Q&A with St. Lawrence's Joe Marsh
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
No article could capture everything, and, as mentioned in this column, Joe Marsh's ability to spend eight minutes answering one question is legendary. So this Q&A is certainly not comprehensive. But, as St. Lawrence has its night honoring Marsh this week, these are some thoughts with the Saints' legendary coach of 27 years, who announced his retirement in the spring after a few years battling nagging medical issues.
CHN: How do you feel about having Greg Carvel at the helm now?
Marsh: We've had a lot of guys that have played for me that have certainly earned their stripes — Bob Prier (now head coach at Princeton), Ted Dent, Ian Laperriere, Mike Hurlbut. I'm happy to see that there's St. Lawrence guys there. You feel like you're sort of connected, where guys who played for you are running things. I'm still a part of it. (Carvel's) resume is pretty impressive. He coached in two Stanley Cup finals. That's what we need. He's bringing something to the table that I can't. Kids now are looking at the influence he has.
CHN: The funny thing of course is, you yourself are not an alum (Marsh played at New Hampshire in the early '70s).
Marsh: Thank god that didn't happen then. ... Actually Bob Prier was the first one I went to bat for (with the administration), but he ends up at Princeton. In college hockey, it's pretty unique — most top programs are coached by alums. BU's entire staff, UNH, Boston College, Michgan, North Dakota, Wisconsin — they're all alums. So I think it matters, I think there's a difference, when a guy walks into a room it's a little bit extra.
CHN: Do you remember recruiting Greg Carvel? (Also see: Q&A with Carvel)
Marsh: I remember very well. It was a unique situation. I knew how good he was — he went to Hotchkiss and was a top prep player, but he sort of outgrew the league. He went to Hotchkiss as much for the academics, he was third in his class or something. He had a lot options. Timmy (Taylor) was really high on him at Yale. We were strong enough then, we were a program that was recognized, and he grew up here. We recruited him hard.
CHN: How about yourself and how you ended up there?
Marsh: I knew St. Lawrence real well from when my brother played for Boston College (class of 1964). I knew what the ECACs were about. I knew their team when they won their first ECAC title (1962). I'd heard of those guys. My brother's best friend was on that team. It was a big deal. Clarkson and St. Lawrence were the enemy. It was funny that I sort of ended up there. The name recognition was something to me. From the time I set foot on the cmapus, it was an absolute perfect fit. I like being off the beaten path a bit. It's the type of job where it was important to the local community. It offers a unique situation. There's a certain connectivity. You know people. You get to be in position to be involved in a lot of different ways. It was really interesting and it offered different opportunities every year. You felt a certain sense of ownership almost. You felt the job was more than just going on the ice sheet and practicing. It became who you are.
CHN: You had pretty early success, going to the national championship game in 1988. How much does that still stick with you, being that close?
Marsh: It sure does. You'd be lying if you said no. But the experience was unbelievable. It was a special time. We were an OT goal from winning the whole thing. It's pretty tough for smaller market teams to be successful. You have a lot of teams that have put a lot (of resources) into this. Look at Miami — they weren't on the radar back then, but they sure are now. The big teams took, take this pretty seriously.
It was great being part of. We had some successful years. The down part of the cycle is different.
CHN: Does that wear on you, the difficulty of keeping up?
Marsh: I don't lament it. It's something that you have to know that it comes with the territory and it shouldn't affect how you do your job. I don't mean to sound like you're giving in, but you have to recognize where you are to strategize properly. We always tried to play the toughest schedule we could, because that's what develops the players. If you want to be in the thick of things, that's what it takes. But no, I loved the job, I loved the whole part of it.
CHN: It must have been hard to walk away then.
Marsh: I wouldn't have wanted to stay beyond my effectiveness. People have asked, am I OK? It's more maintenance than anything else, in such a way that it did affect my ability to do the job day after day and have the energy to do it. I coach on emotion, it's an emotional job. And for whatever reason, I was not able to give 100 percent. So then I said, let's do this gracefully. Things are forced sometimes. But there's a reason for things to come to an end. The clock goes on. I had a great run.
CHN: When did you realize you had something special with that 1988 team?
Marsh: You don't win championships in one year, and they take time to build. The '87 team went to the ECAC finals for the first time in like 25 years. We lost to Harvard (in the ECACs), which had a great team, (Boston Bruins general manager) Peter Chiarelli was the captain. That year, we went out to North Dakota, they were the No. 1 seed. We played the first night at North Dakota and lost 3-1 with an empty net goal. We rang the pipe with two minutes left. We played our ass off, really played well. They were a little stunned. We spent a lot of it that night — the next night they were more focused and beat us 6-3. They dominated more. We were still competing and playing hard — I was really proud of them. We got as much out of those two games as out of any two games. They had (Hobey winner) Tony Hrkac and Ed Belfour (North Dakota won the national title that year). I honestly felt that everybody in the room knew we could get back there and have a shot to win the whole thing. That really set us on the course for the following year. We had leadership with Pete McGeough and the Lappins. We were in really good shape. Our top players were all seniors and juniors.
The most telling things is, we went 29-9 that year, and every game we lost was by one goal. So there was a team that competed in every single solitary game. They set the agenda. Any successful team, the coach lays the foundation to build it. I learned a lot in coaching those years. Remember, we had a great staff. (Current Colgate head coach) Don Vaughan and (former Clarkson head coach and current AHL head coach) Mark Morris were my assistants.
