The last month has been full of momentous occasions for the UMass-Lowell athletic department. On February 14th Chancellor Marty Meehan and Athletic Director Dana Skinner announced the entire department was going to make the move up to Division I, joining the America East Conference in all sports other than hockey.
Then came Saturday night in Providence. UMass-Lowell became the first school outside of Boston College, Boston University, Maine and New Hampshire to win a Hockey East Regular Season Championship. Commissioner Joe Bertagna presented the team the trophy in the visitors' locker room at Schneider Arena. A proud athletic director was there to experience another step in building up the prestige of the school.
A program on life support
The historic night Saturday was almost not even possible. The hockey program was left for dead a few seasons back when some in the university system wanted to do away with the team so the sole focus would be on the flagship at UMass-Amherst.
That's where Marty Meehan, the former congressman turned chancellor, came in to rescue the hockey team and spearhead a turnaround of the whole university at UMass-Lowell. The importance and significance of all Meehan has done for the school was not lost on the mind of second year head coach Norm Bazin following the win Saturday night in Providence.
"We're so proud to be a small part of UMass Lowell. It started with Marty Meehan five to six years ago when he came over to the school. He's been a catalyst for the transformation - the new academic buildings, the parking garage, the revamped arena, the rec center, the new ball field. As an alum I'm very proud to be there. We're proud to win this for the school, the students who've been great fans and the whole area in the Merrimack valley"
With the improvements at the school has come added excitement from students, alums, fans and the community in general. Junior forward Josh Holmstrom expressed the team's appreciation for all the support they have received. "For the program we've taken great strides. We've gotten great support from the alumni, fans and community. It feels that much better to win [the trophy] for everyone else around us."
Change brought turnaround
Former head coach Blaise MacDonald was let go following a disastrous five-win campaign in 2011. The school hired UML alum Bazin away from Division III Hamilton College in upstate New York.
Bazin said one of his first goals was to change the mindset in the program. He said the team had to believe it could win and expect to win. No one could have imagined, not even Bazin himself, that the change would come so quickly. "You come in and try to establish and build a culture of accountability. It's exciting for the guys because some of the older guys have gone through some tough times."
In Bazin's first season back at his alma mater the River Hawks improved their win total by 19, ratcheting up a total of 24 wins en route to a second place finish in Hockey East and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. UML defeated Miami in overtime in the first round before bowing out to Union in the regional finals. Senior captain Riley Wetmore knows better than most how great an improvement it was. "Ever since Coach [Bazin] came in, we've had a winning program. My sophomore year we only won five games and then this. It's great for the program," he said after the game Saturday.
This season got off to a tough start. The team might not have had the urgency it needed in the first few months, but a tough early season schedule contributed to a rocky beginning. Wetmore said some of the first half disappointment was just about letting the underclassmen adjust to college hockey. "We had to get the younger guys acclimated to the system and get together as a team. We played as a team tonight and when we do, we play well." Junior Josh Holmstrom added, "We got off to a tough start. We were struggling to score goals, gripping it a little tight, but coach told us to keep working and we got on to a roll around Christmas."
Back-to-back shutouts right before the semester break seemed to get the ship sailing in the right direction. The team had undefeated streaks of eleven, then seven games in the second half. Once the offense got on track, there was tremendous balance. Multiple lines are extremely dangerous every time they touch the ice. The defense executes Bazin's game plan to perfection, bottling up the opposition in the neutral zone. Freshman goaltender and Winnipeg Jets draft pick Connor Hellebuyck has been a big part of the second half surge. If it weren't for his rookie counterpart at Providence, Jon Gillies, he'd be the run-away choice for goaltender of the year.
The River Hawks drew eighth seeded Maine in the first round, a team responsible for two of the ten UML losses on the season. The two teams split a weekend series back in November at Tsongas Arena. Then, Maine took the rubber match in Orono in February. The team will look to use last year's disappointment in the Hockey East Quarterfinals to come out playing with a sense of purpose.
This is a Lowell team playing with confidence that can make a deep run in the postseason. The River Hawks making the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row, the first time in school history, seems a mere formality. There should be plenty of other firsts for the hockey program the remainder of this season and into the future.
A scary thought for Bazin's counterparts around the league: this team only has two seniors who have dressed regularly.
Jeff Cox covers college hockey for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.