As the top scout for the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League, Gordie Clark ’74 puts in a lot of hours and a lot of miles to watch rising talent. His work takes him around the world because hockey is, after all, an international sport, but his labors are eased just a bit by the fact that he knows what he’s looking for.
“Lots of guys have crazy talent, and that’s very important,” says Clark. “But I look at the way a guy carries himself on the ice, his presence, toughness and his competitive drive. Those are the qualities that separate out the guys who can compete at the highest level.” For Clark, the job is made easier because he has a model for this kind of player in his mind. “It’s someone I know very well,” he says. “It’s my friend Dick Umile.”
Umile and Clark were line mates at UNH in the early ’70s. Clark went off to a career playing and coaching hockey, and Umile began a coaching career that took him from Watertown High School in Massachusetts to Providence College and then, in 1989, brought him back to his alma mater as an assistant coach under Bob Kullen. When Kullen, himself a greatly admired coach, passed away the following year, Umile picked up the reins as interim head coach and became the 12th head coach of the UNH Wildcats during the 1990–91 campaign.
“Guys like Charlie Holt, who coached Dick, and Bob Kullen, who hired him, had built well-respected, successful programs,” says UNH Athletics Director Marty Scarano. “But Dick put his stamp on it as a national program that could compete for championships.”
After 28 years behind the bench, Umile retired at the end of the 2017–18 season, ushering in a new era in Wildcat Hockey even as his impact on the team and the sport promises to resonate as clearly as one of his patented line-change whistles, audible above the Whittemore Center roar.
A Golden Age
During his tenure, Umile turned deep post-season play into an expectation among the Wildcat faithful and guided the Wildcats to 18 NCAA tournament appearances, eight Hockey East regular-season championships, two Hockey East championships, four appearances in the Frozen Four and, on two occasions, in 1999 and 2003, the National Championship final. Along the way, he notched 590 career victories, placing him among the top nine coaches of all time. He has been recognized as New England Coach of the Year four times, Hockey East Coach of the Year six times, and, to top it all off, National Coach of the Year in 1999.
Under Umile’s leadership, hockey in Durham has enjoyed a golden age, much as it has in hockey hot spots such as Ithaca, Boston, Minneapolis and Bangor — only a little more so. Youth programs for boys and girls have flourished, and scrimmaging between periods at a UNH game remains a highlight for young players. Friday and Saturday hockey nights have been good for local businesses, as Seacoast restaurants cater to legions of jersey-clad fans getting their pre-game feed on before streaming into the Whittemore Center, drawn by the chilly notes of the UNH Pep Band shivering along the cold winter streets.
Win or lose, the passionate hearts of the Wildcat faithful beat as one each time the home team takes to the ice and the puck drops, fans aged five to 95 eagerly awaiting the first goal and the ceremonial flight of the fish tossed at the feet of the opposing team’s goalie even as he retrieves the puck from the back of the net. “I get butterflies before every game but more so at the Whitt,” says senior co-captain Dylan Chanter ’18. “I love following the flag out on to the ice and saluting the fans after a close win. Even when we’re struggling, you can feel the guys pulling together and our faithful fans pulling for us. Nothing beats that feeling.”
Through the years, fans and insiders of Wildcat hockey often thought of themselves in terms of a “nation,” but the operative word might be “family,” with Umile in the role of patriarch. When Scarano was the athletic director at Colorado College, he had tried to recruit Umile to Colorado’s hockey program. Not only did Umile stay at UNH, he helped recruit Scarano to Durham. Scarano recalls with great fondness the weekend he came to campus to interview for the newly vacant athletic director position.
“I came into town and stayed at the Three Chimneys Inn,” Scarano says. After his interviews, Umile invited Scarano to dinner at his favorite Portsmouth restaurant, The Rosa. “I show up and the owner Jerry leads me past the diners into a back room. It’s completely empty except for one table for two where Dick is sitting.
“‘This the guy?’ Jerry asks.
“‘Yep, that’s the guy,’ says Dick.
“Dick’s got a big grin on his face. It was like something out of the Godfather. So, we sat, two Italians, and had a glass of wine and I ordered spaghetti with olive oil and extra anchovies.
