First up, the facts.
Coach Toot Cahoon stepped down today as head coach of the Massachusetts hockey program in what I’ve been told was a mutual decision between him and Athletic Director John McCutcheon. No reasons were given in this release from the school and Cahoon at this time has not commented. However, let’s remember this comes less than a week after the school named the WEEI affiliate in Springfield as the new flagship station for UMass radio broadcasts but not the new home for UMass hockey broadcasts. In fact we’re still waiting for a new home for UMass hockey broadcasts. That’s not a coincidence. As I wrote last week, this was further evidence of the athletic department’s lack of commitment to the program. Two stories on Cahoon’s decision, citing unnamed sources, specifically mention McCutcheon not focusing on hockey successful as what ultimately what led to the two sides parting ways. Here’s a telling quote from Harry Plummer’s story on Masslive:
“In the circumstances that surround the hockey program and this league, and how it’s perceived and viewed in and around the community vis a vis the interest and general support … there’s a broad perception that this program has second-tier status when that shouldn’t be the case,” the source said. “When you play in the best conference, you expect a certain investment financially, man power wise, et cetera.”
Michael King’s story for College Hockey News also cites lack of support as part of the reasoning behind this move. McCutcheon denies such a thing in both reports.
Whatever the reason, the fact is UMass, which was already looking for an Assistant Coach with Blaise MacDonald leaving and a Director of Hockey Operations (more on that later), is now looking for a new face to lead the program as well. And frankly, the timing of this sucks. Having to go out and replace key parts to a staff in the middle of June puts the school at a disadvantage. The coaching carousel stopped months ago. Potential candidates have already committed to schools and are knee deep into planning for next year. If the school had any doubts about whether Toot was the right person to lead the program they should’ve had the guts to make the decision sooner. We know that Toot had made his decision and in Mid-March he told Dick Baker that he planned to stay this season and possibly longer. Toot meant what he said back then and when I talked to him within the last two weeks he was enthusiastically talking about next season and the players coming back. So what happened in the meantime? Oh yeah, the athletic department publicly announced that hockey would not be broadcast on UMass’ flagship radio station with basketball and football. I love the work the administration has done with athletics, especially in regards to the football upgrade and the hiring of Derek Kellogg as basketball coach, but they completely blew how the radio announcement was handled. Especially coming right when UMass hockey was in the national news as a result of Jon Quick’s Conn Smythe performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Total blunder. The perception it created was poor and, in my opinion, likely created a rift between Cahoon and McCutcheon that couldn’t be repaired.
But, that’s now the past. Now it’s time to get a new coach. I am hearing the Len Quesnelle will be retained by the school for the upcoming season and therefore can provide some continuity for the current players and committed recruits. Matt Vautour has reaction from Mike Pereira in his story on the departure and the news that Toot intends to retire from hockey. With that the question becomes who will be the next UMass coach. Matt has it right by saying McCutcheon’s first phone call should be to former UMass assistant Mark Dennehy. However it’s unknown whether he has any interest and he does there still could be significant contractual challenges to successfully lure him away from Merrimack. For the record, Mike McMahon from the Eagle-Tribune has said that Dennehy is not a candidate. And frankly, if McMahon is reporting it, it’s probably true (sorry, Dickie Dunn). CHN’s Joe Meloni tweeted this afternoon that Kyle Wallack, who I wrote about yesterday as a candidate for the assistant position, could be considered for the head job. I would think former UMass Grad Assistant Darren Yopyk would be a leading candidate, given that he was a finalist for the Northeastern position and had the Princeton job until visa problems derailed the opportunity. Meloni also mentioned former Maine Black Bear and current USHL coach Jim Montgomery as a possibility. There are also rumors that Providence coach Nate Leaman may be interested in the position. I would assume BC assistant Mike Cavanaugh would be in the mix because, well, he’s always a candidate for every head coaching job. The problem is he never gets them so I’m not sure what that says about his prospects. I would recommend following Meloni on Twitter because he has been right on top of the early stages of this search and, as a former Collegian reporter, has connections to the UMass program as well as college hockey in general.
So those are the facts. Here’s my opinion. I have mixed feelings about Toot no longer being coach of UMass hockey. Obviously the last few years have been disappointing and it hasn’t been the easiest of times to be a fan of the program. With the exception of 2010-2011 when the team was full of freshmen you couldn’t help but feel UMass underachieved in recent years. The team would’ve had to have a very successful year, at least a bubble team for the NCAA tournament, for me to support a contract extension for Toot following next season. In the end, that point is moot.
