Sarah Olender/WRBB Sports File

It was summer move-in day at Northeastern, and Liam Walsh was already lost.

Walsh, the Huskies’ prized transfer addition from Hockey East rival Merrimack, was driving aimlessly around Northeastern’s campus, struggling to locate his new dorm. He couldn’t even figure out where to pick up his student ID badge.

“It was bad,” Walsh says now with a chuckle. “Thankfully, Dunzo was coming a couple hours later, so my parents and I just waited until he came and he helped us get everything settled.”

“Dunzo” is Northeastern’s senior captain Aidan McDonough, who is also Walsh’s former junior hockey teammate and close friend. Since arriving on campus in July, Walsh has peppered McDonough with questions about everything from campus directions to the Huskies’ power play system. McDonough, for his part, has patiently answered every last one of them.

If you know their history, it’s the least he could do for Walsh.

The two friends first met in 2018, while playing junior hockey together on the USHL’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. When McDonough first arrived in Cedar Rapids, Walsh had already played on the team for three years, and was the team’s captain. Then, it was Walsh who helped acclimate McDonough to a brand-new environment.

“[Liam] was one of the best captains I’ve ever had,” McDonough said. “I was obviously new at Cedar Rapids, so I had tons of questions. He was always there to help me out, and he showed me the lay of the land. Anything anyone ever needed, he was pretty much there for me.”

As the two now prepare for their final season of college hockey, a lot has changed. McDonough has blossomed into one of college hockey’s premier talents at Northeastern, leading Hockey East last season with 25 goals. The Vancouver Canucks, who selected McDonough in the 7th round of the 2019 NHL draft, encouraged McDonough to forego his senior season and sign a professional contract this past offseason — but he instead opted to return for one final year at Northeastern, and was subsequently named team captain.

Meanwhile, after a quiet first two years in college, Walsh was a breakout star for Merrimack a season ago, racking up 27 points and earning Hockey East Player of the Month honors in January. After graduating early, he decided to enter the transfer portal this past offseason — and the decision was not too difficult.

Just like in Cedar Rapids, Walsh and McDonough’s lockers are positioned side-by-side in the Matthews Arena dressing room. And now, after texting every day for the past three years while apart, the longtime friends get to share the ice for one final ride.

“It’s definitely a roles reversed type of thing, but it’s just been really nice to have him here and get to play with him again,” Walsh said. 

Walsh was just 16 years old when he arrived in Cedar Rapids in 2015, on the extreme young end for the USHL. Mark Carlson, the RoughRiders head coach and team president since 1999, said expectations for Walsh were high from the moment Cedar Rapids signed him.

“Each team in our league has two tenders for 15- and 16-year-olds, and we signed him to one. So that tells you how highly we thought of him coming in,” Carlson said. 

Walsh improved incrementally each of his first three seasons, but the 2018-19 season — the one year he played with McDonough — is when he took off. After notching a combined 15 goals in his first three seasons with the RoughRiders, he scored 33 goals in his final year, which was the team’s second-best mark.

“It was great watching him grow up here for four years, every year he got better as a leader, better as a player,” Carlson said. “He almost became like an assistant coach of the program in his final season, he was just that schooled in what we were doing and how we wanted to play and how we wanted to act.”

Despite Walsh providing a steady hand, McDonough admits his transition to Cedar Rapids was rocky. After playing nearly his entire prep career close to home in Massachusetts, moving halfway across the country as a teenager and fighting for playing time pushed McDonough to grow up quickly.

“The first few weeks and months were difficult. I was out of the lineup for a bit. So it definitely wasn’t easy,” McDonough said. “Living away from home was a bit difficult at the beginning, but once I started to get comfortable, it was great. It really was a huge year for me.”

Both McDonough and Walsh light up when describing McDonough’s first goal as a RoughRider, which Walsh assisted on. As the two tell it now, the opposing defender slipped on the ice, leading to a 2-on-1 breakaway where Walsh fed McDonough a backdoor tap for an easy score. It the first of 21 goals that McDonough scored during his lone season in Cedar Rapids.

“It was the ultimate year of development, in my opinion,” Carlson said of McDonough. “He’d just work his tail off. I mean, it was every single day. Just a relentless work ethic. Towards the end of the year he was one of the best players on our team…I’ve really never been more proud.”

McDonough also remembers Carlson fondly, calling him “one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.” But he said it was the close-knit team, and especially Walsh’s dedication and energy as the leader, that helped him get through the season.

“He has the personality where if you know him, he’s goofy, he likes to chirp, easy to get chirped, but then when it came to game time and workouts, he was serious,” McDonough said of Walsh. “And that’s what we needed. That’s what I needed.”

Though they went their separate ways after the 2019 USHL season, McDonough and Walsh were never too far apart — Northeastern and Merrimack are separated by only a 35 minute drive, and square off twice each season in conference play.

