There may be more highly touted prospects to put on the skates for the UMass hockey program in the future, but it will be tough to find a more beloved figure than Shane Walsh.
The undrafted senior forward from nearby Roxbury, Mass., is the hometown kid who has made good in so many ways that it’s nearly impossible not to call him the face of the Minutemen program.
He is the team’s leading scorer with 16 goals and 10 assists. He is a Hobey Baker candidate, the award given to the top player in men’s college hockey. He is a semifinalist for the Walter Brown Award, given to the top American-born college hockey player in New England.
And, perhaps most impressive, he is the one player who indelibly etched his mark in UMass lore last season by ending the longest game in men’s Division I college hockey history with a thinking-man’s goal 151 minutes and 42 seconds after the first puck dropped in the opening round game of the Hockey East tournament against Notre Dame.
The goal that legends are made of came in the fifth overtime of the Minutemen’s 4-3 victory and on the 169th shot on net.
That stick now resides in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, along with the story behind the grueling goal.
Walsh, not his stick, will be on display when UMass plays host to Northeastern in a Hockey East battle Friday night on ASN.
The game features two programs heading in different directions. UMass snapped a nine-game losing streak Tuesday with a 4-3 overtime win over American International (Walsh had a goal and an assist). The Minutemen are just 2-16 in their last 17 games and 8-14-4 overall.
Northeastern (10-13-5) is coming off a 5-1 win over ECAC power Harvard in the consolation game of the Beanpot and is 8-1-2 over the past 11 games.
“We need to turn it around like they have,” Walsh said of Northeastern. “It’s been a pretty tough struggle since we got into league play. We can do it, but we have to eliminate mistakes.”
Walsh is living proof on how fortunes can turn on a dime.
One of three Massachusetts players on the roster, he has racked up 28 goals and 13 assists in 47 games since Jan. 1 of last season — or 64% of his career point total (34 goals, 29 assists in 126 games) and 82% of all the goals he’s scored over the past four seasons.
It started with a phone call, he said, and he’s been scoring ever since.
“It all clicked after the holiday break last season when I talked to my friend Mike Collins who is playing pro hockey overseas (Krefeld Pinguine in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga),” Walsh said. “He played at Merrimack and was a good goal scorer. I was struggling. He just said shoot the puck. It’s as simple as that. Don’t turn down shots, and I think I had taken that mentality before.
“I don’t know why it just clicked. Now, I look for where the puck may go and when you do that the game flows to you. You start to get it as you get older and you start to look for soft spots where the puck might be and go there.”
That “thinking man” technique is what he used against Notre Dame, too.
He was trailing the play when a teammate picked up the puck in the neutral zone and started a rush. When the pass to another teammate in the slot was redirected off a Notre Dame skate, Fighting Irish goalie Cal Petersen was finally caught helpless down on the ice as the puck squirted across to Walsh, who had skated to the open side away from the play for a wide-open, game-winning shot off the right-side post.
“That game taught us a lesson to stay focused and disciplined,” UMass coach John Micheletto said. “Your body will break down in games like that and that’s when you have to stay sharp mentally.
“I’ve coached close to 20 years at the Division I level and I’ve never seen anything like that overtime game. I’m thrilled for Shane’s success and how he’s handled it. Here’s a Massachusetts kid who is proud to represent where he’s from, and he scores the game-winner. He’s stepped up for our program. He didn’t start out putting the puck in the back of the net at a ridiculous rate, but he hasn’t dropped off since last January and I’m proud of him.”
While Micheletto recalls watching his team celebrate the five-overtime victory with a mix of elation and relief, Walsh remembers little things like nearly every player cramping up at least once and the team nearly ordering pizza after the third overtime.
“Oh yeah,” Micheletto said of the potential pizza run. “We were worried about the players because we had been feeding them snacks like rice cakes and bananas but when you think about it they hadn’t really eaten since 2 in the afternoon and here it was nearly 11 hours later and we were still playing.”
Now that it’s over, Walsh is happy to have been a part of it. To this day, he said, he still gets questions from media and friends about what the experience was like.
“Both goalies were incredible,” Walsh said. “I just remember guys were trying to get fluids and saying, ‘When is this going to end? Neither team wanted to lose and that was our first playoff win since I’ve been here. I was fortunate enough to be in the right spot when the puck bounced my way. That’s something I’ve worked on.”