By Mike McMahon
---- — Blazing trails is nothing new for Erin Hamlen, who was named the first-ever head coach of the Merrimack College women’s ice hockey program last month.
After a prolific career as a goaltender at the University of New Hampshire from 1989-93, where she was named the ECAC’s top goaltender in all four of her seasons, Hamlen went on to star on the United States national team from 1992-2001.
Between Team USA stints, she became the first woman to compete on a men’s professional team, appearing in 13 games in the ECHL, CHL and COHL, posting a 5-3 record.
Hamlen’s run as a goalie at UNH coincided with a time period that helped pioneer the movement for women’s hockey to be included in the Olympics (it was added in 1992).
Her next challenge is formulating the path for Merrimack’s program, which will debut in either 2014-15 or 2015-16, a decision Hamlen and the college administration hopes to have finalized soon.
“I’m anxious when it comes to recruiting,” she said. “Players are committing so early, some in their sophomore year now; we’ll establish a timeline that we feel works best for us and hopefully we’ll know soon. We’re discussing it now and trying to determine what makes the most sense for us.”
Players that commit to playing at Merrimack will be under the tutelage of one of USA Hockey’s top goaltenders the past two decades, who has a proven track record of developing players. Hamlen was the goaltender for the World Championship teams from 1992-01, winning five silver medals in the five tournaments she took part in, as well as being named the Outstanding Goaltender for the tournament in 1994. At UNH, where she served as an assistant coach for 10 years, Hamlen coached six goalies to Hockey East’s Goaltender of the Year honor, along with one All-American (Jen Huggon).
“There is more clout I think when it comes to recruiting because I played at such a high level,” said Hamlen, who lives in Hampton, New Hampshire with her husband and two young children. “The fact that I’ve been there and done that with the national team and playing in college, I can convey it to our recruits that it was a great experience and I can also tell them how much hard work it takes to get to that point. Players know that if their coach made it there, they’ll know how to help them develop to a point where they can get there too.”
After her playing days, Hamlen joined her alma matter as an assistant coach and later associate head coach, helping lead the Wildcats to the Frozen Four in both 2006 and 2008 along with six Hockey East regular-season championships and four Hockey East tournament titles. She then took her first head coaching job with the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League before serving one season as the University of New England’s head coach last year.
At UNE, Hamlen was tasked with the same chore she’ll now face with Merrimack: building a team from scratch. But despite what might sound daunting, it’s the perfect fit for a coach.
“It’s any coach’s dream to start a program with all of your own players,” she said. “It will be an interesting process. I was at UNH for so many years and a part of Hockey East so the opportunity to coach in this league and build a program was a no-brainer.
“The recruiting process starts the minute you walk in the door. I’ve already made a lot of calls and we’ve already had some kids to campus and we have more coming (today). Some are 2014 grads and even if we start in 2015, they could post-grad a year, so we have some flexibility, but (when the program begins) is something that we need to decide so that we have concrete info to tell our recruits and really prepare.”
If there was any doubt that the growing world of women’s hockey was excited about a new program in such a powerful conference, those questions were answered not long at Hamlen took the job.
Just recently, she said she was at a USA Hockey camp where there was buzz about the new Merrimack program joining Hockey East.
“There were a lot of people talking about it,” she said. “It was great to see. There is so much excitement around the sport and we’ve seen the numbers growing. It’s definitely an exciting time for the sport and for Merrimack.”
Some of that buzz is simply because Merrimack is becoming more and more known for its hockey. After suffering through years of anonymity when it comes to the hockey world, the Merrimack name has taken leaps as far as prestige the last few seasons thanks to the recent run of the men’s program, which took part in the Hockey East title game in 2011 and was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament that same season.
“It’s definitely help put the Merrimack name on the map within hockey,” Hamlen said. “I’ve already had a few conversations with Mark (Dennehy) about just general philosophies and we share a lot of the same ideas. It’s going to be exciting to have someone like that to bounce ideas off of and really model the way he built his program.”
The Hamlen File Erin (Whitten) Hamlen was named the first head coach of Merrimack's women's hockey program last month. As a player: Started for UNH from 1989-93 and was named to Hockey East's First All Star Team in all four seasons; Played for the U.S. national team from 1992-01; Became the first woman to play for a men's professional team. As a coach: Was an assistant and later an associate head coach at UNH from 2000-10. Coached the Wildcats to six Hockey East regular-season titles and four tournament championships; Helped UNH to a pair of Frozen Fours; Coached six Hockey East Goaltending Championships and one All-American; Was the head coach of the Boston Blades (CWHL) for two seasons; Last season served as head coach at the newly-formed University of New England program.