By Andy Merritt
This ain’t your father’s Hockey East.
The league’s semifinals kick off at 5 p.m. Friday. The head coaches of the two teams playing in the 8 p.m. nightcap – Boston College’s Jerry York (Watertown, Mass.) and Boston University’s Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.) have a combined 81 years of coaching experience under their belts, the guys directing the teams in the first semifinal have a combined 12.
UMass-Lowell’s Norm Bazin and Providence’s Nate Leaman are at the vanguard of a new world order in Hockey East – a league which, for almost all of its 28 years before this one, has been dominated by what’s informally known as “the big four:” traditional powerhouses Boston College, Boston University, Maine and New Hampshire. Those four teams share all but three of the 28 league titles won since Hockey East’s inception in 1984, and until this year, only those four programs had ever won the regular-season title.
But this year’s a little different. The best team through the 27-game regular season wasn’t one of those four vaunted programs; it was Bazin’s River Hawks. The best rookie isn’t a young phenom from Chestnut Hill or Orono, it’s Providence goaltender Jon Gillies, who was given the league’s Rookie of the Year award at Thursday night’s end-of-year banquet. The best coach, according to his peers, is Bazin, who won the Bob Kullen Coach of the Year award for the second straight season – the first time that’s happened since BU’s Jack Parker did it in 2005 and 2006, and the second time it’s ever happened.
That Bazin won the award in his second year at Lowell wasn’t some fluke. Coaching awards often go to men or women who take an underdog and help it overachieve. That may have been true of the River Hawks last year, but they were an obvious pick to finish near the top of the standings this year after returning so many players from the 2011-12 team that took UML to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996.
Bazin’s Coach of the Year award is no consolation prize. It’s an affirmation that he, like Leaman, is building something special. Maine coach Tim Whitehead, who once coached Bazin as an assistant at UMass-Lowell, and then hired him as his own assistant when he took over UML’s top job, isn’t all that surprised.
“Obviously I’ve been around the league for about 20 years, and every program’s had their run,” said Whitehead, who has been a head coach in Hockey East for 17 years (12 at Maine). “It’s not the first time all these programs have won, but what I think is most impressive is the consistency with which they’re winning, and that’s what is really changing the landscape. Most programs have had a run here or there, but to see these guys bringing in great recruiting classes in year in and year out, it just shows you how competitive it is now, and just how many great schools there are in this league.
“From my perspective, it’s not an accident, and these guys deserve all their success,” said Whitehead, who saw his former lieutenant knock off his Black Bears in the quarterfinals last weekend.
The juxtaposition is easy to make when you look simply at the semifinal matchups – the two young coaches in Bazin and Leaman matching wits, and the two legends in York and Parker facing off for possibly the last time. But the theme expands to the whole league. Five coaches – York, Parker, Whitehead, UNH’s Dick Umile and Vermont’s Kevin Sneddon – have been at the helm of their teams for at least 10 years, and Whitehead and Sneddon both have significant experience even beyond their current jobs. The other five – Bazin, Leaman, Northeastern’s Jim Madigan, Merrimack’s Mark Dennehy and first-year UMass coach John Micheletto – have been with their programs for less than a decade, at least as head coaches.
Three in the latter group have already found success. Dennehy’s eight years at Merrimack are unquestionably the best in the program’s history, and either Bazin or Leaman will be coaching in the Hockey East final on Saturday. Madigan and Micheletto’s teams both missed the playoffs this year, but have solid recruiting classes coming in to help the building process.
So it’s hard not to take stock of the league’s future at a time like this. Parker announced his retirement on March 11, and while York hasn’t intimated any plans to hang up the whistle, he’s coached for 41 years, won four national titles, and his team is poised for another run this year, which could be the perfect impetus for the BC legend to make his own announcement sometime in the next 12 months.
The league is set to undergo some big changes in the next two years, when Notre Dame and Connecticut will join as the 11th and 12th members. But with Bazin and Leaman on the precipice of winning the Lamoriello trophy, it seems change has already come to Hockey East.
Players of the Week
Nick Saracino, fr., Providence
The rookie exploded for four goals and five points in the Friars’ quarterfinal series against UNH, scoring both game-winning goals in the victories that sent Providence to the Garden for this weekend’s festivities.
29th Hockey East Tournament – TD Garden, Boston
Semifinals – Friday, March 22
UMass-Lowell (1) vs. Providence (4), 5 p.m.
Boston College (2) vs. Boston University (3), 8 p.m.
UMass-Lowell (24-10-2, 16-9-2 HEA) – The River Hawks are all about the firsts this year. They were the first to earn home ice in the quarterfinals, they’re the first team not named Boston College, Boston University, Maine or New Hampshire to win the Hockey East regular season title, and by virtue of a Thursday start to their series against Maine – and a sweep of the Black Bears – they were the first team to punch a ticket to the Garden for the semifinals.
Providence (17-13-7, 13-8-6 HEA) – Freshman Nick Saracino’s four goals in the Friars’ three quarterfinal games against UNH bumped him up to eight points (six goals) in his last seven games – mere months removed from missing the first six games of the year with a leg injury.
Boston College (22-10-4, 15-9-3 HEA) – Sophomore Johnny Gaudreau, who led the league in scoring despite missing three games while playing in the World Junior Championships, was named the league’s Player of the Year and is the only Hockey East player among the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award.
Boston University (20-15-2, 15-10-2 HEA) – Jack Parker (Somerville, Mass.) coached the last home game of his illustrious career with the Terriers’ 5-3 win over Merrimack to advance to the Garden. He finishes with a 438-168-53 record at home, and a 95-50-18 record at Agganis Arena.
New Hampshire (19-11-7, 13-8-6 HEA) – The season isn’t over for the Wildcats, who were bounced by Providence in the Hockey East quarterfinals but will earn an at-large bid and play in the Northeast NCAA Regional in Manchester, N.H.
Merrimack (15-17-6, 13-11-3 HEA) – The Warriors’ senior class – Kyle Bigos, John Heffernan, Nick Drew and Brandon Brodhag – finished as the most successful class in Merrimack history, with a 74-58-19 record over their four years.
Vermont (11-19-6, 8-13-6 HEA) – Freshman goaltender Brody Hoffman played the most available minutes of any Hockey East goaltender this year – 2095:21 out of 2190:00 – which is also fourth highest in the nation, and the most of any freshman.
Maine (11-20-8, 7-12-8 HEA) – The Black Bears were 5-14-4 after the first 23 games of the season, but finished 6-6-4, scoring an average of 2.625 goals per game over the final 16 games. They scored a league-worst 1.52 goals per game in the opening 23 contests.
UMass (11-18-3, 8-15-2 HEA) – Junior Branden Gracel, who had 34 points in his first two seasons in Amherst, doubled his total with 14 goals and 20 assists in 2012-13, earning him an All-Hockey East honorable mention.
Northeastern (9-21-4, 5-18-4 HEA) – Freshman Kevin Roy, who led the Huskies in scoring, was the only member of a non-playoff team to make any All-Hockey East teams, earning a spot on the All-Rookie squad.