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College Hockey Hopes for More Cooperation from NHL

When and if the NHL gets around to settling its labor issues, the people who run college hockey are hoping they can get get the pros to back off a bit on raiding their rosters.
Nearly a third of the players in the NHL came up through the college ranks. More and more college players are signing pro contracts well before they’ve used up their college eligibility and gotten a degree that could benefit them after their hockey careers are over.
The last time the NHL entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the players union, the colleges thought they were making progress with the league. But the situation appears to be worsening.
“We’ve kept a dialogue going with the NHL for years,” said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna in a recent interview, “and the commissioners (of the five Division I leagues) helped set up College Hockey Inc.”
College Hockey Inc. is designed to be an informational and publicity arm for the colleges that would promote the benefits of the college game and a college education opposed to the incentives major junior and minor-league hockey are offering.
“I don’t think we’re a big player right now with the (NHL’s) issues,” Bertagna readily agreed. “The last time, people in the NHL thought they were going to be helpful to college hockey. But I think we were the victim of unintended consequences, because a lot of these guys started to sign early.”
Bertagna is concerned that the colleges might lose more ground when a new settlement is reached.
“One of the things the NHL wants is a five-year entry level contract for rookies instead of three years, and that makes us a little nervous because the agents might start thinking: ‘Now it’s going to be even longer before they sign their first big contract. We’ve gotta get them to sign the first one real soon so the clock will starting running on the second one,’ and that won’t be a good thing for us.”
A big part of the problem for Division I college hockey is that few teenagers are good enough or physically developed enough to play at such a high level. And those who are have generally been selected in the NHL draft and also tend to leave college hockey before they’ve graduated.
“We’ve gotten old as a sport,” Bertagna acknowledged. “The average age is 20 for a freshman. I was 17 when I started (at Harvard) and 21 when I graduated, and now you have 25-year-old seniors in some places.  Some of these kids are ready to go (pro).”
Bertagna also thinks too many parents are rushing their sons into pro careers, especially those who end up in major junior hockey in Canada, which makes them ineligible to play for U.S. colleges.
“You have to ask what some of these parents are thinking about the value of education,” Bertagna said. “Some parents are more eager for their kids to go to the next level than the kids are.
“I think it was (Boston University coach) Jack Parker who had the great line about losing guys to (major) junior hockey: ‘We’re selling Cadillacs and they’re selling Edsels, and they’re selling more cars than we are!’
“We always thought we had the best of both worlds: hockey and an education,” Bertagna summarized. “Some parents just don’t see the value of an education.”

