by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
Who was I?
At the time, I was a nobody. Just a random sophomore at Merrimack College, that’s all I was. It was late in the 2003-04 hockey season and I had heard a rumor through the grapevine that one of the hockey team’s student managers was about to graduate. As a huge hockey guy, I e-mailed head coach Chris Serino on a whim, asking if he would be looking for another manager the next season.
I clicked “send,” not expecting to get a response, quite frankly. But less than a minute later, there was a reply in my inbox.
“Come to my office, I’m here now,” was all it said.
So, over to Volpe I went. I walked in, introduced myself, and the rest is history. Chris Serino, who died after a long battle with throat cancer on Monday, gave me my first “hockey job.” It’s something that I’m eternally thankful for. It’s very unlikely ... no, actually I can say this with certainty, I wouldn’t be covering hockey today if it weren’t for Coach Serino.
After our meeting, he told me to follow him down to practice. He introduced me to the room, to the other manager, and away I went, literally no more than 15 minutes after I sent the original e-mail.
Five days later, he had me included in the travel party to Maine for a playoff series.
At any other Hockey East school, my story probably doesn’t happen, yet at Merrimack and Malden Catholic, mine is just one of few hundred.
Too many stories to tell
Over the next two years I spent more time with Serino and the hockey program than I did my own roommates. Once I left my girlfriend at the time, who miraculously married me later on, outside in the parking lot (she was my ride home) while I was helping him tend to something, I can’t remember what. She came in looking for me – virtually no cell phone signal can penetrate the Volpe walls – and when she found me, I was given a stern warning from Serino to, “get the hell out of here, family comes first.”
There was Merrimack’s first trip to Agganis Arena. When we arrived, goaltender Casey Guenther comes up to me to ask where his jersey was ... yup, that’s right, I forgot it. It was still hanging up in North Andover.
Luckily, we had a backup. It was affectionately known as the “blood shirt,” in case someone got busted open and needed to change jerseys in the middle of the game. Unluckily for Casey, though, it was made for a small’ish forward and was way too small to fit underneath the more bulky goalie gear, and it didn’t have a number on the back. But, what choice did I have?
Luckily for me, Casey was cool about the whole thing.
Now, Coach Serino was one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met, but getting on his bad side was not something I was keen on doing. He’d definitely yell – don’t let my last name fool you, my mother is Sicilian, I know how it is – but would then crack a million dollar smile your way and it would be over with.
Still, in the middle of a trying season, in a big game, I wasn’t about to go tell him that I forgot his starting goalie’s jersey.
All night, I stood there in the aisle waiting for him to notice. BU public address announcer Jim Prior was rightfully confused during the starting lineups. I was sure that he’d notice when Prior didn’t announce Guenther as the starter, and instead went with junior Frank McLaughlin. But, I never even received a glance. I thought I was in the clear. I made sure I explained to the referee what happened during warmups, so he didn’t have to question Serino as to why his goalie wasn’t wearing a number.
Through 40 minutes, I hadn’t heard a peep from Serino. The game ended, and nothing was said.
I actually thought I got away with it. I forget the score, not that it matters, but we’re on the bus, heading back to campus and Serino is in the seat in front of me. He’s chatting with someone, I can’t recall who, and I hear him say, “You know, maybe things would have turned out better if our goalie wasn’t wearing a pee wee shirt,” as he turns around and flashes me a smirk.
I think I had to deal with a few good-natured ribs the rest of the season, too.
I learned how to analyze a hockey game on Thursday nights, after the locker room would empty out. Serino would settle down in the lounge to watch film and knowing that I’d still be poking around the rink somewhere, would always bring me back something from Panera and invite me to watch along, explaining things as we went.
He always made sure everyone else was taken care of. His last season at Merrimack, the Warriors played in a tournament at Minnesota. Part of the player gift was a fleece jacket emblazoned with the tournament logo. By the time things got split up between coaches and players, there wasn’t one left over for me. He insisted I took his, despite that I probably outweighed him by 50 pounds at the time and there no chance I’d squirm my way into a medium-sized jacket.
But Serino insisted. In fact, I still have it ... and it still doesn’t fit!
But that didn’t matter to him. No matter where he was, whether it was at Merrimack or later at Malden Catholic, if you were part of his program, you were part of his family.
When my first son was born, my younger brother was a student at Malden Catholic. Hours after I became a dad, I had an e-mail from Serino offering congratulations, joking that he’d reserve him a spot on the varsity roster in 2023 for him.
So back to my original question ... who was I?
At the time, I was a Merrimack student, and that’s all that mattered to Coach Serino. I’ve lost count how many times I heard him say, “It’s all about the kids.”
The hockey world lost a great ambassador. Anyone who knew Coach Serino, lost a lot more than that.
* * *
Serino was the head baseball coach at UNH from 1994-96 and served as an assistant men's hockey coach under Dick Umile from 1991-98.
"He was a great guy and a great coach," Umile said. "He was a tremendous athlete and a personal friend of mine; I go way back with him. The fans, the Friends of UNH Hockey, he really got along with the community. He fought a courageous battle with cancer and it came back in the last year and a half and really had a battle with it."
Serino was part of a UNH hockey program that was the 1996-97 Hockey East regular season co-champions, made four trips to the Hockey East Final Four and went to the NCAA tournament five times, including the 1997-98 Frozen Four team. As UNH's head baseball coach, Serino led the Wildcats to their most victories (26) in a season during the spring of 1995.
After Serino left UNH, he led the Merrimack hockey program for seven years, including a stint as athletic director. After his tenure with the Warriors, Serino took the job as head coach and athletic director at Malden Catholic High School, where he led the Lancers to their first-ever Super 8 Championship in 2011 before repeating in 2012. While at MC, Serino coached two of his sons who both played for the Lancers.
A Saugus, Mass., native, he was first diagnosed with throat cancer while coaching Merrimack in 2001 but was able to overcome the disease and return to the Merrimack bench.