BOSTON — The road to a championship is rarely an easy one, and it often begins well before the arena fills with fans and artificial light.
For Norm Bazin, the road began with a call from a familiar voice. It was 1997. Tim Whitehead, who had been an assistant with UMass-Lowell when Bazin was a four-year forward at the school, was now the River Hawks’ head coach, and he needed an assistant. He called Bazin.
Bazin already had a job.
“Lumber broker. It’s an office where you buy and sell lumber from Canada to U.S. clientele,” Bazin said. “It’s a desk job of sorts. He offered me a job. I was very, very fortunate. I’ll forever be indebted to Tim for giving me my first coaching job. He’s a tremendous coach, and I was fortunate to work with him.”
It was three years after Bazin and the River Hawks, led by the goaltending of Dwayne Roloson, came up one goal short of beating Boston University in the 1994 Hockey East final. Bazin took Whitehead’s offer, and worked as his assistant for the next three years before moving on to Colorado College to be an assistant on Scott Owens’ staff.
Bazin’s fourth season in Colorado had just begun when, in November 2003, he went on a recruiting trip to Canada. Driving alone on U.S. Route 395, Bazin was just north of Spokane, Wash., when a drunk driver slammed into his rental car. His aorta was torn open. Bones in his leg, arm, shoulder and pelvis were broken. Were it not for the quick work of eyewitness Ron Howerton, Bazin very likely would have died then and there.
It was Nov. 21, 2003. Bazin was 33 years old, less than three months away from becoming a father.
Derek Arnold was a 13-year-old in Foxboro, Mass., when his future coach nearly died on the side of a highway. A few years later, he joined Waterloo of the United States Hockey League, scoring 81 points over two seasons with the Blackhawks and earning the attention of college scouts, including the staff at Maine, where Whitehead was now the head coach.
Arnold briefly committed to play for Whitehead before changing his mind and coming to UMass-Lowell. It was two years after the River Hawks had fallen, 1-0, to Boston University in the 2009 Hockey East final, which in itself was almost unbelievable considering the fact that just a few years before, the program was nearly dissolved by a school looking to cut costs.
A last-ditch effort by the program, its supporters, and new chancellor Marty Meehan saved UMass-Lowell hockey in 2007. Arnold was still at Foxboro High then, two years away from committing to UMass-Lowell. Bazin survived the accident and multiple surgeries, and was still an assistant at Colorado College — and now a father of two.
Bazin took his first head coaching job two years later, at Division 3 Hamilton College. He turned the program around, taking the Continentals from a 9-15-1 record in his first year to a NESCAC championship in his third and final season, 2010-11. If there was anyone surprised with Bazin’s rapid rise as a head coach, his former boss was not among them.
“No doubt, that’s why I grabbed him,” Whitehead said. “But I knew him in Lowell when I was an assistant coach, so I knew full well what kind of person Norm was, so that was obviously the biggest reason that I felt he would be a good coach.”
Meanwhile, Lowell had fallen back on hard times, tumbling from the heights of 2009 to a 5-25-4 record in 2010-11, and missing the Hockey East playoffs. It was Arnold’s first season, and coach Blaise MacDonald’s last. MacDonald, a Billerica, Mass., native who oversaw some of the biggest moments in the program’s history during his 10 years — and whose recruits still occupy a large portion of this year’s roster — stepped down under pressure after the dismal finish.
Bazin was hired in the summer of 2011 to replace MacDonald. In his first year, he took the River Hawks to a 24-13-1 record, a share of second place in Hockey East, and their first NCAA tournament berth in 16 years. He was named Hockey East’s Coach of the Year for the quick turnaround.
As it turns out, 2011-12 was just a warmup. While this year’s edition of the River Hawks did not pick up where last year’s left off, with a sluggish 4-7-1 start, something funny happened in Lowell: The River Hawks started forgetting how to lose.
“I felt we had some pieces, but we started off slow,” Bazin said. “It wasn’t the easy way to do it.”
Very little has come easy to the River Hawks over the years. Despite having Roloson, the best goaltender in the nation, in 1994, UML came up short in the Hockey East final, falling 3-2 to a Boston University team that ended up reaching the national championship game. Fifteen years later, the River Hawks lost again to BU, 1-0, after having what would have been the tying goal nullified by a controversial video review.