In the six meetings between Northeastern and Merrimack since McDonough and Walsh arrived, the Huskies have gone 5-0-1. McDonough has scored five goals in those six games, including one of the most memorable goals of his career at the tail end of last season — a snipe with nine seconds remaining in regulation to clinch the Hockey East regular season title.

“The biggest thing I remember about playing Northeastern is playing him all the time,” Walsh said, nodding at McDonough with a smirk. “We never had much luck against Northeastern. I think that last one [the final game of the 2022 regular season] was probably the best game we ever played against them, but still they took it.”

Kayla Shiao/WRBB Sports File

Still, Walsh speaks extremely fondly of his three seasons at Merrimack. The team struggled his first two years, but was much better last season, just barely missing out on an NCAA Tournament berth. 

But success at Merrimack looks a lot different than at Northeastern. The Huskies have qualified for the NCAA tournament in three of the last four seasons; the Warriors have had just three winning seasons since 1989. Walsh graduated from Merrimack in just three years, opening the pathway to play a graduate transfer season elsewhere. 

“Last year we had a much better year and we accomplished a lot. That was my goal coming in, to leave the program in a better place than I found it,” Walsh said. “Last year, I was in that zone, where I felt the program was in a better spot. So I had a chance to move on, look for a different opportunity, and I was ready to take it.”

McDonough was fresh off the Huskies’ devastating overtime loss to Western Michigan in the NCAA tournament when Walsh told him he was planning to transfer. Despite the two talking nearly every day, McDonough said he never pressured Walsh about transferring until he came to the decision himself. Then, the full Northeastern recruiting pitch was on.

“Once he told me he was gonna be entering the portal, then I was like, ‘Ok, well I think this would be a great fit for you. On the ice, off the ice, in the locker room. I think it would be huge, and we got a really good team next year,’” McDonough said. 

For Walsh, the decision didn’t take long. He officially announced his transfer to Northeastern on March 30, less than three weeks after his season ended. 

“Once I was able to talk to Dunzo, that was a big attraction here, to have someone that would come in and show me the new ropes of the program,” Walsh said. “But having the ability to compete for a national championship is just something really special that I think we can do here.”

Like Walsh, part of what drew McDonough back to Northeastern for his senior season was the ability to compete for a championship — something the Huskies legitimately can aspire towards this season. Northeastern is the preseason favorite in both the Hockey East media and coaches polls, and is ranked No. 8 nationally. 

But what also drew McDonough back was the chance to be the leader of the team, and take over the reins from last year’s captain Jordan Harris . As captain, McDonough said there’s a lot he’ll take from last season’s leadership group at Northeastern. But he’ll also work hard to emulate Walsh’s captaincy four years ago in Cedar Rapids.

“His ability to connect with everyone on the team is something I’ve always thought of and taken away from [Liam],” McDonough said. “If you went around the room and asked everyone who their closest friends are, he’d be in the top three of everyone … and I want the guys to have that feeling with me, where they feel like they can go to me with anything. But then again, when it comes to practice, games, and workouts, I’m ready to go.”

On the ice, McDonough is one of the best pure shooters in the country. But he’s worked all offseason to improve his skill set beyond just shooting the puck, working to put himself in better positions to capitalize. 

“Moving my feet, working on my skating, and being more dominant below the dots, those are things I’ve wanted to work on,” McDonough said. “And if I do that better, it’ll allow myself to get into their areas to then use my shot.”

Walsh, on the other hand, will fill a different role than he did last season at Merrimack, where his line was counted on for heavy offensive production. He’ll start off this season as the third-line center, playing alongside wingers Jakov Novak and Riley Hughes as a gritty, physical depth line. Northeastern head coach Jerry Keefe has been impressed by Walsh since the start of summer practice. 

“Leadership, heaviness, he wins a lot of puck battles and can play with pace,” Keefe said of Walsh’s skillset. “He’s a 200-foot player. He’s got a good skill set. He can score — he had 27 points at Merrimack last year. That’s a lot of points in Hockey East, and he can also bring an element of being trusted in all situations.”

After filling all sorts of roles throughout his junior hockey career, Walsh is excited to show he can thrive in this new one at the college level.

“I’m hoping my two-way game gets highlighted a little more,” Walsh said. “Last year I was looked at for production more than the 200-foot game. So playing with guys like [Javok Novak and Riley Hughes] that’ll be highlighted this year, that I’m a pretty good defender as well. Hopefully the heavy game down low, being able to lug pucks behind the net, below the dots, wear the other team down.”

As the season gets underway this weekend against LIU, McDonough and Walsh will be tasked with leading a team with high expectations and much promise. And their old coach will be among the many from back-when who will be eagerly watching it all unfold. 

“I’ll always be checking in on the former players, but you can bet this year, I’ll have a close eye on Huntington Avenue and Matthews Arena,” Carlson said. “It’s going to be fun.”