Commentary: Alum is Right for Princeton This Time
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
When head coaching jobs are vacated, as one was at Princeton almost three weeks ago when Bob Prier resigned, most often the immediate narrative from fans and boosters is that the program needs an alum taking over.
That narrative is usually silly and misguided. For every Jerry York or Red Berenson there are three or four, no offense, stories like Tim Army (Providence) or Tim Watters (Michigan Tech) — and, even, for that matter, Princeton's Len Quesnelle — who despite their best intentions and efforts, couldn’t find a working formula at their alma mater.
It shouldn’t matter to Gary Walters, the outgoing Princeton AD, where his candidates played their college hockey 10 or so years ago. It should be about who brings the best resume – and more importantly, the best ideas – to help rebuild a once storied but struggling program. He worked that idea to perfection when he hired Guy Gadowsky, who led Princeton to an ECAC title.
Whether or not you’re an alum of a program has literally no effect on your ability to run that program as its head coach.
But for Walters, this may be one of those rare cases where the candidate with the best resume also happens to have a Princeton degree.
But here’s the thing: you have no clue about his coaching credentials.
Princeton is a rebuilding project. Most new jobs are. Darren Yopyk, a former four-year Princeton defenseman who captained the team as a senior in 2000, has been a part of a rebuilding project before. In fact, he played an integral role in one of college hockey’s most impressive rebuilding projects of the last decade.
When Yopyk joined Mark Dennehy, a former Princeton assistant coach, at Merrimack in 2005, the Warriors were coming off a one-win season in Hockey East. The next season, the Warriors scored just 37 goals in 34 games while finishing 3-27-4.
But Yopyk was Dennehy’s star recruiter, spending countless nights on the road in Western Canada and across the U.S., helping land players like All-American Stephane Da Costa and Colorado Avalanche defenseman Karl Stollery.
“(Hiring Yopyk) was my first priority when I took the job here,” Dennehy said prior to the regional tournament in 2011.
“It wasn’t hard to recognize the type of coach that he was. His level of commitment is amazing and he is as much an architect of this program as I am.
“We aren’t always going to get those blue chip recruits. 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.”
The one-win Warrior team Dennehy and Yopyk inherited, just five years later, was a 25-win team that advanced to the Hockey East title game against Boston College, and a No. 2 in the NCAA Northeast Regional.
Yopyk never saw the fruit of his labor, he left the Merrimack program in 2009 to take a job as head coach and general manager of the West Kelowna Warriors of the British Columbia Hockey League, but his fingerprints were all over that 2011 team. He built most of that team’s foundation.
Yopyk’s success didn’t stop there, either. He went 71-38-8 in two seasons in Kelowna and since 2011, he has worked in the scouting department for the Minnesota Wild.
He was also one of the top candidates three seasons ago, when Prier was hired, and if not for an immigration issue, would probably have been offered the job then. Those issues were resolved, and he went to work for the Wild, under another former Princeton defenseman, Brent Flahr.
The competition this time around is stiff, with former Clarkson head coach Mark Morris as well as Ron Rolston both in the running, according to several sources, though Rolston has denied applying.
Sources have said that the university is looking to hire someone with both ECAC and head coaching experience. Certainly having an Ivy League background can help in coaching at an Ivy League school, even if it's not imperative.
Several top assistants around the country have also applied. Many within the coaching circles have labeled Providence’s Ben Barr as a future star, once he gets his first crack at a head coaching gig. The Providene Journal reported on Monday that Barr is no longer a candidate, however. Joe Dumais is fresh off helping Union win a national title and Bill Riga helped build Quinnipiac’s program into a national contender.
Princeton doesn’t need a lot of buzz or fanfare with this hire. All it needs is the right coach. It needs a coach who understands the academic rigors of being a Princeton student-athlete, as well as someone who knows how to recruit players willing to be a part of such a system.
Yopyk has a Ph.D. in psychology, for crying out loud. If anyone has the ability to find overlooked, but talented players that can fit into the fabric of Princeton University, it’s him.
Don’t underestimate the significance of this hire. It’s probably the last major decision Walters will have a say in before he leaves later this summer, and it could also be the first big decision for incoming AD Mollie Marcoux. Even though no one has been able to confirm how much of a role she has played in the process, it’s a safe bet that Walters wouldn’t saddle her with a new coach she didn’t have at least some say in hiring.
There are a lot of great choices Princeton could make, but Yopyk is the right choice this time around.
Sometimes, you can go home again.