A Nightmare Becomes a Dream

It was just over two years ago that radio partner Bob Ellis and I were sitting behind our mikes at the Alfond Arena in Maine, dictating the epitaph for a hugely disappointing UMass Lowell hockey team.
The River Hawks had gone to the championship game of the Hockey East Tournament the previous year and lost to Boston University 1-0 in a highly controversial contest because of a referee’s admitted mistake in washing out a UML goal. With nearly the same cast intact, the River Hawks had finished in a three-way tie for third in 2009-10 but because of the tie-breakers wound up on the road in Maine for the first round of the Hockey East Tournament, always a tough place for any visiting team to win, especially in a best-of-three series. But Maine coach Tim Whitehead had just kicked his starting goalie, Scott Darling, off the team, meaning Dave Wilson, a senior with a career record of 6-18-1 and a save percentage well below .900, would be thrust into the crease.
The River Hawks, who had trouble scoring goals all season, couldn’t capitalize. They squeaked out a 2-1 win in the first game but lost the next two 2-0 and 3-2 in overtime. A senior-laden team that had been expected to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and been picked fourth in the country in one preseason poll finished the year with a mediocre 19-16-4 record and was all done.
As we reviewed the lost season on the air, Ellis couldn’t understand why I was so harshly critical of the River Hawks’ performance. But 14 years had gone by without UML getting into the NCAA Tournament, and two straight class cycles that had won 20 games as juniors and been on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament had failed to meet higher expectations as seniors.
I knew the River Hawks were in for another massive rebuilding year and said it would be at least three years before they might have another NCAA Tournament-caliber team again. The previous new cycle of freshmen had suffered through a school-record 20-game winless streak before reaching the Hockey East championship game two years later, and while it was expected UML’s recent success would attract an even more highly-skilled freshman class than the one that was just about to graduate, it didn’t seem likely that the River Hawks would escape the bottom half of the Hockey East standings for at least the next couple of years. How much longer were the River Hawks going to wander around the desert, looking for the Promised Land, like Moses?
The 2010-11 season turned out to be more horrible than anyone could have dreamed in his worst nightmare. The River Hawks finished in 10th place, lost 13 games in a row, and ended the year with a 5-25-4 record, arguably the worst season in their history. Only two other schools won fewer games than UML, and the River Hawks’ dismal performance cost coach Blaise MacDonald the job he had held for 10 years.
The NCAA Tournament seemed more out of reach than ever before.
Boy, was I wrong!
Back in October I thought that if the River Hawks could crack double-figures in victories this winter, perhaps win 12 or 13 games and get back into the playoffs, it would rate as a huge success for new coach Norm Bazin. Everyone I know who is associated with the hockey team pretty much agreed with that assessment.
But Bazin turned the program around faster than anyone, except perhaps for himself and his staff, dared imagine. In fact, Bazin presided over the greatest turnaround by a first-year coach in NCAA Division I history, leading the River Hawks to 19 more wins than they had the year before. He was deservedly named Hockey East Coach of the Year and will certainly be a leading contender for the Spencer Penrose Award as the National Coach of the Year.
The River Hawks, skating 15 underclassmen most nights and with just one NHL draft pick on the team, finished second in Hockey East. Then they went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years and knocked off Miami, a team with nine NHL draft picks and playing in its seventh straight NCAA Tournament, in the first round. UML lost to a bigger, stronger, and more experienced Union team in the championship game of the East Regionals. The River Hawks had enough heart, but the Dutchmen had too much heft.
But the River Hawks, who finished the year with a 24-13-1 record — the third-most wins in their Division I history — will be back, and they won’t be waiting 16 years for their next appearance. Bazin likes big, physical players, and he and his staff have recruited several such players who will be joining the team next year and complement the skilled players the River Hawks already have. Their present players, like Hockey East Rookie of the Year Scott Wilson, who already plays bigger than he is, are also going to physically mature and get stronger. Wilson is going to be a stud. And from what we’ve heard, so will big and skilled Russian defenseman Dima Sinitsyn, who turns 18 next month and spent the last two months with the team as a red-shirt.
One of Bazin’s concerns may be keeping talents like Wilson and Sinitsyn around for four years without them being lured away early by the NHL. But that’s the price the best programs in Division I hockey have to pay to be the best.
I met Wilson’s father, Steve, last month and told him how impressed I was with his son.
“I hope he’s around here for four years,” I said.
“So do I,” his dad replied. “I want him to get an education.”

One final note: Sophomore Doug Carr’s .928 save percentage is the highest for a single season in Lowell history, Division I or II. Carter Hutton also fashioned a .928 percentage two years ago, but Carr has the record when the numbers are stretched out to four places. Hutton’s percentage was .9277 and Carr’s was .9284.
This will be the final entry on this blog until next fall. I’ll be blogging about baseball until then. Thanks for reading!

River Hawks Must Solve Another Top Goalie

From the fire into the frying pan.

No, things don’t get much easier for the River Hawks in their quest to reach the NCAA Division I Hockey Tournament’s Frozen Four for the first time in their 29-year history at this level.

On Friday night the River Hawks had to find a way to solve the nation’s top-ranked goaltender, Miami’s Connor Knapp and his 1.59 GA average and .937 save percentage, and they did, winning 4-3 in overtime. Their reward is a matchup tonight against the nation’s second-ranked goalie, sophomore Troy Grosenick and his 1.63 average, .937 percentage, and five shutouts, when the 13th-ranked River Hawks take on top-seeded and third-ranked Union College for the championship of the East Regional here in Bridgeport, Conn.

It’s a good thing the River Hawks have one of the top goalies in the country themselves in sophomore Doug Carr, who is ranked ninth in the country with a 2.10 average and a .929 percentage and four shutouts.

The River Hawks (24-12-1) are counting on their three productive lines to score enough goals against the nation’s top defensive team. Union is surrendering an average of just 1.79 goals per game while UML ranks 13th in that department at 2.43. The Dutchmen (25-7-7), who knocked out Michigan State 3-1 on Friday afternoon, also have a potent offensive team, though not with the balance the River Hawks have. The Dutchmen are fourth in the country with an average of 3.54 goals per game while the River Hawks rank eighth at 3.35.

Union’s scoring is concentrated among three players: junior Jeremy Welsh (26-16-42), sophomore Dan Carr (19-19-38), and junior Wayne Simpson (18-13-31). No other Union player has cracked double figures in goals while the River Hawks have seven players with 10 or more, although Derek Arnold’s 17 top the team. The Dutchmen and River Hawks each have four players with 30-plus points. Senior Kelly Zajac has 42 points for Union but only eight goals.