So an uphill climb isn’t unfamiliar to the program.
The River Hawks were able to go undefeated in the next 11 games after their awful start, and after losing two straight to Merrimack and Maine in early February, they ran off another streak of seven straight wins, steaming toward a spectacularly close race for first place.
“It was certainly a character deal, where if you have the right kids in the locker room, you will turn it around,” Bazin said. “You’ve just got to keep working, and that’s what we did.
Another reason the River Hawks were able to turn it on over the second half of the year was freshman goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, who shrugged off a midseason injury and illness to start the final nine games of the regular season, winning all but one and leading the River Hawks to not only their first-ever regular-season league title, but also the first captured by a team other than Boston College, Boston University, Maine or New Hampshire.
A regular-season title doesn’t mean a whole lot if you bow out in the playoffs, but Lowell was just getting started. Bazin’s River Hawks swept Whitehead’s Black Bears in the league quarterfinals, and they took care of Providence in the semifinals, with Hellebuyck making 34 saves in a 2-1 win.
For the third time in their history, the River Hawks reached the Hockey East final. The opponent waiting for them, of course, was Boston University. This year’s River Hawks swept all three previous meetings with the Terriers — the only team to do so in 2012-13 — and they had a chance to avenge the losses of their forebears.
For two periods, the championship game belonged to no one. It was entertaining, it was well-played, and it was a scoreless tie after 40 minutes.
“We’ve been good in the third period, and I felt that it was in our locker room somewhere,” Bazin said. “I didn’t know if it would be a broken play, I didn’t know if it was going to be a (pass off the pads) play, I didn’t know if it was going to be an ugly goal.”
After more than 50 minutes of the River Hawks and Terriers exchanging glancing blows — 30 shots for BU, 25 for UMass-Lowell — but never truly connecting, the game turned. BU captain Wade Megan took the puck in the corner behind Hellebuyck’s left shoulder, but he was hounded by Lowell defenseman Chad Ruhwedel. A nudge from Ruhwedel put Megan on the ice, and he helplessly swept the puck out to Arnold, waiting for the play to develop.
Arnold took the puck up ice with Ruhwedel and Scott Wilson, the trio outnumbering BU defensemen Ryan Ruikka and Sean Escobedo. Arnold fed the puck to Ruhwedel, but the defenseman’s shot ricocheted off of Wilson’s skate to the left-wing boards, where Arnold picked it back up. He skated around the net, behind BU goaltender Sean Maguire, who had nearly been Hellebuyck’s equal in the tournament.
“Maguire came out of his net a little too much, and I saw some daylight, so I went with the wraparound,” said Arnold, who cut hard into the ice to come around and flip the puck, backhanded, past a diving Ruikka and off of a sprawling Maguire.
The local boy who almost went to another school three years ago, playing on a team that almost ceased to exist six years ago, coached by a man who almost died on a stretch of Washington asphalt a decade ago, scored the goal that gave UMass-Lowell the first Hockey East title in its history.
Arnold was asked later if he imagined the River Hawks winning that title when he first arrived in Lowell in 2010.
“To be honest, no,” he said. “Coming from New England, growing up and seeing BC and BU here every year, you didn’t see Lowell here too many times. But it’s amazing right now, a remarkable accomplishment by the guys in that room.”
For Bazin, the victory was the answer to a simple question.
“I think there’s a time when you have to say, ‘Why not Lowell?’ ” he said. “And that’s this year.”
Bazin said he doesn’t talk about his near-death experience with his players, and demurred when asked about its meaning in the context of the River Hawks’ victory.
“That’s unrelated to hockey, quite honestly. I just have good days, and that’s it,” he said. “Whether we won or lost tonight, it would be a good day, and I think you learn very quickly that you don’t have bad days when that happens.”
The 2013 Hockey East title isn’t the end of Lowell’s road. The River Hawks had already earned their second-straight trip to the NCAAs well before captain Riley Wetmore (Swanton, Vt.) hoisted the Lamoriello Trophy at TD Garden. But they’ve made history no matter what comes next.
And now Bazin, the former lumber broker, traffics in a different kind of hardware.
This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.