What’s important is that we can celebrate all that Toot did for UMass hockey. If one became a fan from around 2003 to 2007 it’s easy to say that in recent years Toot didn’t live up to the expectations he himself set for the program with the success during that time. However if you became a fan in 1993 Toot will forever be remember as finally bringing UMass to the promised land. UMass hockey was god awful when he took over for Joe Mallen in 2000. The program was so historically bad the fans should’ve been wearing paper bags on their heads. But that would’ve required fans. But he came in and was, for us oldtimers at least, a miracle worker. This team had never sniffed a Hockey East playoff win (play-in game against BC notwithstanding) and within three years he had UMass making their semifinal debut at the FleetCenter. The next year UMass went all the way to the finals and were a Jimmy Howard glove save and a Kevin Jarman toe away from being Hockey East Champions. Three years after that UMass fans gathered from near and far to watch the team take the ice in its first NCAA tournament in Rochester, NY and come one win away from the Frozen Four. In recent years a lot of UMass fans have called for a change of coaches so UMass could return to the tourney and get back to competing for Hockey East titles. And I don’t blame them for that. But the fact is they only want to return there and experience the feeling of a successful hockey program again because Toot got the team there first.
That’s what Toot did for the hockey program on the ice. A top five ranking. A Lightning College Classic Championship. Three Hockey East Semifinal appearances. One Hockey East Final appearance. One NCAA appearance. One NCAA win. Toot’s biggest victories though, were off the ice. Wins and losses are important, but in the end this is college athletics. Equally important is what kind of young men come out of the program. When it comes to this Toot’s success is indisputable. I have always been impressed by the type of men that leave Amherst under Toot’s tutelage. Nearly all the former players I’ve been lucky enough to interact with have been intelligent, represent the school well, and many go on to great success on or off the ice after leaving campus. I always think about someone like Martin Nolet, an Academic All-American as a pre-med major. Brett Watson and Paul Dainton took time away from their studies and hockey at UMass to immerse themselves in local charities and got their teammates involved too. Peter Trovato has done tremendous work in founding and operating the Massachusetts Soldiers Legacy Fund and just recently graduated from Harvard Business School. Toot brought some great hockey talent to campus. But he also brought in some tremendous young men to represent the team and the university. And they graduated (nearly all of them) as better people than when they came in thanks in large part to Toot’s guidance. I’ve had a number of parents talk to me in the past about how thankful they were that they sent away their sons to learn and grow under Toot at UMass.
Lastly, as a fan, I was very happy to have Toot out there as the face of the program. I’ve been around UMass coaches who want absolutely nothing to do with the fans and just want to go out, coach their players, and go home. I’ve been around coaches who will stick around for a couple minutes and make small talk, act polite, and then quickly escape when they have the first opportunity. That wasn’t Toot. He seems to genuinely enjoy talking to fans and other supporters of the program and he especially loves to just talk hockey. I remember being worried when I started Fear The Triangle because I knew I would do my best to be honest and criticize the power play or lines when I felt necessary but I didn’t know how Toot would react to that criticism. He reacted by publicly thanking me for the effort I put into the blog and giving other fans a place to go to follow the team. If he ever felt insulted by the fact that I, some dude who never played the game, second guessed his decisions on a semi-regular basis he never showed it and did nothing but encourage me to keep this blog going.
When he was hired Toot brought with him a wealth of hockey knowledge and instant credibility for the program. But he also brought in a great attitude. He dedicated himself to trying to establish UMass hockey as a force locally and nationally and did everything he could to make that happen. Dedication to UMass. He came in from Princeton as a former National Champion for the Boston University Terriers. He leaves a Minuteman. Just in the last month I spoke with him and he mentioned that while he maintains connections with BU and has great memories there, he considers himself completely affiliated with the University of Massachusetts. And that doesn’t surprise me. He put a lot of himself into this school and especially this program and whatever UMass hockey is right now it’s that because of him.
Toot, thanks for bringing the program to heights never reached before. Thanks for developing outstanding hockey players on the ice, in the classroom, and in the community. And thanks for representing the University of Massachusetts, my alma mater which I hold so very dear, with the utmost class in every way, shape, and form.
I’ll do my best to relay whatever news I can during this time period so keep checking back. Also be sure to follow Fear The Triangle on Twitter, as I can’t always post news immediately but I can almost always tweet. Also make sure to check out the FTT Facebook page as it’s another place to keep up to date but right now it has some nice words about Toot from and fans and former players, some of whom didn’t even play for him.