On Friday night the Massachusetts Minutemen will host the UConn Huskies for the first time as Hockey East foes. When it was announced UConn would become Hockey East’s 12th team in the Summer of 2012, one of the many selling points for the union was that the Huskies would have a natural rival already in the league in UMass. To make the most of this rivalry there is already talk that in future years the teams will play an extra game against each other with a trophy going to the winner of the yearly series. Rumor also has it that Hockey East plans on having UMass and UConn play outside next season in the next edition of Frozen Fenway (or wherever they choose to play), looking to make the most of the rivalry in one of the league’s feature events. There’s only one problem with all this that I can see. What rivalry?
UMass holds a 32-9-2 record lifetime against the Huskies. As Division I programs the Minutemen have a 8-2-1 record with both UConn wins seen as a huge black eye for UMass’ season because UMass should’ve won. These teams have never played a game of consequence in at least the last three or four decades and perhaps ever. Despite UMass’ semi-regular appearance in UConn’s mid-season holiday tournament fate has never even arranged any matchup of the two programs in the showcase, much less clash for the tournament trophy. In terms of history, these two programs don’t really have any. And, in terms of the schools in general, there hasn’t been a lot of recent history there either. The football teams, once Yankee Conference and Atlantic 10 rivals, have played exactly once in the last 15 years, a UConn blowout a couple years ago. The rivalry on a basketball court has gone dormant as well despite the close proximity of the schools. There could be a across the board rivalry between the schools, but in reality there just isn’t.
Could is a word that can be used with another potential rival for the Massachusetts hockey program. Since they first joined Hockey East two decades ago it seems like the flagship program could and should enjoy a rivalry with the satellite campus in Lowell. It makes a lot of sense given they’re both part of the UMass system and play in the same league. UMass and Lowell, like what’s proposed for UMass-UConn, even play three times a year with the series winner receiving the Alumni Cup. But just because the teams could and should develop a rivalry doesn’t make it happen. UMass vs Lowell is a rivalry that just hasn’t materialized. Lowell’s presence has not produced large, raucous crowds at the Mullins. The Alumni Cup doesn’t seem to motivate the teams. There’s no big presentation or celebration when the trophy is won. Hell, in my two decades of following the UMass program I’ve probably only seen the thing three times. And, these two teams have rarely played any meaningful games in two decades of competition. In fact, it can be argued that the biggest moment in the UMass vs Lowell rivalry was when the River Hawks used an ineligible player in 2004 and the resulting forfeited games helped UMass to a 3rd place finish in Hockey East, it’s highest ever. If we can learn anything from Lowell, it’s that just because the conditions are there for a rivalry to develop doesn’t mean it will. And it definitely shows that there isn’t a rivalry just because some people want there to be.
It’s meaningful, hard-fought games for tangible rewards that produce rivalries. There’s really only been one time where those conditions were present and it felt like UMass had developed a rivalry and that was during the mid-2000s against Maine. Sure, the Black Bears always have their traditional rivalry against New Hampshire, but those UMass-Maine clashes from 2003 through 2008 were always exciting and there always seemed to be something at stake. During the 2003 Hockey East quarterfinals UMass swept Maine in Orono, something that just didn’t happen, giving the Minutemen their first trip to the semifinals. The next year the two teams met in the epic triple overtime Hockey East championship game, easily one of the greatest games in the history of the league. In March of 2007 the teams played each other five times in a series of regular season, league playoffs, and NCAA tournament games with the Minutemen winning four of the five but the Black Bears winning the last of the five to deny UMass a trip to the Frozen Four. During those five or six seasons when these two programs played, whether it be October or March, you could absolutely feel the energy in the building and the excitement from the players. That, it seemed, was a rivalry. Although one that has fallen off with the programs doing poorly and rarely playing for anything of consequence.
Don’t get me wrong. I would love for UMass and UConn to become one of the fiercest in college hockey, joining Minnesota-Wisconsin, Colorado College-Denver, or even Boston College-Boston University. But it isn’t right now. The only thing linking the programs right now is that the Huskies are coached by Mike Cavanaugh, who was a candidate for the UMass job a few years back but ended up dropping out after getting frustrated with AD John McCutcheon’s process. It’s unlikely that this matchup will feel like a true rivalry until the teams play for something of consequence and it’s unlikely that they’ll have that opportunity until they both improve dramatically. UConn has done better than most expected this early into their Hockey East existence but likely still have a ways to go to be able to win consistently. UMass is at a low point in the program’s history and it’s unknown when it will return to success. Hopefully someday these teams are both winning and will face each other for playoff seeding, a chance to play in the TD Garden, or perhaps for a Hockey East Championship. Then it’ll feel like these two universities are involved in a rivalry. But let’s not kid ourselves and say that there’s any kind of bragging rights or more meaning to Friday night’s game. It’s a league game just like the ones recently played against Vermont, Notre Dame, and Northeastern. There’s nothing extra on the line. Just two Hockey East points that UMass desperately needs.