The day after his father died, 8-year-old Travis Walsh went to the hockey rink.

The sport was his legacy, bequeathed to him by a driven and highly successful college coach whom the boy was too young to fully understand.

The sport became his sanctuary, the sheet of ice a place where he could both forget about the anguish and forge a closer connection with the father who died far too early.

Shawn Walsh remains a legend in Maine, revered for taking a moribund Black Bears program to the top of the college hockey world, twice, before dying of renal cell carcinoma at age 46.

Fourteen years later, Travis Walsh will come face to face with his dad’s former team, coached by one of his dad’s former assistants, when Michigan State meets the University of Maine at 8 p.m. Friday in the opening round of the Ice Breaker tournament in Portland.

“I’m just really excited and thankful,” said Walsh, a senior defenseman for the Spartans. “I think it might get a little emotional, probably really emotional for my family. I don’t usually have an issue with it when it comes to hockey.”

Walsh, 22, was born in Bangor just two months after his father won his first national championship, with the 1993 Black Bears. His mother, Tracey, is the daughter of Ron Mason, a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame who won 924 games as a coach at Lake Superior State, Bowling Green State and, most notably, Michigan State.

Shawn Walsh was a Mason protege at the latter two stops before accepting the UMaine job in 1984, when he was just 29. Known for being a blunt talker, a meticulous planner and more than a little arrogant, Walsh turned the program into a power, winning a second national title in 1999 before being diagnosed the next summer with the rare cancer that would claim his life.

Travis Walsh was spared the worst of his father’s 15-month fight with the disease that spread from his kidneys and eventually cost him a lung. His parents had divorced by the time he was 5, and his mother moved back to Michigan with Travis and his older brother, Tyler. The boys got to hang around with players on that 1999 championship team, many of whom are expected to return this weekend for the Ice Breaker tournament. Tracey Walsh and her sons spent summers and holidays back in Maine.

Travis remembers a feeling of shock when word came on Sept. 26, 2001, that his father had died, one day before the Black Bears were scheduled to begin practicing. He said Tyler, then 10, felt the loss more keenly because he was older.

Travis said it was during his teenage years that the void became more difficult to handle. Hockey provided a way to cope.

“It gives me a place to go where I can just focus on the present,” he said. “There’s no outside world. You have stress, and it goes away.”

Travis Walsh continues to spend summers in Maine. He visits current Black Bears Coach Red Gendron at his office in Alfond Arena, which also houses the Shawn Walsh Hockey Center.

Walsh nearly ended up playing for UMaine. He chose Michigan State because the Spartans offered him a scholarship first, when he was 17. They had been able to monitor his progress as a youth player growing up in nearby Haslett, Michigan.

“Maine wanted to see me more and make sure they were taking me for the right reasons other than who my father was,” Walsh said with no trace of regret.

Some members of his family worried about added pressure for a son of Shawn Walsh wearing a Black Bear uniform. Travis said that didn’t dissuade him.

“I think if anything it would have been an awesome experience,” he said.

Gendron, who got his start in the college ranks under Shawn Walsh a quarter-century ago, said he’s always happy to talk to Walsh’s sons. Tyler, 24, spent two years in Orono under former Coach Tim Whitehead as a team manager and videographer while finishing his business degree. He is now an assistant coach with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“Travis is very bright in the same way Shawn was: very, very bright and aware. Some people are bright, but not particularly aware; he’s aware,” Gendron said. “There’s some of Shawn in both of those boys, to be sure. But they’re their own people. They’re going to make their own way in the world.”

About six years ago, Travis Walsh was visiting his dad’s old neighborhood in Veazie. He spotted Chelsea Hardy, the daughter of family friends. They had known each other as children, though Travis barely remembered it. But something clicked once they were teenagers, and they started dating. She joined him as a student at Michigan State, graduating this year with a degree in hospitality business.

On July 25, they got married in Surry, with Tyler serving as best man. An early threat of rain turned into a perfect sunny day at the farm near the ocean where the ceremony took place. Two of Walsh’s Spartans teammates were in the wedding party; another 15 made the 20-hour trek east in a motor home. Walsh said the couple would like to settle in Maine someday.

“Maybe my dad had something to do with that,” Walsh said of meeting his future wife on a visit to Maine.

He likes to imagine that his father is looking after him.

“I always had motivation to work hard, thinking that he is,” Walsh said. “All the summers I’ve been by myself working out and training, it definitely was in the back of my mind, wanting to make him proud.” The son has become a hard-nosed, heady player. He was second team all-Big Ten a year ago after scoring 14 points and blocking 63 shots. The last one he blocked, in a game at Minnesota, fractured his jaw and cost him the final six games of his junior season.

Walsh has spent years trying to get to know his father better. He enjoys watching “Out of the Woods,” a documentary made about that 1993 Shawn Walsh team that finished an incredible 42-1-2. Hearing his father’s voice and watching him interact with a star-studded roster is eye-opening for the son.

“He was pretty strict and pretty tough in practice,” Travis Walsh said.

UMaine assistant coach Jay Leach also gave him a folder of old newspaper clippings about his father. Walsh loves reading his dad’s quotes and talking to former players who knew him. He’s hoping to hear many more stories at the Cross Insurance Arena this weekend.

Walsh has earned his degree and may pursue a career in finance after his playing days are done. He’s not sure he wants to follow the family blood lines into coaching, like his brother is doing.

“I’ve been back and forth,” Walsh said. “I think I might be able to be a good coach, but I’m not sure I like the demanding hours.

“And the toll it can take on a family, which I’ve obviously witnessed.”


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