Union is also lethal on the power play. Of the 63 goals netted by Welsh, Carr, and Simpson, 27 have come on the power play, and each of those three boasts nine goals. The Dutchmen have the fourth-best power play in the country, clicking at 24%. The River Hawks aren’t bad, tied for 11th with Boston College at 22%. They have scored at least one power-play goal in nine of their last 10 games, being shut out only by Providence when they had just one power play opportunity.

Union is also 12th in the country in penalty-killing, allowing goals 16% of the time. UML is only tied for 36th with North Dakota, being scored on 19% of the time. But the River Hawks have tightened up and killed off 15 of the last 16 enemy power plays over the last six games.

Both these teams are young. Like UML, Union has only four seniors, three of whom play regularly. The Dutchmen regularly skate 10 underclassmen while the River Hawks skate 15.

The Dutchmen enter the game on a hot streak with six straight wins. They are 16-2-1 in their last 19 games. They are also tough to beat away from home, rolling up a 15-5-3 road record, including 5-0-0 at neutral sites.

The River Hawks lead the all-time series with the Dutchmen 12-4-1, a series that dates back to the days when both schools were playing in Division II. But Union has won the last three meetings, all by one goal, the last a 2-1 win on Jan. 3, 2009. UML has not beaten Union since a 3-2 triumph on Oct. 30, 2004.

 

Old Boys Club is Crumbling

The Old Boys Club in college hockey is crumbling.

Since the first NCAA Tournament in 1948 was won by Michigan, the same few teams have taken turns winning the national championship. Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Denver, North Dakota … the same teams were in what is now called the Frozen Four year after year after year. In fact, 39 of the tournament’s 64 titles belong to just six schools: Michigan (9), North Dakota (7), Denver (7), Wisconsin (6), Boston University (5), and Minnesota (5). Since Maine became the last “new” team to win the NCAA title in 1993, no school that hadn’t worn the crown some time in its past has emerged as the champion.

Until last year, that is, when Minnesota-Duluth finally broke the Old Boys Club’s stranglehold on the championship.

Fifty-eight schools play Division I hockey now, and some of them are beginning to break up the Old Boys Club. Regardless of whether UMass Lowell or Union wins tonight’s East Regional championship here in Bridgeport, Conn., one of those two schools will be going to the Frozen Four in Tampa for the first time in history.

Things really began to change — and change for the better — three years ago. Unheralded Air Force shut out Michigan in the first round of the 2009 Tournament, and there were upsets everywhere. When the ice chips settled, upstarts Miami and Bemidji State were in the Frozen Four for the first time in their history and Vermont had made it that far for only the second time in its history and first time since 1996.

From the Old Boys Club only Boston University survived to reach the Frozen Four. The Terriers won the national championship for the fifth time, but not before Miami had come within 18 seconds of winning it.

Miami was back in the Frozen Four in 2010, and newcomer RIT was also there. Last year it was Minnesota-Duluth and emerging power Notre Dame in the Frozen Four, only the second appearance there by the Fighting Irish, who made it for the first time in 2008.

Boston College, ranked No. 1 in the country heading into today’s game as the top seed in the Northeast Regional and four-time national champs — twice in the last four years — is still the team to beat this year. But having so much new blood in the tournament is good for college hockey. Very good.

Although Miami is gone now, beaten by the River Hawks 4-3 in overtime last night, the RedHawks have thrust themselves into the national picture with seven straight NCAA appearances after being a perennial also-ran in the CCHA for years. Their coach, Enrico Blasi, thinks first-year coach and Hockey East Coach of the Year Norm Bazin’s young River Hawks, who are in the tournament for only the fourth time in their 29-year Division I history and first time since 1996, are also about to become regular players on the national stage.

“I’m fairly confident Norm will get them there,” said Blasi, who was the architect of Miami’s turnaround. “They play with such passion and aggressiveness. That tells me the players respect him and play for him. I suspect UMass Lowell will be on the national stage not just this year but for years to come.”

