As the head coach who built Utica College's flourishing Division III hockey program from scratch in New York state -- "No uniforms, no league, no rink, no players'' -- Gary Heenan believes he can orchestrate the rebuilding of UAA's faltering Division I program
Heenan, 39, this past season guided the Pioneers to the semifinals in the program's debut at the NCAA tournament. He has molded Utica into a winning program -- Heenan owns a 165-119-29 (.573 winning percentage) record in 12 seasons at the school -- that draws big crowds at the Utica Memorial Auditorium. The Pioneers this season shattered their own Division III record for average attendance with 3,754 per game, or about 1,000 more fans per game that the Seawolves averaged during their 4-25-7 spiral this season.
"We've captured the hearts and minds of the community,'' Heenan told a public forum on UAA's campus Wednesday night.
Heenan was the fourth of four finalists, who are vying to replace the fired Dave Shyiak as bench boss, to visit town and make his pitch to UAA's administration, search committee, players, alumni, boosters and fans.
And he did not mince words.
"I don't think you're rock bottom,'' Heenan said. "You're pretty close.''
Pulling up the program from the abyss, Heenan said, requires many of the principles
he has used as the only head coach in Utica's hockey history -- instilling spirit in the players, casting a wide net in recruiting (particularly in pursuit of Alaskan talent, in UAA's case) and engaging the community through outreach and philanthropic endeavors. He also said the school's rift with its hockey alumni needs repair.
Two decades ago, UAA hockey games drew capacity crowds of more than 6,000 fans to Sullivan Arena, and Heenan said a fundamental way of stopping the steady decline in Seawolves attendance -- aside from winning more games -- is to get players involved in the community.
"They have to become recognizable figures in town,'' he said. "That's what puts people in seats.''
Heenan said his success as head coach at Utica, which this season went 21-6-1 and lost in the national semifinals to eventual champion Wisconsin-Eau Claire, has prepared him well for the transition to Division I.
"We're a winning program -- it speaks for itself,'' Heenan said.
Like the other finalists, Heenan met with current players, who he said are understandably down at the moment but eager to be reinvigorated.
"That team needs to be challenged,'' Heenan said. "They've lost some inspiration. They need to understand who they represent, and that's you folks.''
As for the type of player he covets -- aside from the obvious, guys with elite talent -- Heenan said appreciates players with "jam.'' Some people in hockey call that a guy withsandpaper in his game. Semantics aside, Heenan wants players who compete with passion and make life difficult for opponents.
"I don't do well with prima donnas,'' Heenan said. "We need that guy with his heart on his sleeve.''
If he gets the job, Heenan said, he envisions rebuilding the Seawolves program to the point where UAA again draws strong crowds.
"Let's have dreams,'' he said, "and let's tackle those dreams.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY