February 24, 2013

From NEHJ: For UConn, no time like the present

By Allen Lessels

Sophomore Cody Sharib has seven goals this season. (Photo: UConn Athletics)

The folks with the University of Connecticut hockey team started talking about writer Spencer Johnson’s story “The Precious Present” about halfway through last season.

As it turned out, Johnson’s timeless message of living life fully and appreciating the moment might have been even more timely this time around when David Berard (West Warwick, R.I.), who has been UConn’s interim head coach for most of the season, brought it up again this year after Christmas.

“We have a little saying,” said sophomore forward Cody Sharib of Needham, Mass. “The precious present. Don’t worry about the future. Learn from the past, but don’t dwell on it.”

Life around the UConn hockey program has been a bit topsy-turvy over the past nine months or so, and in some ways this season has been a bit of a balancing act. First came the official word in June that UConn had accepted an invitation to join the Hockey East Association for the 2014-15 season.

“It’s exciting for the program, especially considering the league we’re going into,” Berard said. “In our opinion, and in a lot of people’s opinion, Hockey East is the best hockey conference in the country, and to be asked to be part of that is certainly exciting.”

But it’s also two seasons away. “We have the whole Hockey East thing coming up, but we want to focus on this season and next and try to do something in Atlantic Hockey before we leave,” Sharib said. “I grew up right outside Boston and to hear about Hockey East was wicked exiting for me. My whole family is in Boston and I’ll be able to play in front of them in two years. But now we want to try and make an impact in Atlantic Hockey. We have two years left to try and win it all.”

Buoyed by the Hockey East news and their finish last season when they gave Atlantic Hockey tournament champion Air Force all kinds of problems before falling in three games in the quarterfinals, the Huskies came into this season with high hopes.

Then they got off to an 0-4-1 start. That stretch included 3-0 and 5-0 losses at Niagara on Nov. 2 and 3. Three days after that, Bruce Marshall (West Boylston, Mass.), a UConn graduate and the team’s head coach for the past 25 years, announced he was taking an indefinite medical leave of absence. Berard, in his second year at UConn after 15 years as an assistant at Providence College, took over the head coaching duties.

“As tough as our start was, I think when Bruce announced his medical leave that served as a wakeup call for everybody,” Berard said. “It was, ‘We’ve got to get going here. We can’t let opportunities continue to pass us by.’ The players and coaches and staff came together and dealt with the adversity. We could have taken the other road and felt sorry for ourselves and wondered what else could go wrong.”

The Huskies (10-11-3, 7-8-2 AHA) beat Sacred Heart, 5-3, in their first game without Marshall for their first win. The next night they went to Merrimack and beat the Hockey East team, 3-1.

Starts and stops continued from there and they began to get more consistent. UConn took a nice pair from Air Force, 2-1 and 3-2 in overtime at home, and then lost a couple at Canisius, 3-0 and 3-1.

The Huskies struggled to score goals for a while, but then start turning that around, too. They scored 21 goals in their first 13 games and then 22 in their next six into mid-January.

Marshall announced he would not be coming back and was resigning Jan. 7. Marshall had 337 wins as UConn coach.

“That wasn’t the best news,” Berard said. “But he’s in a good place and I’m happy for him. He’s healthy. He needed to take some time and then made a decision. He’s at a stage in life where he wants to take another route.”

UConn announced it would conduct a national search for a coach after the season. Berard hopes the search doesn’t have to extend outside of Storrs and past the Husky locker room.

“Certainly I’m going to do what I can do in my power to give them an option to look my way,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re going to do what they feel is right and best for UConn. I understand that.”

In the meantime, there is a season to be played and plans to be made for next year and Hockey East beyond that. UConn is offering scholarships for hockey for the first time as part of the move to Hockey East, and five or so scholarship players will come in next fall as the school builds toward a full allotment of 18.

The Huskies have played one or two Hockey East teams each season for years, and games against Providence and Merrimack, or perhaps Boston College or Boston University, are possible for next year.

All schools, of course, play a balancing act as they recruit and plan for the future while keeping an eye on the ball or puck right in front of them. It just might be that things are a little more pronounced these days in Storrs with a big move on the horizon.

The precious present steams forward with the Atlantic Hockey playoffs approaching. The message can hit home in athletics, Berard said.

“What happens sometimes with athletes is they can bring the past in when they’re in a slump and they start thinking about a missed opportunity,” he said. “Or they start thinking about expectations and what they want in the future. Sometimes that can add pressure on you. We talk about staying focused on today and not worrying about what happened yesterday and not worrying about what’s going to happen in the future.”

The future will come. UConn will move into its new league and, Berard said, as it does in all of its athletics and academics and everything else it gets involved in, will strive for excellence and not settle for anything less.

For now, there’s a season-plus left to play in Atlantic Hockey, and seniors like goalie Garrett Bartus and forward Sean Ambrosie and junior forwards such as Jordan Sims and Brant Harris will attempt to lead the Huskies on a long run.

“Just take it day to day and do what we need to do to be a better team at the end of the day,” Berard said. “Hockey East will come. We owe it to the guys we have in the locker room right now to play for a championship this year. Two years will come. Let’s take care of business between now and then.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

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