Update on UML Recruits

Here’s an update on some River Hawks recruits:
D Greg Amlong. Age: 20. Size: 6-1, 185. Stats: 9-15-24 in 50 games for Cedar Rapids in USHL. Commitment: 2012.
F Adam Chapie. Age: 20. Size: 6-0, 182. Stats: 30-26-56 in 59 games for New Mexico in NAHL. Commitment: 2012.
F Michael Colantone. Age: 20. Size: 6-0, 190. Stats: 33-39-72 in 72 games for Prince George in BCHL. Committment: 2012.
F Michael Fallon. Age: 20. Size: 5-11, 175. Stats: 18-23-41 in 52 games for Chicago in USHL. Commitment: 2012.
D Christian Folin. Age: 21. Size: 6-3, 200. Stats: 11-20-31 in 53 games for Austin in NAHL. Commitment: 2012.
G Connor Hellebuyck. Age: 18. Size: 6-4, 185. Stats: 25-19-5, 2.48, .930 for Odessa in NAHL. Commitment: 2012.
F Logan Johnston. Age: 20. Size: 6-1, 208. Stats: 12-19-31 in 35 games for Penticton in BCHL. Commitment: 2012.
F Ryan McGrath. Age: 20. Size: 5-7, 155. Stats: 11-14-25 in 30 games for Cedar Rapids in USHL. Commitment: 2012.
F Dylan Shapiro. Age: 18. Size: 6-3, 185. Stats: 6-21-27 in 44 games for Rochester in EJHL. Commitment: 2012.
F J.T. Stenglein. Age: 18. Size: 6-0, 195. Stats: 30-19-49 in 51 games for Youngstown in USHL. Commitment: 2012/13.

Haunting Memories of Tournaments Past

Norm Bazin has unquestionably established his coaching credentials. After being NESCAC Coach of the Year during the last two of his three years at Division III Hamilton College, he’s now Hockey East Coach of the Year after dramatically turning around the fortunes of the River Hawks and leading them into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years.
Two years before UMass Lowell’s last appearance in 1996, Bazin was a key player for the River Hawks on a team that came the closest they’ve ever been to making the Frozen Four. But he nearly left that team at mid-season.
Bazin had finished the work for his degree in just 3 1/2 years. He hadn’t really been a big offensive contributor to the team and thought it was time to get on with the rest of his life. He told coach Bruce Crowder that when the River Hawks returned from a trip to Maine, a 5-0 shutout for Dwayne Roloson — the first of the senior’s college career — and the last game before the semester break. Crowder talked him into staying.
With nothing to do but play hockey during the second semester, Bazin turned in a remarkable performance to rival his performance as UML’s coach. What a turnaround! He scored 17 goals during the last 20 games of the season, including all three goals in UML’s 3-0 triumph that eliminated Merrimack in the Hockey East quarterfinals and the only hat trick of his college career. He netted his 20th goal of the season in the River Hawks’ 4-3 upset of host Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
But he also tore the MCL in his knee during that game, and it was doubtful if he would be able to skate against Minnesota the next afternoon. He did play but could barely move.
“You’re playing on adenaline then,” Bazin recalled recently. “It isn’t until the day after that you really feel it.”
His healthier teammates were having difficulty moving their legs, too. The River Hawks had been forced to try and kill nine MSU power plays the night before and were back on the ice less than 24 hours later while the Gophers had enjoyed an off-day and were fresh.
Defenseman David Mayes put the River Hawks ahead 1-0 midway through the first period, and that was all the offense they could generate. They were so tired by the third period they could manage only two shots on goal. Roloson, Hockey East’s Player of the Year and a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, kept the Gophers off the scoreboard until they finally tied it with 5:33 left in regulation.
By the first overtime the River Hawks were on fumes and playing the game entirely in their own end of the ice, too exhausted to skate. They somehow managed to get six shots in the first overtime, and it was still 1-1 thanks to Roloson, who had made 41 saves. By now it was apparent the only way the River Hawks could win was for the Gophers to ice the puck or make some other mistake that would force a faceoff in their end. If the River Hawks could win the faceoff, get off a quick shot and score, they’d be going to the Frozen Four.
But that never happened, and Roloson finally surrendered the game-winning goal at 9:29 of the second overtime.
Miami knows the empty feeling of a tough loss, too. There are 12 seniors on the RedHawks who as freshmen were 18 seconds away from winning the national championship in 2009.
The RedHawks led Boston University 3-1 when Jack Parker pulled goalie Kieran Millan in favor of a sixth skater with 3:23 left in regulation. It was still 3-1 with a minute to go when Zach Cohen scored for the Terriers. Then, with 17 seconds left, Nick Bonino netted another goal for BU and sent the game into overtime.
The Terriers won it 11:47 into overtime on one of the most bizarre game-winning goals in college hockey history. Colby Cohen took a long shot that was partially blocked by a Miami defender. The puck popped high in the air, and goalie Cody Reichard never saw it. The puck tumbled over his shoulder and into the net for the winning goal, and Reichard, still searching desperately with his eyes for it, didn’t realize for several seconds that it was behind him and the game was over.
We’ll see what drama unfolds when the River Hawks and RedHawks clash in the East Regional semifinals on Friday night in Bridgeport, Conn. This much is certain: One team will go home disappointed.

