MARLBOROUGH — It is 9:10 p.m. on a Wednesday when the Boston Blades take the ice for the season’s first practice. A grand total of 16 players skate, including three goalies. The team’s top talent is stuck in Canada — two players with the Canadian women’s national team and two with passport issues. The workout can go one of two ways: a motivating, high-energy hour or a dispiriting reminder of the rebuilding ahead.
Coach Brian McCloskey sets the tone. He gives a few brief instructions, then speeds from end to end as the first drill starts. The Blades move efficiently from shooting drill to defensive drill, not wasting a minute of precious ice time. McCloskey, in perpetual motion, exudes confidence and shouts encouragement. Nothing dispiriting to see here.
“I was impressed,” said McCloskey, recalling his first look at the Blades, Boston’s entry in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
McCloskey, 60, also acknowledges he was a little nervous, a little anxious about that first, mid-September practice with the reigning Clarkson Cup champions. Partly because he did not know how many players would show up and how good they would be. And partly because he had not coached a team in almost two years, not since the University of New Hampshire fired McCloskey from his job as women’s hockey head coach in December 2013 after an altercation with a player.
Now, as the Blades rebuild, McCloskey is resurrecting his coaching career.
“I had a few schools on the men’s side approach me about going back to work as an assistant at the Division 1 level,” said McCloskey. “But it wasn’t just purely that I was looking for anything where I could coach. It had to be the right type of opportunity. The situation the Blades were in was intriguing.”
His 33-year coaching career came crashing down when an argument with a player turned physical. The Strafford County (N.H.) Attorney’s Office charged McCloskey with three counts of simple assault and one count of criminal threatening. In February, McCloskey admitted to simple assault and entered a yearlong diversion program. If he successfully completes the program’s requirements, including counseling and 100 hours of community service, the simple assault charges will be dismissed.
“I’ve always had great regard for all my athletes,” said McCloskey. “It was a situation in the midst of a game, in the heat of battle, on the bench, where I obviously wanted to make a point to a player, pulled her by the jersey and I shouldn’t have. End of story. I just never should have touched her jersey.
“I had no intention of being physical with my players. Never have been. But it was one of those things where I didn’t think, I reacted. I made the wrong choice and I accept that.”
With his new team’s Oct. 17 season opener fast approaching, McCloskey and the Blades appear the right combination at the right time. The Blades offer McCloskey an opportunity to do what he loves again. Meanwhile, McCloskey gives the Blades an experienced, enthusiastic coach. And after an offseason in which the Blades lost 20 players to the new National Women’s Hockey League and coaching jobs elsewhere, the team needed someone who saw more promise than problems with the depleted roster.
“I really love his energy for the game,” said 2014 Olympic gold medalist and returning Blades defenseman Tara Watchorn, who first met McCloskey in 2008 when he tried to recruit her to UNH. “He’s so educated, so smart. He can talk hockey with anyone for hours. I really respect that about him. Also, he carries himself with a lot of confidence that you want to follow him as a leader and as a coach.”
Over the summer, when general manager Krista Patronick started her search for a new coach, Brian McCloskey was the first name that came up. Patronick called McCloskey in late June. She asked if he was interested in the Blades’ opening. He was. Then, she asked how he would approach the job. Patronick wanted a hard-working, no-nonsense coach who understood the women’s game. She sensed McCloskey was exactly that kind of coach.
“Right away, I liked the vibe that he gave me,” she said.
Patronick and McCloskey also talked about what happened at UNH. Next, the rookie general manager did her research. Patronick called roughly a dozen people who knew McCloskey well, former colleagues and members of New England’s close-knit hockey community. She listened to what they had to say about McCloskey’s coaching and his character. She liked what she heard.
“It was a big decision and it came down to his experience and his coaching,” said Patronick. “When you talk to Brian, you know how much he loves the game and he just loves coaching. I felt confident that he had learned from what happened. We all make mistakes. Sometimes you just need that second chance in life, and we were definitely happy to give that to him.”
