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SLU’s Joe Marsh stepping down at men’s hockey coach

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CANTON — Joe Marsh was never one to coach for wins throughout 26 years of heading St. Lawrence University’s men’s hockey program.

Sure, the 468 victories, five ECAC Hockey titles, four ECAC coach of the year awards, eight NCAA Tournaments and a national championship appearance were nice.

But Marsh needs only to look at his kitchen refrigerator to be assured that he made the most of his time with the Saints.

“One of the things I’ve looked back on and something I’m proud of is having all the pictures of all the children of former players on my refrigerator door,” he said. “That means as much to me as any ECAC banner.”

Marsh, 60, announced his retirement Friday and hands the reins to former player, assistant and Canton native Greg Carvel. Associate head coach Mike Hurlbut will remain in his current position and a second assistant will be added.

“The role that Greg and Mike did together this year in a team-coach concept, which is what we’ve always had, was phenomenal,” Marsh said. “These guys are better equipped in the new era, and I think it’s really the opportune time for me.”

Marsh’s decision comes after missing four games during the 2010-11 season and taking an indefinite medical leave this season to deal with an arthritic and esophageal condition that required regular treatments in Boston. Neither of his conditions is serious.

“It’s sort of an ongoing thing,” he said. “It just takes me away from the team to Boston for about a week. It’s not fair to the kids or the program.”

Instead of prolonging the uncertainty of his day-to-day presence with the team, a fact he feared recruiters would use against the Saints, Marsh opted to retire. Hurlbut and Carvel co-coached the team through Marsh’s absence this season.

“Joe has been the most influential person in my hockey career and has served as a friend and a mentor for almost 30 years,” Carvel said. “He is one of the last true icons of college hockey because he has embodied all that is right and honorable about college sports and, more importantly, St. Lawrence University.”

Marsh’s departure marks the end of the longest-tenured coach in program history. He has been the head coach since 1985. Twice, in 1989 and 2000, he was the Spencer Penrose Award winner for national coach of the year.

“It’s bittersweet, to be sure,” Marsh said. “There’s an old saying that sometimes you’re better to leave a year early than stay a day late.”

Marsh’s reach on and off the ice is immeasurable. He’s produced several ECAC Hockey coaches, NHL players and executives. He began teaching St. Lawrence’s first year program and helped raise funds for various local organizations. He even performed two wedding ceremonies for former players.

“I hope my legacy is just trying to be a player’s coach and creating an atmosphere that’s fun and where the players enjoy playing,” he said. “We’re measured by a very arbitrary thing: If more pucks end up in our net or more pucks end up in theirs. What really matters is what kind of effort goes into it.

“If enough guys buy into that, that’s the stuff that stays with them for a long time,” he added. “Twenty years down the road, they may not remember the nuances, but they’ll remember the relationships. Hopefully I had a part in that.”

Players often returned to Appleton Arena, mostly just to say hello to their former coach. He regularly selected former players to his staff whenever there was an opening. Most recently, that was Carvel, who last coached in the NHL.

“The fact these guys that are coaching played for me, are local guys — they share all the important points they need to have,” Marsh said. “I feel a part of that.”

It is that mutual loyalty that ran between Marsh, his players and the school that ultimately kept him with St. Lawrence so long.

He could have gone to a bigger market, where recruiting was certainly easier, or to an Ivy League school within the conference that may have been more lucrative. But Marsh remained with St. Lawrence.

“I couldn’t imagine coaching against them, the school, those uniforms,” he said. “I always felt a tremendous loyalty to the school. That has a lot to do with it. I just felt like, why go anywhere else? It’s got everything I need.”

Marsh, who came to St. Lawrence after stints at New Hampton and Choate prep school, settled in Canton with his wife Teddi and started a family. That family includes grandchildren now. Certainly some of those faces on his refrigerator have grown by another generation, too.

“We had a pretty good lifestyle here,” Marsh said. “Your roots get pretty deep and the longer you’re here, the deeper they get. It just felt right.”

Marsh will remain in the Canton area with his family and still be around the hockey program. He hopes to help with athletic fundraising and perhaps return to teaching. Whatever he does, he will do it with the same energy and emotion that made every player and coach enjoy their time.

“Emotion is an integral part of this game,” he said. “I certainly never walked into the game and didn’t have an emotional feel to do it. I think for a guy that coached that way, 26 years is a pretty long kick. I hope that the players feel I was a player’s coach and I cared about them.”

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