Below is my story on SLU coach Joe Marsh and his decision to take a medical leave from the team, the length of which he does not know. I will have more later in the week, including excerpts from my 40-minute interview, additional interviews and player reactions.
CANTON — St. Lawrence University men's hockey head coach Joe Marsh will not be behind the bench to start the 2011-12 campaign.
He plans to take an indefinite medical leave and has applied to do so through the university.
Marsh, now in his 27th year as head coach at SLU, missed several games and countless practices last season while battling a chronic arthritic condition he's had for several years. It became the enduring narrative of the season's final three months.
He is confident, though, that he will regain control and return to coaching this year.
“What I'm looking to avoid is a continuance of how last year went — was I in or was I out?,” Marsh said. “Who knows? Maybe I'll come back soon, maybe I'm not coaching again, I don't know. Whatever happens, I want it to be my decision and do it the right way and leave it the right way. I've done this for half my life, so obviously what's left is pretty important to me.”
The pain associated with his condition makes it impossible for Marsh to wear a skate or shoe, stand behind the bench or coach the team the way he always has — with vitality.
“You can't be in and out,” he said. “You have to be in it, day after day and feel it, smell it, taste it and be in it. I've always coached from a more guttural, emotional level. You have to have a finger on the pulse. I'm not there, yet.”
Newly appointed associate head coach Mike Hurlbut and assistant Greg Carvel will handle the day-to-day duties. Each has extensive professional coaching or playing experience. Carvel spent 15 years coaching, most-recently with the NHL's Ottawa Senators.
Marsh also hopes to bring in former Saint Jared Keller to help with recruiting efforts.
“I think we could be pretty good,” Marsh said. “I want the attention on that. (Hurlbut and Carvel) are not novices. Carvel coached in the Stanley Cup Finals. We've got a very experienced coaching staff.”
Last season, Hurlbut, then an assistant, was in a similar position next to then-associate head coach Bob Prier. The duo controlled practices and coached the four games Marsh missed.
“We're very confident in our abilities and I know Joe is confident in our abilities,” Hurlbut said. “We're focused and the (players) understand the situation. With my playing experience and Greg (Carvel's) coaching experience, I think it's a good blend here. We're very comfortable with the state of the team and the program.”
St. Lawrence senior captain Jacob Drewiske approached Marsh shortly after he privately announced his plans to the team last week. Drewiski assured him the team was as strong as if Marsh was an everyday presence.
It is a team that, despite Marsh's sporadic appearances late last year, upset Princeton in the ECAC Hockey Tournament and pushed top-seeded Yale to a decisive third game.
“The team's in good hands and that starts first and foremost with the two assistants that we have,” Drewiske said. “We have a lot of faith and trust in those guys. We just want (Marsh) to be healthy, and at the same time it inspires us to play harder as a team. Maybe what we do on the ice can help him heal faster somehow, some way.”
Ultimately, Marsh wants his program to focus on what it needs to do to be the best it can be and not get distracted by his off-ice dilemmas. For those reasons, he will spend at least the start of the season on the periphery.
“I want the emphasis on them and what we have here,” Marsh said. “Not the fact that I'm sitting around on the shelf. I don't want to mess it up by mistake by being half-in, half-out. It's better for everybody if I just sort of step back.”