Can new UMass hockey coach Greg Carvel finally wake the sleeping giant?

@MattVautourDHG
Published: 3/30/2016 8:33:52 PM

Does Greg Carvel have the answer? The key? The plan?

Somewhere there is a combination that unlocks the mystery of how to turn UMass into a hockey power. Everyone believes it exists, but nobody has found it yet.

Thursday at press conferences in Amherst and Boston, the former St. Lawrence coach will be introduced as the next candidate to uncover that path.

A fanbase that’s equally restless and hopeful will put their faith in him.

Belief in the program’s potential has been fueling Minuteman fans for over two decades now. Someday that faith, they believe, will be rewarded.

There are UMass basketball fans who believe that a coach isn’t successful unless they produce a return to Calipari Era accomplishments. There are football fans who think it’s just a matter of time before that program is in the Big Ten.

For abundant reasons – recruiting base, conference affiliation etc. – those are pipe dreams.

But that’s not the case for hockey, at least it shouldn’t be. There is no goal too big for UMass hockey. The Minutemen have enough things working in their favor to be a power in the sport. UMass can make a Frozen Four. It  can win a national championship, and it can contend regularly in Hockey East.

That sounds silly to say because none of those things have happened. Since joining Hockey East and becoming a Division I program in 1994-95, UMass has been one of the league’s worst programs. 

In 22 seasons playing a Division I schedule, UMass has had more seasons winning less than a quarter of its games (seven) and winning seasons (three). 

Quinnipiac and Nebraska-Omaha moved up to Division I after UMass did, and both have reached the Frozen Four and multiple NCAA Tournaments, while UMass has made the field one time.

So why hasn’t hockey flourished at UMass? There’s plenty of theories, and fans are willing to blame everyone and everything – coaching, recruiting, the administration, the ice surface and bad luck.

But, whatever the reason, they’ve struggled. In 2015-16, UMass was ranked 48th in the Kratch  and 49th in the PairWise, two computer formulas that rank the sport’s 60 teams. The Minutemen were dead last in Hockey East in 2015-16 and have never finished higher than third.

Carvel is being asked to pick UMass up from near the bottom of the canyon and carry it to the top of the mountain. It sounds like a mythical task. But it’s not a pipe dream.

UMass is in a league where being competitive in the league means contending for a national championship. 

Since 2011, 10 different Hockey East teams have made the NCAA Tournament. Everyone from Boston College and it’s big athletic department fueled by ACC money down to Merrimack, which is Division II in everything but hockey. It’s a challenge, but everyone but UConn, which is still pretty new, has figured it out.

In the Mullins Center, UMass has a facility and practice rink that are certainly good enough to attract recruits. Amherst is a reasonable drive from the hometowns of plenty of Division I-caliber players.

The school is academically strong but not so restrictive that it drastically limits who can be recruited.

New athletic director Ryan Bamford seems invested in making hockey successful. On top of that, his own reputation is at stake too. Carvel is his first hire, and the coach’s success or failure will reflect on the administration.

Bamford’s biggest success to this point is UMass’ decision is paying cost of attendance  benefits to all scholarship athletes, including hockey players. That not only puts the hockey program in a stronger position nationally but could allow it to win recruiting battles against Hockey East teams who aren’t giving players the additional stipend.

Getting elite players is challenge No.1, but developing and keeping that talent is equally important, if not more so.

John Micheletto might still be coaching the Minutemen if Frank Vatrano had stayed another year. It’s safe to assume the AHL’s scoring leader might have netted a few for UMass. The Minutemen’s blue-line corps wouldn’t have been quite as young and quite as thin if AHL All-Star Brandon Montour stayed for one more season.

But every coach faces that. Toot Cahoon lost Greg Mauldin, James Marcou, Casey Wellman and Jonathan Quick sooner than he’d have liked, and Hockey East’s top teams lose players to the NHL every year. The trick is having the next key player ready in the pipeline.

Since UMass reinstated hockey in 1993, many in the hockey community called the program a sleeping giant. There was no reason to think the Minutemen couldn’t become at least competitive, and maybe elite, in the sport. It seems like every time there’s a coaching change the term “sleeping giant” pops up again. But other than the peak of the Cahoon era, the giant keeps pressing the snooze button.

Can Carvel wake it up for good? He’s about to hit the ground running.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage




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