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October / November 2001

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What Matters Most

Photo by Monty Rand

What Matters Most
Battling cancer — and with a young family — Shawn Walsh knows life is far more than just hockey

About the Photo: Between the influence of his family, age and his battle with cancer, Walsh says he is more reflective, more appreciative of others and of life than ever before.

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Shawn Walsh opens the center drawer of his desk and pulls out a slip of paper that he's kept from the day he was hired at The University of Maine. The note reads: "If you don't have the best of everything, make the best of everything you have."

As one of the most successful coaches UMaine has ever had, in any sport, Walsh knows a lot about being the best. He also knows what it's like when the odds don't seem to be in your favor.

For the past year, the coach of men's hockey has taken on his toughest opponent — cancer. It has been a private battle of a high-profile coach that has been followed by thousands of people in Maine and across the country. As with Walsh's leadership on the ice that has led UMaine to two national championships, supporters have been inspired by his strength of character. And his candor.

"I believe everyone is here for a reason," says Walsh. "That's one of the reasons why I'm carrying my fight public. Cancer is a word that scares people, but it doesn't have to end your life, it doesn't change your friends or your zest for life. I'm very appreciative of my lot in life."

Shawn Walsh
Between the influence of his family, age and his battle with cancer, Walsh says he is more reflective, more appreciative of others and of life than ever before.

Photos by
Monty Rand and Jason Kanif

Walsh has experienced a lot in his life, but the past 16 months have been the most challenging. In June 2000, he learned that the back pain he had been experiencing was the result of a cancerous kidney — specifically, renal cell carcinoma. The kidney was removed, followed by a series of immunotherapy treatments at UCLA's Jonsson Cancer Center. Earlier this year, Walsh had a lung removed as part of his battle with cancer, and spent 74 days at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Md., undergoing the last stage of his cancer treatment: a stem cell transplant. The donor was Walsh's youngest brother, Kevin.

Within days of returning home to Maine from Maryland, Walsh says he attempted to return to a normal routine — organizing things around his house in Veazie and in his office at Alfond Sports Arena, traveling to the coast for family weekends, and "chasing the little one," his youngest son, Sean, 2. He played golf four times in his first week and a half in Maine. And he prepared for his 18th season behind the bench.

In August, Walsh returned to NIH for treatment of a virus common to stem cell transplant recipients. He was back in his office two weeks later.

"With my personality, I don't get down or worried," Walsh explains. "Attitude is everything and only you can control it. You're the only one who can dictate how you feel. People need to take ownership in giving themselves a positive attitude."

Looking back, Walsh says he now realizes that some of the strength to face this chapter in his life is rooted in his childhood. Walsh grew up with eight brothers and sisters, and what he describes as "constant change." As a child, he moved with his family from White Plains, N.Y., to Wayne, N.J., where "the lifestyle we led was upper-middle class, with a pool in the backyard."

When he was a high school freshman his family moved again, this time to Nashville where his father opened his own business, only to see it fail. "We went from upper- to lower-middle class in a hurry with many mouths to feed," Walsh says. "I went to four different high schools. I've seen economic ups and downs, and how they can change in a family at the drop of a hat."

From his mother and father, Walsh learned perseverance and a drive to be the best you can be. A childhood of change taught him to be independent.

That childhood also led him to take up hockey. The game was "the clear passion in a life that had a lot of passions," he says. At Bowling Green, Walsh played as a reserve goalkeeper for one of the greatest collegiate hockey coaches, Ron Mason. From Mason, Walsh learned the art of and love for coaching.

Walsh became a student of the game, coaching as Mason's assistant at Bowling Green and later at Michigan State, where they rebuilt the program. Walsh then brought the blueprint to Maine.

Walsh landed the UMaine head coach's job in 1984. He came to a program that already had strong community support, drawing close to 3,000 fans per game despite a team that won just 11 league games in three years.

Walsh quickly became popular — and successful. Under him, the UMaine men's hockey program became one of the most visible and strongest in the country. Walsh is the first to admit that for some fans, his popularity was challenged in the mid-1990s with the University's self-disclosure of NCAA rules violations.

"In 1993 (UMaine's first national championship), you could have put my face on a postage stamp, but in '95, some people didn't know which side to spit on," Walsh says. Today, Walsh looks back at his one-year suspension for rules violations as "a blessing in disguise" — something that led him toward a new understanding, both professionally and personally, of what matters most in life.

"Five years ago, I was a more one-dimensional person. Now I'm more balanced spiritually, socially, physiologically and psychologically. In a lot of ways, I feel blessed that I've been able to see the many things I've seen in the last 18 months."

Walsh gives much of the credit for his broader view of the world to his wife, Lynne, whom he met during his suspension. "She's balanced, fun, very cerebral and opinionated," says Walsh, who has four children, two by a previous marriage. "I got through this past year with support from my family and loved ones, especially Lynne. Her confidence is soothing. And she's very religious. She got me back into Catholicism even before I was diagnosed with cancer. In the past year, my religion has helped."

During his 74 days in Maryland undergoing treatment, Shawn and Lynne were frank with their children. "I've told the kids I've got cancer but it's beatable," he says. "I told them I'm going to do everything I can to be here. The most important thing is that I keep a good attitude."

Between the influence of his family, age and his battle with cancer, Walsh says he is more reflective, and more appreciative of others and of life than ever before. Walsh has started writing a book about his life with the help of Steve Klein, a former online editor at USA Today.

"It's a book I've thought about for a long time," he explains. "It's about perseverance in life. Just because you're knocked down, it doesn't mean that you won't be successful."

Walsh says that it's important for people to know that, no matter what adversity they encounter, handling it with a positive attitude will always make you stronger. "My illness has never seemed insurmountable. I haven't had the ‘Why me?' syndrome. These are the cards I've been dealt and I can deal with it."

by Margaret Nagle
October-November, 2001

Editor's Note: The October/November issue of UMaine Today was published a few days prior to the unexpected death of men's ice hockey coach Shawn Walsh, whose courageous battle with cancer was featured in that magazine. Walsh's health took a dramatic downturn during the two weeks prior to his passing on Sept. 24 at the age of 46. Walsh was a high-profile coach whose leadership went beyond winning two national championships. During nearly 17 years at the University, he inspired tens of thousands of people in Maine and beyond to believe in themselves, to set high aspirations, and to overcome adversity through perseverance and positive attitude.

Click Here for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.


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