April 8, 2013

From NEHJ: Brown gets a taste of elite hockey

By Dan Guttenplan

Brown took down top-ranked  Quinnipiac, 4-0, in the ECAC tournament semifinals. (Photo: Mike Manger)

Brendan Whittet might have thought rebuilding the Brown hockey program would be easy after his first season as head coach in 2009-10.

That year, he took a team that logged a cumulative record of 27-77-22 in the four years prior to his hire to the ECAC Hockey tournament semifinals. Sure, the Bears backed into the tournament as the 11th seed, but they peaked at the right time, eventually winning the third-place game against St. Lawrence.

Reality set in for Whittet in years 2 and 3. Due to his late hire in August 2009, he didn’t bring in his first recruiting class until the 2010-11 season. The veterans on his first couple of teams were used to finishing at the bottom of the ECAC standings, and Whittet’s recruits were young, inexperienced and adapting to a new system on the fly.

The Bears logged a cumulative record of 19-34-10 in Whittet’s second and third seasons, finishing no higher than ninth in the ECAC standings.

“There were times in the last four years when I wondered if I was on the right track,” Whittet says. “I wondered if I had the right makeup on the team. Are these players going to get to those championship games and excel in that environment?”

Whittet (East Providence, R.I.) received the answer he was looking for in March when his first recruiting class — now juniors — led the Bears to the ECAC championship game for the first time since 1993. Needing a win over Union in the tournament championship to clinch their first NCAA tournament berth since 1993, the Bears fell just short in a 3-1 loss to the back-to-back ECAC champions in Atlantic City.

Still, Brown finished with a winning record (16-14-6) for the first time since 2004-05. When the team last played in an ECAC tournament championship game in 1993, Whittet was a junior on the team.

“I’m driven because I know what this place can be and should be,” Whittet says. “The school is a wonderful, wonderful place. I had the best experience playing hockey and attending school here. I’m driven by a belief that we should win national championships.”

After graduating from Brown in 1994, Whittet logged 15 years as an assistant at various New England colleges — including 11 at Dartmouth. After his hire in 2009, he laid out a vision for the Brown program, one that included a transformation of culture.

“We needed to believe internally that we should strive for national championships and ECAC championships and not settle for mediocrity,” Whittet says. “If you settle for mediocrity, you’ll get that or worse.”

Whittet’s first move was to hire former University of New Hampshire defenseman Mark White (Woburn, Mass.) as an assistant. White had experience playing in the 1999 NCAA championship game against Maine. The next year, Whittet hired White’s former UNH teammate Mike Souza (Wakefield, Mass.).

The staff then turned its focus to recruiting. The coaches targeted committed, selfless players who would accept any role given to them.

“What we did was go after the players and recruits that are hockey players through and through,” Whittet says. “We wanted players who would help us attain our goals by playing at the highest level. They needed to be willing to do anything in their power to help us get there.”

Brown started this season short on momentum, after failing to win a single game in February 2012 en route to a last-place finish in the conference. The Bears started the 2012-13 campaign with one win in their first six games. By Dec. 30, they sat at 3-6-4 overall and 0-3-4 in ECAC action.

Feeling those results were unacceptable in his fourth season as coach, Whittet began to tinker. After a 7-0 loss to Providence in November, he benched junior goaltender Marco De Felippo in favor of senior Anthony Borelli, who had played in just seven games over his entire Brown career — and none since his sophomore season. Borelli spent the first three years of his career behind Mike Clemente, who graduated in 2012. Borelli even considered leaving Brown to return to his former USHL team, the Lincoln Stars, during his freshman season.

Perhaps no other personnel move helps explain Brown’s second-half resurgence more than Borelli’s promotion. From December through the ECAC tournament, he posted a record of 14-9-4 with a 1.84 GAA and a .942 save percentage. He saved his best performance for Brown’s ECAC tournament semifinal matchup against Quinnipiac, the nation’s top-ranked team at the time. Borelli made 29 saves in a 4-0 shutout — the first time a goalie blanked Quinnipiac since Oct. 14, 2012.

“I always thought I could play and win big games,” Borelli says. “I never thought I’d put up numbers like I put up this year. It’s a dream season for me, and I’m pretty happy with the way things worked out.”

With the exception of sophomore forward Matt Lorito, who led the team with 22 goals and 37 points, no Brown player scored more than seven goals on the season. The team won by playing disciplined defense in front of exceptional goaltending. Players assumed new roles to offset the injuries of sophomore Ryan Jacobson and highly touted freshman defenseman Nate Widman, both of whom tore anterior cruciate ligaments during the season.

Junior Jake Goldberg serves as an example of the sacrifice players were willing to make for the greater good of the team. After struggling with the speed of the game for two seasons after arriving as a  heavily anticipated recruit in Whittet’s first recruiting class, the Berkshire School (Sheffield, Mass.) alumnus switched positions at the start of the season to give Brown more depth on the blue line.

“It wasn’t really my decision,” Goldberg says. “Originally, I was brought in as a scorer, and it didn’t work out for me. I didn’t adjust to the college game; it was too fast for me. I found my niche now. Coach Whittet convinced me this is still the right place for me, and I never regretted staying.”

A strong finish to one season does not necessarily signify a resurgence of a program. Using ECAC Hockey as an example, Harvard played in the ECAC tournament championship game in 2012, only to finish last in the league in 2013.

On the other hand, many of the top programs in the nation encountered a breakthrough moment — a blip on the radar in an otherwise mediocre stretch of seasons. For instance, ECAC’s own Union surprised many with its run to the conference championship game in 2010, one season removed from an eighth-place finish in ECAC Hockey. Since then, Union has won two ECAC regular-season titles (2011, 2012), and back-to-back ECAC tournament titles in 2012 and 2013.

“I’m not naive enough to think it’s easy,” Whittet says. “My guys stood out there on the blue line when the trophy was awarded to Union. We don’t want second place. We’ll do everything in our power to be champions. A lot goes into it. The higher up you get, the harder it becomes. We’re driven to do it.”

Union played in the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row after posting a 4-0 record in the ECAC tournament. Goalie Troy Grosenick caught fire at the right time, allowing a total of four goals in the four games.

Yale earned its fourth NCAA berth in the past five seasons, and its first trip to the Frozen Four in 61 years, although the Bulldogs struggled in the ECAC semifinals, losing to Union.

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

Twitter: @Dan_Guttenplan
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