In a matter of seconds, barely a shift in hockey terms, Brian McCloskey’s career crashed through the ice in December.
The veteran coach of the University of New Hampshire women’s hockey team grabbed the shoulder of one of his players who, he said, had just sworn at him during a game. McCloskey pulled her down to sit on the bench, and swore back at her. “ ‘Don’t you ever [expletive] talk to me that way again! Do you hear me?’ ’’ the coach, a four-time Hockey East Coach of the Year with the women’s team, said he recalls saying.
McCloskey’s characterization of the exchange: “An adult telling a young adult, ‘This is not acceptable’ in a very firm way.’’ But the college had a different view, calling it “inappropriate physical contact with a player on the bench’’ — and a firing offense.
Thus ended McCloskey’s employment at UNH after a dozen years as the women’s coach and some 20 years on the school’s coaching staff. And it began renewed discussion of a thorny issue for college coaches: where to draw the line between exercising their authority and physically restraining someone.
The physical altercation between McCloskey, 59, and the player is under investigation by the Strafford County attorney’s office. That office is headed by Tom Velardi, who said this month that the UNH police department requested that his investigators explore potential criminal charges. UNH chief of police Paul Dean, when contacted by the Globe, said the request was made to the campus police department by the alleged victim in the case.
The college has declined to publicly identify the target of McCloskey’s anger, although the coach identifies her as Haley Breedlove, a sophomore from Plano, Texas. Breedlove and her family declined to comment but a friend of the family, who asked not to be named, confirmed that Breedlove was the player involved in the incident, which took place Nov. 30, before a sparse crowd of 213 at the UNH arena.
UNH athletic director Marty Scarano, who on Dec. 2 launched the on-campus investigation into the incident and then fired McCloskey some 72 hours later, declined to comment by e-mail on Feb. 4.
McCloskey takes issue not only with his firing, but also with the wording of UNH’s media release, saying the description of his “inappropriate physical contact on the bench” opened the door to rampant suspicion that the episode was sexual in nature.
“Sexual . . . of course,’’ McCloskey said matter-of-factly, asked how he felt the incident was characterized in the UNH release. “If I don’t get my job back, am I hireable? Who knows, right?’’ He has explored the possibility of legal action against UNH.
Erika Mantz, director of UNH media relations, wrote in an e-mail to the Globe that she wanted “to stress that the incident was not sexual in nature.’’
Still, that seemed to be the impression left with some on campus. The team captain, Nicole Gifford, said the phrasing triggered an onslaught of e-mails and texts to her and many of her teammates.
“The team knows what happened, or they’ve been told by other teammates what happened,’’ said Gifford, noting she was on the ice at the time and learned of the contact after the first period. “We knew it wasn’t sexual. Having to deal with that, and hear that, is very disheartening. Even the day after, we walked into the dining hall for our pregame meal and there’s the whole school kinda staring at us, pointing at us . . . you hear comments, it’s embarrassing. So I mean their word choice [in the release], I think, was pretty pathetic.’’
Added another teammate who witnessed the contact between coach and player: “I would never want something like that to come out about [McCloskey], because he’s not even close to that kind of person. It just wasn’t fair to him.’’ The player asked not to be named.
Both Gifford and the player who witnessed the contact are strong proponents of their former coach and spoke at length with the Globe, despite a school policy that no one connected with the team comment to the media. A Globe request to talk about the incident with other players or the current coaches — Jamie Wood and Stephanie Jones — was denied by the UNH sports information office.
On Saturday afternoon, following UNH’s 3-2 loss to Vermont, Mantz contacted a Globe reporter via e-mail, acknowledging that Breedlove received the Globe’s interview request.
“She has asked me to let you know that she does not wish to comment at this time,’’ wrote Mantz. Breedlove’s mother, reached by telephone, also declined to comment.
With additional witnesses unwilling to speak publicly, McCloskey’s recollection, as seconded by the unnamed teammate, stands as the only public account of the incident. McCloskey is adamant his reprimand of Breedlove was warranted. He also contends Breedlove could not have been harmed physically when he grabbed her from behind from her standing position along the boards and pulled her down to the bench.
At 5 feet 4 inches, McCloskey is shorter than some of the women on his team, including Breedlove, who is listed as 6 feet on the UNH roster.
By McCloskey’s account — echoed by the player who declined to be named — the altercation quickly followed Breedlove’s exit from the ice to the bench. McCloskey had been shouting instructions, correcting mistakes Breedlove made on her shift, as she skated toward the bench. When she hopped over the boards and into the bench area, he said, she glanced his way, then turned her back on him to face the ice.
McCloskey saw this as a continuation of “communication issues” he had talked about with her repeatedly her freshman and sophomore seasons.
McCloskey leaned forward, foot propped on the bench, and Breedlove, by his account, “exploded” in anger, unleashed a string of expletives, then turned back toward the ice. McCloskey said he grabbed Breedlove around the shoulder by her sweater, then “pulled her back to a seated position, because I wanted to be face-to face.’’
“ ‘Don’t you ever [expletive] talk to me that way again. Do you hear me?,’ ’’ he said he recalls saying. Then, he said, he let go. She played the remainder of the game and dressed for the following day’s rematch.
Had Stephanie Jones, his assistant coach at the time, or any other female coach taken identical action with Breedlove, McCloskey believes it would have been ignored and the university would not have interpreted it as a breach of player safety, as it did in his case.
“That was one of their stated reasons [for dismissal],’’ said McCloskey. “I just don’t think they would assume that this was a threatening situation. Even if the exact same words were exchanged and the same tug of a jersey. I think there is a natural assumption if it’s a male that it’s threatening.’’
Meanwhile, the Wildcats continue their season. UNH has lost eight straight with a 3-11 record since McCloskey’s dismissal. The Wildcats were 6-9-2 when he was fired. They play their final regular-season game Sunday.
McCloskey, with a career record of 252-113-40 and four Hockey East tournament titles, remains out of work.
“This isn’t about money for me,” he said. “This is about a lifetime spent in the sport, in the field, and being proud of the work that you do, and the relationships you’ve forged. And all that’s been ripped away.’’
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Correction: The Strafford County attorney’s office was misidentified as Stafford County in a previous version.