The University of Maine on Tuesday announced the firing of hockey coach Tim Whitehead after 12 seasons, saying the university needs to look in a new direction for a program known for being a national championship contender and producing NHL standouts.
The university will use up to $195,000 in privately raised money from the president's discretionary fund to buy out the final year of a four-year contract extension negotiated in 2010.
Athletic Director Steve Abbott said he and President Paul Ferguson are committed "to ensuring that our men's hockey program is financially sustainable, continues to focus on developing the student-athlete, and is known nationally for excellence."
The Black Bears have boasted several NHL players through the years, including Paul Kariya, Dustin Penner and Ben Bishop.
"This is about the future of our marquee program," Abbott said. "Since 2008, Maine has experienced declining Hockey East success, season ticket sales and overall ticket revenues, and waning student engagement in men's ice hockey."
Whitehead, who had a record of 250-171-54 at Maine, took the team to the national championship game, losing in overtime, in an emotional first season as interim coach after coach Shawn Walsh died from cancer Sept. 24, 2001. Whitehead later coached another championship game, and his teams made four Frozen Four appearances.
But the Black Bears had losing records for the past six seasons, finishing 11-19-8 before failing to advance in the Hockey East playoffs this year.
In a statement, Whitehead said it was an honor to serve at Maine, and he told fans that they'll have a lot to look forward to in the coming season.
"I love our returning core of players and our incoming recruits," he said. "I'm confident this team will build on our strong second half this season, and that they will compete among the top programs in the nation next year."
Mike Cornell, one of this year's captains, said Whitehead's dismissal was disappointing news but that players understand good coaches sometimes have to go. No one wanted to win more than Whitehead, and he had the team's respect, he added.
"At a school like Maine, it's not just for fun. It's big business and there are high expectations," said Cornell, who now plays for the Florida Everblades of the East Coast Hockey League. "Maine hockey is accustomed to excellence. And when it's not there, people are pretty fired up and they should be."
Ferguson, who said a national search for a new coach will begin immediately, lauded Whitehead.
"Tim's positive character and demonstrated commitment to developing our hockey players as student-athletes have been outstanding," he said. "We as a university are grateful for that commitment to student success."
Maine was just 7-12-8 in Hockey East this season, a disappointing finish in a year where the league seemed up for grabs. Massachusetts Lowell won the conference regular-season and tournament titles, and will play in the Frozen Four this week in Pittsburgh, along with St. Cloud State, Quinnipiac and Yale.