On Thursday I was at the TD Garden with 18,000 other diehard college hockey fans from across the country to experience the wonderful event that is the Frozen Four. If you haven’t attended a Frozen Four before, I highly recommend it. As big as college hockey is in some of our lives it’s still has a relatively small hardcore following, so it’s a lot of fun to get all those fans together in one place at one time. It’s interesting to see all the different jerseys and traditions of programs you don’t typically interact with much.
But of course the main reason everyone there is to watch hockey and crown a champion. The first of the two semifinals featured Omaha versus Providence in a game where the Friars absolutely stifled the Mavericks on the way to a 4-1 win. The late game between North Dakota and Boston University featured some heart-stopping moments late, but the Terriers ended up winning, setting up the all Hockey East National Championship later tonight. But besides being in awe at the skill of Jack Eichel and Jon Gilles, I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why not us?”
Why can’t the Massachusetts program being in the Frozen Four become a reality instead of just a dream? Is there really something innate to the program or school that is preventing success or are the obstacles manmade? Sure, BU and North Dakota and are national powerhouses, but is UMass really that different from Providence and Omaha? The Mavericks’ DI program after all is three years younger than UMass’. And the Friars having a chance at a national championship really makes me have hope that someday, hopefully soon, UMass will have the same shot. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that these programs were in the same place.
Providence went 8-18-8 in 2010-11, their 5th straight losing season, and finished in 9th place in Hockey East after gaining just four league wins. Just ahead of them in the standings was UMass, winning five games in the league and having a 6-23-6 record with their last winning season being in 2006-07 when the program made its only NCAA appearance. Despite being in nearly identical situations at the end of that season, the programs are in vastly different places now.
Providence would fire Friar coach Tim Army that year after putting up a .381 win percentage in his six seasons at Providence. The school, which for a while had ignored hockey for their higher profile basketball program, decided to put energy and attention behind hockey and dedicated themselves to build a winning program. The first step to success was hiring the right replacement at coach. They made a huge splash by going out and grabbing perhaps the hottest up coaching commodity in college hockey at the time, Nate Leaman. Leaman had just guided Union, a perennial ECAC doormat, to their first league title and NCAA tournament.
Providence hit a home run with the hire, to the envy of the rest of the teams around college hockey. But the school still had to show that they were all in for hockey. They did so by committing to renovating and modernizing Schneider Arena, one of the more mocked home venues in Hockey East. At the same time they made sure the hockey program was sharing center stage with their basketball program, which did not suffer but in fact has had success in its own right (Providence was the only college to make both the NCAA basketball and hockey tournaments this year).
The result of all that? In his first year Leaman’s teams made the Hockey East semifinals as a #7 seed, upsetting #2 seed Lowell. By his second year the team had its first winning record since 2006. In year three the Friars had 22 wins and returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001. And now in year four the Friars, the preseason favorites in Hockey East, are on the cusp of a national championship.
UMass had its struggles much like Providence but still finished ahead of the Tim Army led Friars for three straight years, including that 2010-11 season when Army was fired and Leaman was hired. While the Friars have been on a championship level trajectory, UMass’ fortunes have gotten worse. Providence was just one point better in the Hockey East standings in Leaman’s first year, though the Friars pulled off the tournament upset while the Minutemen got swept by the top seeded Boston College Eagles. That offseason Toot Cahoon was forced out and, like the Friars the year before, UMass was in the market for a coach.
But unlike the Friars, John McCutcheon and the UMass administration could not convince prospective coaches that they were similarly “all in” for hockey and ended up being publicly rebuffed by Quinnipiac’s Rand Pecknold, Holy Cross’ Paul Pearl, and the USHL’s Mark Carlson. McCutcheon would ultimately land on John Micheletto, a well regarded but career assistant coach from Vermont. As we know in the last three years, while Providence has climbed to college hockey’s pinnacle, UMass has gone 31-64-9 under Micheletto, finishing in 9th (of 10 teams), 10th (of 11), and 12th (of 12) place in Hockey East.
I will be pulling hard for the Friars tonight against the Terriers. Not only is theirs a great story, but their story gives me hope. There used to be a time when unless you were BU, BC, Maine, or New Hampshire you had little to no chance of winning a Hockey East title. Those times are over. Not only do you have teams like the Friars being picked as preseason favorites, but you also have Lowell (who coincidently finished below both Providence and UMass in 2010-11) who has taken both regular season and tournament titles in recent years. Sure BC and BU are still up there most years, but the era of the “Power 4” in Hockey East is dead. If Lowell can win a regular season title and tournament championship, why not us?
Nationally it used to be you’d only have a shot at an NCAA title if you were BC, BU, Maine, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Denver, or North Dakota. Not anymore. Minnesota-Duluth, Yale, and even Union (Union!) have won championships in recent years. Tonight Providence could be added to that list of unfamiliar champions. If those teams can do it, why not us?
Lowell, Providence, Union, Omaha. There is nothing those programs have that UMass is unable to attain. They’re successful because they’ve made a commitment to win. They made the right coaching hires. They put time, money, and energy into their programs to win. They’ve made capital improvements. They’ve cultivated and energized their fan and donor bases. They’ve created exciting and entertaining game experiences. They’re all in. I would say UMass has not done as well as they could have in everything I just listed.
Coaching and Commitment. That’s how UMass will join the likes of the programs I’ve mentioned. Does the Massachusetts hockey program have the right coach? The results to date would say no. It’s looking increasingly likely that Micheletto will have next season to prove himself. Maybe all falls into place this coming season and UMass fans fill the Garden for a Hockey East semifinal next March. Maybe the team suffers through another losing season and a coaching change is necessary next Spring. If that’s the case the administration, now led by new Athletic Director Ryan Bamford, has to prove that they’re serious about having a successful hockey program to the fans and, more importantly, a quality hockey coach to lead the team. Even if Micheletto proves himself next year there still needs to be changes to the other aspect of the program. Pep band, training facilities, community outreach, Pond Club membership, fan engagement, Mullins ice conditions, hockey alumni relations. Those are just a few things that need to be addressed and maxmized to be all in for hockey.
You can’t buy some sticks and throw a few pucks on the ice and be content with just having a DI college hockey program. UMass and Providence were both guilty of that for way too long. Providence decided to move beyond just having a program to excelling at hockey four years ago. UMass seems to still be stuck in just being happy to have a program. It doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way With some hard work and wise decisions UMass can get out of the Hockey East cellar, back to having winning seasons, making trips to the Garden for league tournaments, adding NCAA tournament banners to the Mullins rafters, and, just maybe, getting to the point where they’re taking the ice with a national championship on the line, like Providence will tonight. Hopefully that day is coming soon. Until then though, go Friars!
The UMass hockey banquet is scheduled for a week from today and is open to the public.
Here’s the latest edition of Frank Vatrano’s blog on the UMass Athletics site.