New Maine Leader Transformed From Ace Recruiter to Well-Rounded Top Assistant
Ben Barr was at a career crossroads when he met with Ken Ralph in Colorado Springs in 2014.
Ralph was the athletic director at Colorado College at the time, and was hiring a new head coach there. The two had known each other since Barr was a player at RPI, and Ralph was that school’s AD.
Despite the fact that Providence, where Barr was coaching, was on the cusp of the national championship it would win the next year, and his previous school, Union, just won a national title with many of Barr’s recruits — Ralph was blunt. He told Barr that he still needed to do more as an assistant than just recruit well. He also needed to earn a reputation beyond the Eastern footprint he’d already established.
“He had to go to a spot where he had more responsibility,” Ralph said. “To learn more about the coaching side. That was the nature of the conversation. I said he may have to make some difficult choices where his next move is. It’s tough to hire someone based only one your reputation as a recruiter.”
Barr made the tough choice to leave Providence for Western Michigan, where he’d work under the tutelage of Andy Murray. Barr was a senior at Shattuck St. Mary’s when Murray spent a season coaching there, between NHL gigs. Murray was also a finalist for the head coaching job at RPI in 2006, when Ralph hired Seth Appert.
“Ben absolutely loved Andy Murray,” Ralph said. “There was another another coach he would’ve left (Providence) for.”
After two seasons at WMU, Barr took up an offer from Greg Carvel to help resurrect the UMass program. Carvel would give Barr a lot of coaching responsibility, helping him grow into more than just a recruiter. Of course, it paid off well, with UMass eventually reaching two straight Frozen Fours, culminating in this year’s national championship.
“He’s always been honest with me,” Barr said about Ralph. “That’s something I’ve always admired about Ken. He wasn’t afraid to have the same conversation with a student-athlete that he’d have with a coach, or with someone walking down the street. … You learn a lot from someone in his position. I appreciate that he was tough on me in the interview process. I’ll be tough on the players, not in a bad way but in a good way. That’s not easy to do in our time. You have to have tough conversations and push people out of their comfort zone. It’s important for a coach to be able to do that.”
Meanwhile, through tragic circumstances, the Maine job opened.
Ironically, the Colorado College job was open again at the same time. That one went to another of the nation’s top assistant coaches — Kris Mayotte.
Ralph put Barr through an intense hiring process, not wanting to play favorites. He used a two-prong search committee structure, with himself and other administrators handling evaluation of off-ice type of coach’s responsibilities, and a group of former Maine players putting interviewees through a gauntlet of Xs and Os questions.
Barr passed all the tests.
“He was special then, you could just see it,” Ralph said about first meeting Barr as a player at RPI. “Some people have that way. The way he communicated and interacted, the recognition of the importance of the moment, it was always something he possessed. … I didn’t want people to look and say this is who Ken knows, it’s a done deal. So I was probably a lot harder on Ben than other candidates.”
There’s an awful lot of Maine alumni in head coaching positions in the hockey world right now, some of them prominent. One of them was the team’s interim head coach for a month after the passing of Red Gendron, Ben Guite. But whether they didn’t want the gig or didn’t match up, Ben Barr won out over all of them.
The one exception to that is Jim Montgomery. A legend of the program, its all-time leading scorer and member of the storybook 1993 national championship team, Montgomery went on to rocket through the coaching ranks. After he was not hired in 2015 in lieu of Gendron, Montgomery wound up in Denver instead, where he won a national championship and reached two Frozen Fours before becoming a head coach in the NHL with the Dallas Stars.
Personal issues related to alcohol led to Montgomery’s firing early in the 2019-20 season. After going to rehab, he then was given an opportunity to rehabilitate his image with the St. Louis Blues this season, as an assistant coach.
It was a no brainer to at least gauge Monty’s interest, and Ralph did. He was the first phone call. They would’ve worked out the money, somehow, Ralph said. But Montgomery wanted to stay loyal to the Blues.
Instead, Montgomery became an integral part of the search committee — along with other prominent alums, Garth Snow and Bruce Major.
“He thought about it for a day,” Ralph said about Montgomery. “But he’s rebuilding his reputation and is extra grateful and thankful to the St. Louis Blues for the opportunity, and he wants to repay his commitment to them.
“I can tell you, though, he worked his butt off in this search.”
Barr impressed Montgomery, which is not easy to do. Montgomery was groomed by the legendary Shawn Walsh, who built the program and won two national titles. The team went to four Frozen Fours in six years under Tim Whitehead, then things began to fall off. Barr is looking forward to turning it around again.
“It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility to carry the torch forward,” Barr said. “I’m going to embrace that responsibility and I hope we all together will be able to in time build championship teams here at Maine … I’ve seen it done — there’s a formula that works — getting the right people then helping them get better every day.
“I know it’s been a while, but it hasn’t been that long. And I know we can get that buzz back.
The biggest questions surrounding Maine has been the resources. Previous coaches were certainly not bad coaches, but they both oversaw a program where things had slipped and couldn’t recover. The issues had more to do with being hamstrung by severe budget issues in the University of Maine system than their coaching acumen.
So, are the resources there for Barr to compete? Or will he run into the same problems no matter how hard he tries?
“I don’t see huge challenges on the recruiting front,” Barr said. “The challenge is getting the right person. … Finding that player to fit your culture better instead of player who might be better than them today, is the way to go. And I think that’s been a strength of mine. Not a superstar today, but who can turn into a superstar in the right landscape. I don’t see that being any different than at Union, Western, Umass. The advantage at Maine is we have such a great tradition and a huge list of alumni and supporters, people who have had success.”
It’s not secret that Barr will be the lowest-paid coach in Hockey East, at least at first. He received a four-year deal which could stretch to six if he surpasses certain win goals. But there’s reason to believe he will have plenty of resources available to turn things around, so long as he makes the right decisions on staff and recruits. At least those are things in his control.
“We’ve done well with fundraising recently,” Ralph said, referring to the large endowment the school build, called the Grant Standbrook fund, named after its long-time assistant coach. “That will kick off quite a bit of money every year in addition to money from the university. … We’ve exceeded our expecations as to how to fill out that fund. So there’s a little difference automatically (from the recent past).”
There will also be more money available to pay assistant coaches. And Alfond Arena is getting a major renovation. And Ralph said they are anticipating getting more revenue from some new, creative multimedia deals.
“When we were interviewing Ben, he said he thinks there’s a lot more resources available at Maine than people realize,” Ralph said. “At UMass, resources weren’t there at first, but they won, drew crowds, and (they) could fund the things (they) wanted to fund. Here, we’re starting at a better spot. You get too close to things you forget what you do have. We do have quite a bit here, we do have things to sell. Sometimes you forget that. It was good to be reminded of that.”