October 13, 2012

From NEHJ: Micheletto's moment

By Andrew Merritt

On Monday, Sept. 17, John Micheletto sold his home in Vermont. Two days later, he closed on a house in Amherst, Mass. 

John Micheletto comes to UMass with a history of working with programs trying to build, including Union and Vermont. (Photo courtesy of UMass Athletics)

For all the paperwork, logistics and legalese that process involves, it may have been the easy part.

Micheletto, an assistant at Vermont, was named the new head coach at UMass on July 16, 2012, ending a tumultuous month that began when Don “Toot” Cahoon (Lynn, Mass.) stepped down after 12 years at the helm — and one year ahead of the end of his contract.

Cahoon’s tenure in Amherst generally was positive. The program emerged from an also-ran into a Hockey East title contender in 2004 and NCAA tournament qualifier in 2007. His departure, in fact, came just five days after one of his greatest prodigies, goaltender Jonathan Quick (Hamden, Conn.), became the first Minuteman to win the Conn Smythe Trophy and hoist the Stanley Cup.

But the picture at UMass has grown less rosy since Quick led the Minutemen to their NCAA tournament appearance, which included a win over Clarkson in the first round. UMass hasn’t had a winning season since, going 67-95-20 over the past five years. Last season, the Minutemen snuck into the Hockey East playoffs, breaking a tie for eighth place with Northeastern, but were dismissed in a two-game sweep by Boston College.

Where most coaching vacancies come about before the ice has even been melted for the summer at the nation’s arenas, Cahoon walked away in mid-June, at a time when most programs already are preparing for the season to come. What followed was a month of speculation and confusion about who would take over in Amherst.

Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold (Bedford, N.H.) was rumored to be a candidate, until he was offered a contract extension to stay with the Bobcats. Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl (Winthrop, Mass.) also was in the mix, as was Boston College assistant Mike Cavanaugh (North Andover, Mass.), but both withdrew their names from consideration.

Meanwhile, the young men who’ll pull on the UMass jerseys this fall had to sit and wait.

“It was out of our control, and I think what we had was just a good attitude,” said UMass junior Michael Pereira (West Haven, Conn.). “That’s what we really talked about as a team: Control what we can control.”

Finally, on July 16, UMass named Micheletto as the men’s hockey program’s 13th head coach.

A Dartmouth College and Milton Academy graduate, Micheletto comes to UMass with a history of working with programs trying to build. He was an assistant on the Union staff when Kevin Sneddon arrived as head coach in 1998, and though Micheletto left before Sneddon got that program into better shape, he helped put building blocks in place that pulled the Dutchmen out of the ECAC cellar.

Micheletto went from Union to Notre Dame, serving as an assistant under Dave Poulin for four years as the Irish steadily improved into a contender.

Before college hockey, Micheletto spent five years at The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., and as the head coach reversed the team’s fortunes in his first year, taking the Rams from a 4-17 record in 1991 to a 14-7 mark in 1992.

At Vermont, Micheletto was reunited with Sneddon in 2003 and served as his top recruiter, also running the Catamounts’ power play and being promoted to associate head coach in 2006, helping push the Catamounts to appearances in the 2008 Hockey East final and 2009 Frozen Four.

H.T. Lenz, a UVM junior this year and the Catamounts captain, called Micheletto “knowledgeable about all aspects of the game.

“He would be explaining a game plan, and you could tell just how much he knew about the game,” Lenz wrote in an email to New England Hockey Journal. “As a team, we always had complete trust in him as our associate head coach, and he will do very well with his new opportunity as a head coach.”

In the Minutemen, Micheletto inherits a roster with plenty of experienced players — just four players graduated after the 2011-12 season — and while UMass ranked in the bottom half of the league in most statistical categories last season, there were some bright spots, including Pereira’s 34-point season.

Their biggest asset may be the cohesion the players have formed over a summer when they spent significant time not knowing who their coach would be. With no guide in the corner office, the Minutemen focused this offseason on bonding as a group.

“We know what to expect from each other, and we know what it takes to win,” Pereira said. “We’re not young anymore. We have a good nucleus of guys coming back, but all in all it doesn’t mean much — we have to get better. It’s up to us, basically.”

There will be a learning curve for Micheletto, because while he’s worked with three quality college programs, he hasn’t been a head coach since the prep school days. He’ll have to learn how to delegate to assistants Joey Gasparini, who came with him from Vermont, and Len Quesnelle, who is a holdover from the Cahoon era.

He’s confident that his first college head coaching gig will be a smooth transition. Although there was conjecture that Cahoon’s departure was related to a perceived lack of commitment by the athletic department to the hockey program, Micheletto said there’s “quite impressive” support at the school.

“You want to make sure you’re coming into a program that’s supported in the right ways to allow you to have success,” said Micheletto, who will have the benefit of a newly hired full-time hockey operations director in John Gobeil, also a UVM import. “You don’t want to go into a situation where you have to bang your head against the wall just to be adequate.

“Right from the get-go, I was very impressed with the amount of support that we have here, from a full-time hockey operations position to a full-time hockey equipment person to a full-time administrative assistant for hockey.“

The on-ice results, of course, will be the primary measure of whether Micheletto was the right choice. He said he plans to make the Minutemen into a team that is “difficult to play against and fun to watch,” and will bring some strategies from his time at UVM down Interstate 91 to Amherst.

“I think the accountability model that I learned from Kevin with the players is a big part of how I’m going to approach my coaching,” he said. “I think kids respond well to having a mirror held up to them for good and for bad.”

For the players, despite their up-in-the-air offseason, Micheletto represents a fresh start, but with an element of continuity that comes with a coach familiar with the every-game-matters nature of Hockey East.

“This is the first time he’s seeing me play, I’m going to try and impress him, I’m going to carry myself the right way, and I think that’s going to make us better as the year goes along,” Pereira said. “Change isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just a kick in the butt.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Andrew Merritt covers Hockey East for New England Hockey Journal and hockeyjournal.com.

Twitter: @A_Merritt
Email: feedback@hockeyjournal.com