10 greatest builders to play St. Lawrence hockey
Though limited in outstanding on-ice alums, St. Lawrence hockey is one of the game’s greatest cradles for coaches and executives. Its own women’s program has savored ample success from those gifts, as have several intrastate rivals and NHL franchises.
Besides the Saints, five other Empire State entities have noticeably benefited from a St. Lawrence-educated hockey mind. The program has its imprint on the last five Stanley Cup championships by any team bearing the New York dateline. Ditto all three NCAA women’s titles to go to an ECAC program.
Whether it was a college coach anchoring a recruitment effort or a professional general manager drafting, signing and trading, two blue-and-orange teams rose to rapid relevance with an SLU graduate’s oversight. Multiple Saints have won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year. Ditto the equivalent Spencer Penrose and AHCA prizes in the men’s and women’s college ranks.
For its own spin on All Saints’ Day, Pucks and Recreation ranks the greatest Skating Saints based on their careers as coaches or GMs.
10. Chris Wells
A key cog on the Saints’ 1989 and 1992 ECAC championship teams, Wells earned his coaching stripes as a men’s assistant before the door opened in the women’s wing. Succeeding Paul Flanagan in 2008, Wells endured a brief downturn, but has otherwise sustained SLU’s consistency.
Through 10 completed seasons, the team has posted seven winning records and reached three NCAA tournaments. In 2011-12, Wells won the AHCA’s national coaching honor after leading SLU to its first ECAC women’s tournament title. The Saints also earned an at-large bid to the 2017 NCAA bracket, though they have yet to enter a Frozen Four under Wells.
Through October, Wells is tied with Kerstin Matthews for No. 37 among all women’s college coaches with 198 career wins.
9. Jacques Martin
Martin lent respectability to the upstart modern Ottawa Senators franchise. His first full season as their head coach in 1996-97 ended in their first playoff appearance. A year later, the Sens posted their first winning regular-season record and won their first series, upsetting first-place New Jersey.
As the team continued its rise to contention, Martin won the 1999 Jack Adams Award. This was his second career coach-of-the-year prize, following the OHL’s version in a Robertson Cup-winning 1985-86 season.
Martin was ultimately fired after the 2003-04 campaign, as the standards were suddenly astronomical. But that was not before he took Ottawa to the Eastern Conference final after winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2003. He would do the same for the Montreal Canadiens, an eighth-place underdog like the 1998 Sens, in 2010.
8. Paul Flanagan
In nine years as his alma mater’s women’s head coach, Flanagan made seven national tournaments. The Saints reached the NCAA’s first-ever women’s hockey national final in 2001, then earned four more Frozen Four tickets between 2004 and 2007. Along the way, they twice finished first in the ECAC standings.
After a sixth straight at-large bid to the bracket, Flanagan pursued a bigger challenge with Syracuse’s new program. A decade and counting later, the founding coach is still with the Orange, having orchestrated six winning seasons.
As of this writing, Flanagan ranks seventh among U.S. women’s college coaches with 382 career victories. All he is missing is a postseason trophy.
To that point, all that is missing from his Syracuse tenure is an NCAA bid. Although the Orange have reached three conference finals since College Hockey America adopted the automatic bid in 2014-15.
7. Terry Slater
A repeat All-American at SLU, then a journeyman in the minors, Slater started coaching at the University of Toledo’s Division III program in 1965. He soon shifted back to the pros, staying in town with the IHL’s Blades, the last team he played for.
After a ride of mixed results in the IHL and WHA, Slater returned to New York State and the ECAC when Colgate hired him in 1977. Within his first two seasons, he swelled the Raiders’ win total from five to 15, then got them over .500 by the turn of the decade.
In 11 of 14 full seasons at Colgate, Slater attained a winning record. He finished .500 in another. He would take the team to two NCAA tournaments, including the national final in 1990, when he also won the Penrose.
Tragically, Slater died of stroke complications at age 54 in the middle of the 1991-92 season. The program he made relevant honors him through the annual Terry Slater Memorial Golf tournament.
6. Ray Shero
Upon assuming his first NHL GM job in 2006, Shero completed the Pittsburgh Penguins’ rags-to-riches puzzle. He drafted Jordan Staal that summer, and oversaw the team’s first playoff appearance in six years.
In 2007-08, Shero sprang for veterans Darryl Sydor, Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis. Those pieces joined a wealth of young talent in springboarding the Pens to the Stanley Cup Final. With a few more tweaks, including the midseason hiring of coach Dan Bylsma, fulfilled their mission in 2009.