“‘He must be Italian,’ says Jerry.’”
The meal at The Rosa began a tradition of breaking bread together over important conversations between the two men that spanned nearly three decades.
Scarano pegs Umile as “a classic Italian patriarch,” the kind of guy who wants to bring people into the fold, whether it’s an athletic director or a future player. For example, take the time Umile paid a recruiting visit to the home of a big, strong Wakefield (Mass.) High School winger named Mike Souza ’00. Much like Umile, who grew up 10 minutes away in Melrose, when it came to decide where he would play Division I hockey, Souza had options. He chose UNH over the more obvious Boston-based programs for one simple reason. “We had several coaches come to the house that year, but Coach Umile was the only one who looked my parents straight in the eye and said, ‘I promise you that if Mike comes to UNH, I will treat him like he was my own son.’ We had absolutely no doubt that he meant it,” Souza says.
A Legacy Embodied
For a hockey program to be great over many years, it needs to attract the kinds of people who believe in, and commit deeply to, its success and its values. That’s why an internal vetting process has produced a successor to Umile now that he’s whistled his last line change. It’s none other than Souza, the young man who sat in his living room and liked what he heard from Umile more than two decades earlier. Souza not only played on the talented squad that reached the 1999 NCAA Championship Final but also returned to UNH to become Umile’s associate head coach.
Coach is the most competitive person I’ve ever known…He’s a players coach who guys like to play for. He’s very tough, but fair. His guys know he’s got their backs. I’m honored to work for him. Hopefully I can sustain what he’s been able to build.”
—Mike Souza ’00
Named the 13th head coach of UNH men’s ice hockey following Umile’s retirement
Souza says it’s an honor to be stepping into his mentor’s skates. “He’s a player’s coach who guys like to play for,“ he says. “He’s very tough, but fair. His guys know he’s got their backs. I’m honored to work for him. Hopefully I can sustain what he’s been able to build.”
This may mean continuing a tradition of pre-game meals in Portsmouth and pre-game pep talks registered to raise the hair on the backs of players’ necks. Above all, it probably will mean channeling Umile’s legendary competitiveness. You would think that a decade playing professional hockey would have put Souza in contact with some pretty driven characters. But when asked about the qualities that made his UNH mentor tick, Souza wastes no time: “Coach is the most competitive person I have ever known, period. He cannot reconcile himself to losing, ever.”
In recent months, Umile and his team have had to reconcile themselves to having games slip away from them far more often than they’d like, a fact Umile acknowledges with his usual candor: “Coaching is about sticking together through the good times and the bad times,” he says. “What I’m going to miss most about coaching is the incredible camaraderie and respect we have for each other.”
Apparently, his players past and present concur: On Feb. 9–10, more than 100 members of his extended hockey family joined his wife, daughters and grandchildren for Dick Umile Weekend at the Whittemore Center. The evenings featured a Who’s Who of Wildcat alumni All-Americans, professional players and other high achievers: from Darren Haydar ’02, Sean Collins ’05 and Colin Hemingway ’12 to Ty Conklin ’01, the van Riemsdyk brothers James ’11 and Trevor ’15, Mike Ayers ’13 and Kevin Regan ‘08. As former captain Patrick Foley ’04, now a Boston police officer, remarked, they weren’t there to celebrate wins and losses but to offer a heartfelt thanks to a guy who made a difference in their lives.
“You know why all these guys showed up?” Foley asks. “They all remember that whether you were the top scorer or last guy down the bench, you were one team and had the same standards. High and low are treated the same. That’s a life lesson about how a real gentleman behaves.”
And there you have it, a life in hockey distilled into one nugget as hard as a hip check. Next year at this time, the patriarch of the puck will have become the boss of Bow Lake, serving pasta dinners to his daughters and grandchildren and . . .
. . . Here’s how Clark sees it unfolding: “Dick’s going to be sitting on his deck in the late summer, thinking about fishing or golfing or bouncing one of his grandchildren on his knee, when all of a sudden it’s gonna hit him: ‘Man, those were some amazing times!’”