River Hawks End NCAA Drought

River Hawks coach Norm Bazin said it best, and athletic director Dana Skinner echoed the sentiment.

“Sixteen years is much too long,” Bazin said today after the River Hawks had been selected for the NCAA Hockey Tournament for the first time since 1996.

“It’s nice to have a little ‘March Madness’ around here,” Skinner agreed. “There’s been too much ‘March Sadness.’”

The 15-year gap between NCAA Tournament appearances was the longest in the school’s varsity hockey history that stretches back to 1967-68. The longest previous famine was 11 years from 1968 through 1978 before the then-ULowell Chiefs won the NCAA Division II Tournament in their first try in 1979.

This is only the fourth time in UML’s 29-year Division I history the River Hawks will play in the NCAA Tournament. UML made it in 1988, 1994, and 1996. Bazin was a senior and 20-goal scorer on that 1994 squad that came within minutes of reaching the Frozen Four before dropping a 2-1 heartbreaker to Minnesota in double overtime.

The River Hawks will confront a tournament-tested Miami of Ohio team in the first game of the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn., on Friday at 6:30 p.m. Michigan State and Union will play in the earlier game. The regional finals will be played Saturday night at 6:30 with the winner advancing to the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., on Apr. 5.

“We didn’t set a win-total goal or a goal of making the NCAAs,” acknowledged Bazin, who took over the coaching reins last spring and engineered the biggest turnaround in NCAA Division I hockey history by winning 18 more games than the team won the year before. “We just wanted to play Lowell-style hockey and reestablish our identity. I think we’ve taken steps toward that.”

But he’s pleased the River Hawks have taken their game to a place where no UML hockey team has been in 16 years.

“I’m excited for the guys,” he said. “They put in a great body of work this year and they’ve been rewarded today.”

“There were a lot of ups and downs over the four years,” said Matt Ferreira, one of just four UML seniors.

As a freshman Ferreira went to the Hockey East championship game, and the River Hawks were a “bubble team” in each of his first two seasons without getting selected for the NCAA Tournament. Then he suffered through last year’s disastrous 5-25-4 season.

“But it’s all worth it now,” Ferreira said. “I can remember playing in the (TD Boston) Garden my freshman year, and that was the coolest thing I’ve been a part of. I think this is going to top it. My first two years we had our chances to get in, and it’s nice this year we took care of business. To play for a national title is an amazing thing to be a part of.”

The River Hawks (23-12-1) and RedHawks (24-12-2) are virtual strangers. They have met only once before, and that was in 2003 when they played to a 4-4 tie in the Nye Frontier Classic in Anchorage, Alaska.

Miami is one of the hottest teams in the country, winner in nine of its last 10 games. This marks the RedHawks’ seventh straight NCAA Tournament appearance under coach Enrico Blasi and eighth in the last nine years. The RedHawks are paced by junior Hobey Baker Trophy finalist Reilly Smith (30-18-48), one of Division I’s only two 30-goal scorers, and backstopped by senior Connor Knapp, whose 1.59 average leads the nation. Knapp, who also has five shutouts, boasts a .937 save percentage, second-best in the country.

Bazin, Hockey East’s Coach of the Year, isn’t intimidated and doesn’t expect his team, which skates 15 underclassmen, to be overawed either.

“Everybody who made this tournament is pretty good. I’m not concerned if it’s Miami, North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, or Union,” he said. “Everybody is pretty strong.

“I’ve been to this tournament in one way or another seven times,” said Bazin, who was an assistant coach at Colorado College for eight years, “and you get a better understanding of what to expect. A lot of teams get fooled by thinking it’s going to be lot different in the NCAA Tournament. It’s not; it’s plain and simple hockey. It’s really a matter of calming down and playing the style of hockey that got you there. The one thing I want to impress upon our guys is be yourselves and play the way you can and let the chips fall where they may.”

Fourth-seeded Michigan State (19-15-4) is the only other team besides UMass Lowell that is in the tournament after a losing season last year. The Spartans, under first-year coach Tom Anastos, reversed their 15-19-4 record of a year ago. Among Division I’s 58 teams, however, only Michigan Tech and Alabama-Huntsville won fewer games than UMass Lowell last year.

Union (24-7-7) is the top seed in the East Regional under first-year coach Rick Bennett, who took over the program after Nate Leaman left for Providence College. Bennett was one of the finalists for the UMass Lowell job that went to Bazin.

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