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!