Shero would last five more seasons, mostly trying to compensate for prolonged injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. But Pittsburgh’s core group went to one more conference final on his watch in 2013.
Shero bounced back from his eventual firing by filling New Jersey’s vacancy. His part in rebuilding the team was rewarded when the Devils ended a six-year playoff hiatus in 2018.
5-4. Matt and Shannon Desrosiers
Matt Desrosiers was a senior in the St. Lawrence men’s program while Shannon Smith was a sophomore on the women’s team in 2000-01. That season was the first under NCAA sanction for the women’s game. Since that milestone, no one outside of Minnesota or Wisconsin has accomplished nearly as much as Clarkson’s coaching couple.
Yes, the Desrosiers’ soon turned their coats and took the reins of SLU’s regional rival in 2008. In six seasons as a tandem, they aggregated 134 wins, finished above .500 five times and reached three national tournaments. They ended their collaboration in style, as Clarkson claimed the first national title by a non-WCHA school in 2014.
Since Shannon left her post, Matt has gone 127-25-14, and the Golden Knights are all but an annual shoo-in for the NCAA bracket. They have added three more Frozen Four appearances to their chronicles, most recently winning back-to-back titles.
As individuals or as a pairing, the Desrosiers have also attained three of the ECAC’s last five coach-of-the-year awards. Only Cornell’s Doug Derraugh and Harvard’s Katey Stone have matched that total in their career.
3. Mike Keenan
More recent results and a host of personality controversies have clouded some of Keenan’s achievements. With that said, they cannot take away the championships he has won at every level.
Within 12 years of his last game as a Saint, Keenan had his first NHL head-coaching job in Philadelphia. In between, he led the major-junior OHA’s Peterborough Petes and minor-pro AHL’s Rochester Americans to playoff crowns in 1980 and 1983, respectively.
His first season with the Flyers yielded the 1985 Jack Adams Award and a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. Keenan returned there with Philly in 1987, then with Chicago in 1992. He finally won the chalice with the New York Rangers in 1994. By the next year, he had completed a season in St. Louis, where he notched a winning record for the 11th time in as many NHL seasons.
His next seven seasons were decidedly less successful. St. Louis, Vancouver, Boston and Florida would all fire him or accept his resignation. But after a three-year absence, he resurfaced in Calgary, where two winning campaigns ended in first-round playoff losses.
When that two-year stint ended in 2009, Keenan took another hiatus from high-end head coaching. But he returned upon accepting a KHL offer, and guided Mettalurg Magnitogorsk to the 2014 Gagarin Cup.
2. Bill Torrey
A ghastly eye injury at SLU cut Torrey’s playing career short. But he carried on with his studies, then returned to the game in off-ice roles with the AHL’s Pittsburgh Hornets. That led to his first NHL GM job with the California Golden Seals before the Islanders brought him back to New York State.
As the Isles’ original GM, Torrey built them from scratch to a Stanley Cup dynasty within 12 years. Every key cog on the team that won four straight titles and went to five straight finals between 1980 and 1984, Torrey acquired.
Torrey would leave Long Island after two decades of service. Shortly thereafter, he became the first president of another expansion franchise in Florida. His stint there yielded one more shining moment in the Panthers’ unlikely run to the 1996 Cup final in their third year of play.
By that point, Torrey’s legacy in Uniondale had already landed him in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder.
1. Ron Mason
Like Torrey as an NHL GM, Mason brought up programs from humble beginnings as a college coach. His first stop, Lake Superior State, began play on his watch and spent seven years earning its stripes in the NAIA. It would become an NCAA program in Mason’s final year before he moved on to Bowling Green State.
From 1971-72 to 2002-03, Mason’s teams logged only three losing seasons and went to 22 NCAA tournaments. In his last three years at BGSU, he took the Falcons to the national bracket, including the 1978 Frozen Four. A year later, his tenure ended in a first-round loss to Herb Brooks and the eventual national champion Minnesota Gophers.
But upon moving to Michigan State that summer, Mason started building the bulk of his legacy. His Spartans went through two years of growing pains, then rode a 14-win turnaround to an NCAA tournament bid in 1982. They reached the final in 1984, won the title in 1986 and returned to the Frozen Four in 1987.
Over the 15 years that followed, Mason led the program to four more semifinals before retiring from coaching in 2002. By then he had won a record 924 college games. He retained that throne for more than a decade before Jerry York, his successor at BGSU, surpassed him while coaching Boston College.