Growing up in North Vancouver, British Columbia, McCloskey played for a strong provincial program, got scouted, and traveled cross-continent to play for Dartmouth College in the mid-1970s. “I was diminutive in stature, but pretty dynamic on my feet back in the day,” McCloskey said. Still, as a 5-foot-5-inch forward, he knew before college that he wasn’t going to play hockey for a living. Coaching, however, was an option. He started at the high school level, then worked his way up to assistant coaching jobs with the men’s teams at Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, and UNH.
In 2002, after 10 years as an assistant coach with the UNH men’s team, McCloskey was named head coach of the women’s program. Over 11 seasons, he guided the Wildcats to two Frozen Four appearances, six Hockey East regular-season titles, and four Hockey East tournament championships. And he was named Hockey East Coach of the Year four times.
“What I really love about working with female athletes is the way they are such earnest learners,” McCloskey said. “They really try to grasp what it is that you’re teaching them and they want to know the why behind the instruction. I like that because I like the cerebral side of the game. I like to think through why we would play this particular type of system or why we would use this type of setup versus another.”
At UNH, longtime men’s coach Dick Umile mentored McCloskey, and the two still meet in Portsmouth, N.H., for coffee and hockey talk. Umile fondly recalled McCloskey as a great tactician and valuable recruiter with a keen eye for talent, highlighting how his assistant attracted players who would become Hobey Baker Award finalists (including winner Jason Krog) and All-America first-team selections.
“It’s very unfortunate what happened for everyone involved,” said Umile, referring to the bench incident. “We’re talking about seconds here. I’m happy that Brian now has an opportunity to get back to doing what I believe he loves most. He’s a good person, and he can really teach all aspects of the game.”
Strafford County Attorney Tom Velardi is also glad McCloskey earned a coaching opportunity with the Blades. Velardi hopes the McCloskey case brings attention to “inappropriate physical contact in coaching” and sends a message to the greater athletic community about what crosses the line from “old-school coaching” into behavior that can result in criminal charges.
“We were impressed with Mr. McCloskey’s willingness to take responsibility,” said Velardi. “Someone of his stature doing that was meaningful. If he makes the most of [coaching the Blades] and he has a positive impact on those women’s lives, then that’s fantastic. That’s what we strive for with diversion agreements, to have closure for both the victim and the accused.”
What the future holds
At a team fund-raiser in early October, it’s easy to spot McCloskey among the young, mostly female crowd at Bantam Cider headquarters in Somerville. He appears deep in conversation with Genevieve Lacasse, the Blades’ top goaltender and another member of Canada’s gold medal-winning team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Unfazed by a live band blasting classic rock, coach and player talk about the season ahead, about upcoming opponents, about different defensive strategies.
“I thought he looked very intense at UNH,” said Lacasse, who played for Providence College and first saw McCloskey in action as an opposing coach. “It seemed like he cared a lot about his players. He always had great systems and the team wanted to play for him. So, I was really excited when Krista said we had the opportunity to have him as our coach.”
Asked if the way McCloskey’s UNH career ended changed her perception of her new coach, Lacasse added: “I haven’t really even given it a thought. We’re playing hockey out there. I don’t think it’s an issue at all.”
And that echoes the responses of her Blades teammates.
After UNH fired him, McCloskey found himself outside the often-insular world of college hockey for the first time in decades. It was daunting but also liberating. He spent more time with his family and friends, went on winter vacations, and got more involved with his local community.
McCloskey also talked with former players and they “would take little trips down memory lane” and he learned “it’s the relationships with your players that is probably the biggest thing that you miss when you’re away from coaching.”
Now, he’s back in a familiar routine and focused on the future, whatever it holds.
“I’ll take it as it goes,” said McCloskey. “I don’t actually have a design on the way it should go. I’m just seeing what opportunity there is to add value.
“I’m very interested to see what happens with the whole evolution of the game post-college for women. Maybe this is an area where I can be of help, helping guide both individual athletes and lend some experience to the league. There’s a lot of change afoot. We’re just going to have to play it out.”