Becoming a hockey coach — let alone an NCAA and world champion hockey coach — wasn’t the original plan when Nate Leaman graduated from SUNY Cortland in 1997.
Leaman left Cortland with a bachelor’s in biological sciences and a hockey career that resulted in two years as captain, a top 20 ranking in the Red Dragons’ scoring records and an eventual induction into the SUNY Cortland Athletics Hall of Fame in 2014.
But while he was studying for his master’s in biological sciences as a graduate student at the University of Maine, his focus wasn’t on X’s and O’s, but fisheries and pollutants.
Before the 1998-99 season rolled around, however, he decided he wanted to get into coaching. His head coach at Cortland, Al MacCormack, put in a good word to Black Bears head coach Shawn Walsh, and Leaman joined Walsh’s staff as a volunteer for that season.
“We were very lucky to have Coach MacCormack,” Leaman said. “[We had] very good practices and he was very aware of the big picture of Division III athletics.”
At the end of the year, the Black Bears won the NCAA Division I National Championship and Leaman earned his master’s. A highly accomplished year left him with two very different yet intriguing career paths.
Then the pivotal domino fell.
“At the end of the season Walsh called me and said he had fired an assistant and said Nate is more qualified and gave the job to him,” MacCormack said.
A little over two decades later, seemingly everything Leaman has touched in his coaching career has turned to gold.
Leaman eventually left Maine for an assistant position at Harvard, where he helped recruit prospects that turned a cellar-dwelling Crimson squad into ECAC champions and Division I tournament qualifiers.
That earned the attention of Union College in Schenectady, who in 2003 were in a similar situation to the Crimson when Leaman arrived and needed a shot in the arm.
All Leaman did in his eight years at the helm of the Dutchmen was post a 138-127-35 record, making him the winningest coach in school history at the time (he has since been passed by current head coach Rick Bennett) and the first coach to leave Union with a winning record since they joined Division I in 1991. He also guided the Dutchmen to their first ECAC regular season title and Division I tournament berth. On top of that, he won the 2011 Spencer Penrose Award as Division I Men’s Coach of the Year and won two consecutive ECAC Coach of the Year Awards.
From there, it was time to shine on college hockey’s biggest stage — the Hockey East Conference. Powerhouses like Boston College, Boston University, Merrimack, New Hampshire and Leaman’s old friends at Maine.
But the school that came calling for Leaman’s services was yet another team that needed a brilliant coach to push them over the top — the Providence College Friars.
Since taking over, Leaman has led the Friars to eight consecutive winning seasons and two Frozen Four berths, including a National Championship in 2015.
Leaman’s track record as a coach that develops talent and plays to his team’s strengths earned him his most prestigious gig — head coach of the U.S. National Team at the IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton earlier this month.
The Americans are always among the top contenders at the World Juniors, but this year Canada was an almost prohibitive favorite, with pretournament odds at 7-5. By comparison, the Americans were 5-1 underdogs.
But Leaman and the Americans overcame those odds — and a tough loss in their opening game against Russia — to win six consecutive games, culminating in a 2-0 shutout over the host Canadians in the championship game that gave the Americans their fifth World Juniors title and first since 2017.
When asked what he told his players as they celebrated, Leaman said “We will walk together for the rest of our lives. I was proud of them for coming together as a team and for caring more about the guy next to them than themselves.”
As far as Leaman is concerned, winning an NCAA championship and the World Juniors are equally special.
“The national championship was special because it took years to build,” Leaman said. “The World Juniors is special because it is the best in the world. Both are equally great. It was a great honor to represent your country.”
And, of course, MacCormack, the man who made the call that set Leaman’s coaching career in motion, couldn’t have been happier.
“Nate was a team player who played hard every shift and asked the teammates to be the same,” MacCormack said. “I am very proud of Nate winning and I can’t say there was any difference between winning the Frozen Four and the World Juniors. Nate should be given all the credit for what he has done and paid his dues in the coaching ranks.”