We won the ECACs (in 1988), we beat Clarkson 3-0 in the finals. Wisconsin came to us (for the NCAA quarterfinals). They had to play in the first round. We we were a top seed in the East. It was a two-game, total goals series. The first night we won 7-0. We played the series like it was a six-period game and we went into the second night up 7-0. We lost 4-3.
CHN: The Frozen Four, interestingly, was at Lake Placid, and you had Thursday-Friday semifinals.
Marsh: We played the Friday game. We beat Minnesota, 3-2 with 12 seconds left. Peter Lappin scored all three goals. It put us in the national championship game (against Lake Superior State). The Lake State game was a great game. We outshot them 52-25. I remember how unbelievable (goaltender) Bruce Hoffort was.
CHN: What do you remember of Frank Anzalone (Lake Superior coach)? He was quite a character.
Marsh: I knew Frank from college at New Hampshire. He's very intense, but a very hard worker. He had a lot of self discipline in how he did his job. He pushed the kids hard, but did a very good job. I have a lot of respect for him. I knew what we were going to be up against. We played a fabulous game as well.
CHN: Not to bring up a nightmare, but you guys nearly had that game won.
Marsh: Jamie Baker came down and entered the zone. He came out to the halfboards and got around his checker to the top of the circle. He made a perfect pass to Hurlbut, who just came on and jumped into the play. He was really good at reading the secondary plays, he was a very offensive-minded defenseman. And he could shoot it through the boards. He hammered a one timer. Hoffort never moved. It hit an oversized knob of his stick.
After the game, we were so down and devastated. We outshot them 7-1 in overtime. As a coach, your job is to piece things together. It reminds me of when I was a kid, being a Red Sox fan. It was like, in (the 1962) World Series, Willie McCovey was up with second and third and two out, and he hit a liner and (the Yankees') Bobby Richardson stabbed it, and the ball was an ice cream cone, and that neded the series. You look back and I said "Hurley, take solace in that, if you fanned on it, it would've been like McCovey struck out. But you did your job. You have to look at it like that."
CHN: The other major memory has to be the four-overtime game in 2000 against BU that got you into the Frozen Four.
Marsh: I have so much respect for BU, their great tradition and Jack (Parker) in particular. It was an incredible year. That was game was insane. It was up and down. It was a low-scoring game (2-2 into OT) but it wasn't a game where these guys are defensive. We scored on our 80th shot on net. The goalies were Rick DiPietro and Derek Gustafsson. There were odd-man rushes all night long. We were fortunate to get it into an area where we had a good line change. In retrospect, what really stands out is that BU played the day before.
CHN: How do you coach in a game like that?
Marsh: There was a point where I was going on adrenaline. You simplify things. You don't want to overcomplicate things for the players, and as a result, you don't overcomplicate things for yourself. You're managing a bench where you're shortening everything, everything's compact. You tell guys, if you get near the bench, you've gotta change. You don't want to lose it on a play where you're completely gassed.
CHN: Let's go back further to your playing days at New Hampshire. What were those days like? Those were some high-flying days.
Marsh: There were 10 guys that played in the NHL. I was nowhere near those guys. I was a journeyman. It was way more wide open, less clutch and grab. The physicality was there. We had Jamie Hislop, he was probably the best teammate I had in my life. He was the all-time leading scorer (at UNH) when he graduated. He was an amazing player and an even better guy.
CHN: What was your coach Charlie Holt like?
Marsh: He was a really good guy. He gave you the impression that he was laid back, and he was in his way, but he was thinking of other things about the game. He thought the game differently. He wasnt a big screamer. He strategized the game, but he let the guys play. We had Paul Powers, who was a really good defenseman at UNH, and Tim Burke, an All-American who came from Melrose High School right to UNH. And Charlie saw what those kids could do right away. He used guys properly, in roles they were well suited for. He played a certain system that was fun to play.
CHN: UNH scored a ton of goals in that era, like near double digits sometimes.
Marsh: The game evolved where, defensively, you were forced to try to counter these teams like UNH and BU. We were learning more and more about defensive tactics and it got more specialized. Get a great goalie and you got a chance to win. It was more — what a coach can do over time, especially with a team that's not maybe as gifted like a UNH team — is they realize that defense is a teachable thing. Defenses got better and so did goalies.
CHN: But was Charlie teaching Xs and Os too? He wasn't just letting you go.
Marsh: Oh yeah. He was very much into the European influence. He was pretty innovative. He believed a lot in puck control and puck support. It was not just get it and get rid of it. He wanted you to make plays. He had very smart defensemen, like Tim Burke. Charlie recognized and understood what guys could do.
I hurt my back one game. I forget who we were playing. I spent the night in the hospital. I realized the next day it was not serious. But when I woke up in the morning, he (Holt) was there having a cup of coffee reading the Globe. That always stuck with me. I certainly wasn't one of his premiere players.
CHN: So you're at St. Lawrence a while, but there was one point when you almost went to Harvard (in 1999, when Mark Mazzoleni was hired). How close were you?
Marsh: Real close. At that point, I told Billy (Harvard AD Bill Cleary) no. I pulled out. I was (at St. Lawrence) a long time, the roots were deep. I just couldn't imagine coaching anywhere else. Sure it was a wonderful job, and I'm from that area. But it's like when you get players, they might not be the best, but it has to be the best fit. St. Lawrence was.