly, whether that takes six months or six years.
"I don't feel like I have to go out a certain way," Marsh said. "I don't need a ticker tape parade down Main Street. The transition has to be right for all parties."