Yesterday in my Season Recap post I talked about how I thought the season that just was ended in disappointment versus the reasonable expectations going into the year. I expressed that the talent level of the team was too good to be missing the Hockey East playoffs entirely, something that had not happened in over a decade. I think the players can take some of the blame for that for not getting the job done and not playing as well as they needed to. But as I wrote, I thought the coaching could’ve been much better as well. And I stand by that opinion and think it’s a fair assessment. But I want to point out that a disappointing first year for a rookie head coach at a new school is not a reason to panic.
I am not going to try to conclude whether last summer’s decision to hire coach Micheletto to lead the Massachusetts hockey program was a good or bad one because it’s way, way too early to know. Next year at this time will still be too early to know. By the end of Year 3 we should have a gauge of whether the program is at least heading in the right direction. And by the end of Year 4 the team should be successful or it’s time to start thinking about the next person to lead UMass hockey. But Year 1 does not make or break a new coach, no matter the result.
Sometimes coaches can jump into a program, take the talent that’s already there, tweak it, motivate the players, and win right away. Obviously we saw this last year with Norm Bazin at Lowell and, especially when you add in this year, Nate Leaman at Providence. Andy Murray out at Western Michigan did the same thing last year, though in that case I credit the magical elixir found in Kalamazoo that is Bells beer. I think we all hoped that Micheletto would be able to do the same to a UMass team that was returning 7 of its top 10 scorers, a solid core of defenseman, and two somewhat experienced goaltenders. But, it didn’t happen. And it doesn’t always happen. Plenty of successful coaches have needed a few years to get their program in order. A bit of an extreme example but Mark Dennehy didn’t get Merrimack to a winning record until Year 6.
So now we have to start thinking more long term. Micheletto seems focused on getting his type of players into Amherst so he can work to his style. I think that’s what’s driving all the Toot Cahoon recruits getting pushed potentially to 2014 and 2015 and Mick’s recruits coming in in the next couple years. He wants his players so he can play his style. That’s fine, it’s his program and he’ll try to make it successful as he sees fit. It’s not easy, especially given so many recent years without a winning season, but UMass fans will have to be patient for the next year or two while he remolds UMass hockey to his vision. I think it’s natural to get frustrated and critical from game to game when the team isn’t playing as well as you’d like them to. But at the same time it is important to let this staff get the chance to put their fingerprint on the program. If the team is still in 9th at the end of the 2014-2015 season then we can start to wonder if Micheletto is right for the program.
Now, having a successful hockey program isn’t all about Xs and Os. To win you need top recruits. To get top recruits you need quality facilities and the backing of your athletic department. Support of UMass hockey within the athletic department is a topic that’s been talked about quite a bit recently, going back to last summer when it was reported to be the source of disagreement that led Toot Cahoon and the school to part ways. UMass fans travelling to watch their team play have seen lots of new construction and upgrades at the other arenas in Hockey East in recent years. At the same time Athletic Director John McCutcheon continues to be conspicuously absent from any and all activities having to do with the hockey team. Whether that be games, meet and greets, fundraising events, or even senior ceremonies.
Now I was lucky enough recently to get to speak to both coach Micheletto and Associate Athletic Director Rocko DeLuca about the program recently. The subject of support of the program and UMass hockey facilities came up in the conversation. Unequivocally Micheletto told me that he thinks the facilities at UMass, from the arena to locker rooms to video equipment to training and weight room, are on par with the rest of the conference and he has everything he needs to be successful in Hockey East in due time. Now I’ll be honest, this is not an opinion necessarily shared by others I’ve spoken to around UMass and the rest of Hockey East. However if the coach says he has all the tools in place needed to attract recruits and win in this conference, I have to take him at his word. He knows how to build a program better than me and I don’t see how it would serve his interests to tell supporters/boosters he has what he needs when he really doesn’t.
So ultimately, if the coaching staff has what they need to land skilled recruits and aren’t worried about upgrades happening in Lowell, Providence, and Merrimack, then it will come down to coaching. So far on the recruiting front I think there’s a lot to be encouraged about, but at the same time I’ve been following college hockey enough to know not to get too excited until the recruits are actually on campus and skating. Whether Micheletto’s grand plans to get UMass hockey back to winning and hopefully competing for a Hockey East championship will come to fruition, we don’t know. Honestly, with the season that just transpired I don’t think we know any more if he’s the right man to do the job today than when he was hired last July. But that’s ok, he needs some time and I think fans should give it to him.
