Nate Leaman doesn’t remember exactly when he called Shawn Walsh.
But if it hadn’t been for that one telephone call in 1997, Leaman might be working for the Department of Environmental Conservation today instead of preparing the Union College hockey team for its first appearance ever in the ECAC semifinals at the Times Union Center.
When Leaman graduated from Cortland State in 1997 with a degreee in biological science, he had finished his collegiate career as the No. 8 all-time scorer for the Red Dragons, but “I knew hockey wasn’t in the cards, so I applied to Ohio State, Maine and Cornell for graduate school. I had always been interested in fisheries and wildlife. My true passions, after my family, are hockey and fishing,” he said Thursday over breakfast.
“I met with the people at Cornell, but they wanted me to retake the English part of the GREs, so Cornell didn’t work out. Ohio State offered me a fully funded Ph.D program, and Maine offered a fully funded master’s. I didn’t want to commit to the Ph.D, so I went to Maine.”
And it was that one phone call to Walsh, the former Black Bears head coach who died of renal cell carcinoma in September 2001, that turned Leaman’s career around.
“My wife asked me recently if I called Shawn before I went there, or after I got there, and I really can’t remember,” said Leaman. “I really don’t know why I phoned him. But the one thing about Shawn was that he was always looking for an edge and he kept every door open. We talked for a while, and he was the one who set me up with a high school job.”
In addition to taking graduate courses at Maine, Leaman also served as the associate head coach at Old Town High School in 1997-98, and another meeting with Walsh around Christmas opened another door.
“We were practicing at the same rink,” Leaman said. “We practiced before Maine, and Shawn watched one of our practices. After practice, he asked me if I wanted to work with his staff. Right after my season ended, I started working with him at the end of the year. I came in and learned everything I could at the end of the year so I could hit the ground running the next year.”
Leaman was a volunteer assistant, but “the way Shawn structures his staff, I was pretty much an assistant coach. I was giving him seven hours a day. Grant [assistant coach Grant Standbrook] was on the road all the time, so I was able to work with the ‘D’ and the goalies. I’d work with the goalies for 20 minutes before practice, and work with the ‘D’ during practice.
“We won the national championship that year.” Then he quickly added, “and I got my master’s. I’m really proud of that. You don’t quit on something like that.”
Leaman, 37, grew up in Centerville, Ohio, a football-crazy suburb of Dayton. According to its Web site, Centerville High School has produced six NFL players, and over 60 Division I players, including former Ohio State quarterback and ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit, who was a senior when Leaman was in eighth grade.
But Leaman was never attracted to football.
“I was a soccer player,” he said. “Then, in my freshman year, for whatever reason, I picked up [hockey].
“From there, I got a job at the rink, the Kettering Rec Center. I started out as a skate guard and worked my way up. My sophomore year, I was the guy who closed up the rink at night, and after I locked up, I’d stay around for an hour or so and skate.”
Leaman was the leading scorer for the Centerville Elks during his junior and senior years, but quickly plays down the accomplishments.
“The high school hockey then was bad,” he said. “At that time, there were only four teams in southern Ohio — Centerville, Columbus, Oxford and Cincinnati-Moeller.”
During his senior year in high school, the phone at the Leaman house would ring off the hook at night, but the recruiters weren’t chasing Nate.
“My younger sister, Kelly, was a tremendous breaststroker,” Leaman said. “All-state was nothing to her. The number of calls we got each night was ridiculous.”
After high school, he had an invitation to play for the Indianapolis Ice of the North American Hockey League, but instead opted to go to Sweden and move in with the family of a foreign exchange student who had played for the Elks during Leaman’s senior year. After a season with the Division II Enkoping Sports Klubb, Leaman returned to the Midwest and spent a year with the Ice before heading off to Cortland, where he scored 85 points (29-59), which is still 17th on the Red Dragons’ all-time list.
Coaching may not have been in Leaman’s blood, but he’s sure gotten good at it. From Maine, he spent three years as an assistant at Harvard under Mark Mazzoleni before becoming the 15th head coach at Union in 2003-04.
“I saw Union as a teriffic program, and knew that with a lot of hard work, it could really develop into something,” said Leaman, who recorded his 100th career coaching victory this year and was named the ECAC Coach of the Year after leading the Dutchmen to a third-place finish. “I was fortunate to have great assistants. When I think back, I really hired two road dogs in Tony Gasparini and Billy Riga. Those two would battle to see who would go on the road. They got the ball rolling.
“That first year, we got hired late, so we didn’t get a teriffic start, but the second class, with Matt Cook, T.J. Fox, Lane Caffaro, Chris Potts, Brendon Milnamow, Mike Harr . . . a lot of the success we’re having this year, the foundation was laid down by that class.”
There’s no reason for the success not to continue, as long as Leaman stays around, and he’s adamant that he’s not going anywhere, even though rumors are bound to start now that the Ohio State job is vacant.
“My wife [Alice] and I really like it here,” he said. “When we met, she was working for the largest law firm in Boston. We were still dating when I got this job, and she came with me, and she found a job with a big national firm with a small office in Albany. It’s the perfect job for her.
“I like the growth of our program. We will graduate some key people this year, but I think the recruiting is getting better every year, and I really like the direction everything is going in.”
And it all started because of one telephone call.