So those are my thoughts on coaching. I will say this however, if Micheletto ends up being successful and brings the program up the ranks of Hockey East, I still think there’s an artificial ceiling as to how high he’ll be able to elevate it. He could be excellent at the Xs and Os and a shrewd recruiter, but I still believe the program will never reach its full potential as its currently positioned. That has nothing to do with Mick’s coaching abilities or facilities for the players. It has everything to do with an Athletic Director who continues to show little interest in the program on campus that is most popular with the students, has regularly been the best attended, and has a much better shot at winning a national championship than men’s basketball or football ever will. I don’t say that to knock either one of those two programs, which I support fully and think both are heading in positive directions. It’s just the truth of the matter. Hockey East is THE best league in all of NCAA hockey and UMass is lucky enough to be a member of it. You can’t say that about any other sports on campus.
I’m always amazed that McCutcheon cut his teeth at places like Boston College and Maine and then becomes the head of the UMass athletic program mere days before the hockey program makes its debut in the Hockey East Championship game and then proceeds to ignore said program. But that is exactly what he’s done. And I honestly have no idea why. But it’s blatant. I’m not going to say he’s actively working against the program, but he doesn’t have to. He’s just no where to be found. I’ve been a Pond Club member for six or seven years and I’ve not once seen him in the Massachusetts Room in between periods. He has only intermittently attended the Reverse Raffle during that same time. At last year’s Pond Club Golf Outing, with the program’s most hardcore supporters in attendance, he spent all of five minutes there to say a few words and then was whisked off. In December Mick had a meet and greet at ABC which was surprisingly well attended by loyal fans despite coming minutes after a weekend sweep at the hands of Colgate. Despite the fact that it was probably the last thing he wanted to do given how the weekend turned out, Mick did his thing and made his way around to talk to all those who showed up. Was McCutcheon there to support his rookie head coach? Of course not. Was he at ABC days later for a basketball event? You betcha. If you’re a big time supporter of basketball and football, especially the ones with big time pockets, McCutcheon probably already knows who you are. If you’re reading this blog because you love UMass hockey, McCutcheon doesn’t care about you. When pressed he’ll give lip service to his commitment to hockey blah blah blah, but actions are louder than words and he has a long established history of inaction. I wish I could share the many other examples of his disregard for the program that I’ve witnessed or others have told me, but I frankly do not have the time nor do I want to betray the trust of other program supporters.
The last thing I wanted to do was to make one of my last posts on FTT be so negative in tone but the program is in a major state of uncertainty right now and I can’t change that. Personally I’m willing to give coach Micheletto the benefit of the doubt for this past season and support him during the coming years, he deserves that. And I hope UMass fans will do the same. But at the same time, feel free to do what you can to pressure McCutcheon. Now whether you want to pressure him to recognize the tremendous potential of the hockey program and that he should adequately support it or if you want to just pressure him to get the hell off campus and into a job where he doesn’t have to worry about frozen water, that’s your decision. Personally, I feel like I’ve already done what I can in regards to the first option, leveraging the little influence I may have with this blog (as I am sadly lacking of the big time pockets I mentioned earlier). I personally haven’t seen any progress. So I’m ready to do what I can to send John McCutcheon away from the harsh winters of Western Massachusetts where the cold temperatures freeze the water and people sometimes decide to play sports on the resulting ice that is formed. As far as I can tell, those below freezing conditions do not suit him. So maybe there’s a better place for him to be. Maybe somewhere a little warmer where the pond in the middle of campus doesn’t ice over every winter, bringing back memories of a time when the varsity hockey team once played their games upon it. Someplace where there’s not an underrated hockey hotbed of Springfield down the road filled with kids playing peewee whose parents drive them up to games at Your State U, dreaming of maybe coming through the smoke onto the ice at the Mullins Center one day. Maybe he’d rather spend his time making sure the varsity sailing team has adequate rigging or that the sand on the beach volleyball court is properly raked. Wherever it is, I’ve come to the conclusion that, for the good of all involved, John McCutcheon should be somewhere other than Amherst, home of the Massachusetts Minutemen hockey team.