When he found out his coach was leaving, Joe Houk decided he needed a change of scenery, too.
In April 2011, Houk had just wrapped up a stellar sophomore year at Division 3 Hamilton College. He scored 17 points and 16 assists as a defenseman, earning an All-American nod and the NESCAC Player of the Year award, becoming the first sophomore to do so.
That’s when rumors that coach Norm Bazin might be on the move gained steam.
“I was kind of optimistic that he wasn’t going to take the job,” said Houk, remembering talk that Bazin would leave Hamilton to go back to his alma mater, UMass-Lowell. “Most of the Hamilton kids from the Boston area had heard rumors that he was being looked at for the job, and I kind of didn’t want to believe it. We’d had such success at Hamilton my first two years.”
In three years at Hamilton, Bazin had reversed the formerly mediocre Continentals’ fortunes, and in Houk’s two years in the program, they went a combined 29-16-6, winning the NESCAC regular-season title in 2010-11. After Blaise MacDonald (Billerica, Mass.) stepped down in 2011 after a decade in Lowell, Bazin, a former River Hawk who scored 20 goals and 15 assists as a senior in 1994, was offered, and took, the job.
That left Houk, undoubtedly Hamilton’s top talent and one of the best in Division 3, trying to figure out a suddenly cloudy future. Wanting to find a “more hockey-dominant” Division 3 school, he turned to Bazin for advice.
“I had no intention of following him to Lowell, but after he accepted the job at Lowell, we started talking, and one thing led to another,” Houk said. “The combination of everything ... he showed trust in me that I could make the transfer over to UMass-Lowell and be a productive member of the team here.”
Bazin said he got a good first impression of Houk: “I thought he had very good hands, and pretty good size. He certainly has a nose for the game, and he seemed to produce offensively.
“When he contacted me, I felt he was someone who could handle the rigors of Division 1,” Bazin said. “He’s still trying to prove that to this day, however I think he’s making some steps in the right direction. I wouldn’t have opened the invitation to him had I thought he wasn’t capable of handling the workload. He’s constantly improving his game, and there will be a day that I think he’ll be very strong at the Division 1 level.”
Houk, it turns out, was following a trail blazed by some of his former neighbors. Former River Hawk standouts Barry Goers and Paul Worthington are, like Houk, natives of Bucks County, Pa., which sits just north of Philadelphia.
“Barry was a four-year player at Lowell, and I remember seeing him when I was 13 and he was 17 or 18,” said Houk, who remembered looking up to Goers, now a member of the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters.
When Houk arrived at Lowell, he immediately impressed his new teammates.
“First impressions, in practice and whatnot, he’s probably the strongest guy on the team,” captain Riley Wetmore said. “Even in the weight room, he’s by far the strongest guy on the team.”
Wetmore said he did some advance scouting on his new teammate, too.
“The hockey world’s not too big. … I do have a lot of friends who play Division 3, and they said, ‘Yeah, he is by far the best defenseman on Hamilton and in the NESCAC,’ ” Wetmore said. “And he was an All-American. You have to be a good player, no matter what level you’re playing at, to be an All-American. So we knew we were getting somebody that was a good player.”
Impressions were all Houk could produce in 2011-12. NCAA rules state that a player transferring from Division 3 to Division 1 doesn’t lose a year of eligibility, but must redshirt for one season before he can play. That left Houk with a lot of waiting to do, though it helped him heal some nagging injuries that required surgery.
It also gave him some time to watch his new team in action and learn how Bazin’s system was being implemented in Lowell. He also got to ease into his new home, which was a far sight from the program, school and town where he had spent the previous two years.
“It was definitely a scenery change from a small private school like Hamilton, to a public state school like Lowell here,” Houk said. “Definitely a change of scenery with the type of students, the city, the social aspect. Most of the freshmen were my age, so I lived in the dorms with them, bonded with them and got along with them. They really made me feel right at home.
“Playing-wise, it’s definitely up a notch from Division 3. The players are faster, more skilled, decisions happen a lot quicker. But I feel like the whole redshirt process helped me make the adjustment.”
The biggest adjustments Houk has had to make in jumping up to Division 1 have to do with speed — on the ice and in his head.
“In Division 1, you have to be alert at all times,” he said. “If you’re in the wrong position at any moment, the puck can end up in the back of your net. The players are just too fast and skilled; they’re going to gobble up any opportunities they can get. The level of play in Division 3 was awesome, it was very competitive, but I could get away with a few lackadaisical plays. In Division 1, it’s a whole different ballgame. You make one little error, and the puck’s down your throat, or you’re getting hit blindsided.”
Houk’s mere presence at UMass-Lowell represents one of the ways in which Bazin and his staff have been creative about recruiting. It’s often hard for programs in Hockey East to compete on the recruiting trail unless their names include the words Boston, Maine or New Hampshire. As one of the lower-profile programs, UML has tried to make some discoveries in non-hotbeds like San Diego (Chad Ruhwedel), Atlanta (Zack Kamrass) and Cave Creek, Ariz. (Michael Colantone), and even across the Atlantic.
“We’ve expanded our recruiting reach,” Bazin said. “We’ve gotten a kid out of Russia (Dmitry Sinitsyn), a kid out of Sweden (Christian Folin), a kid out of Division 3. … (You) do have to think outside the box, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Houk took a game misconduct early in the third period of his first official game, against Vermont on Oct. 12, and has been in and out of the lineup through the first few months of the season. Bazin, however, is happy to be patient with Houk as he gets used to the D-1 game.
“By no means is his learning curve complete, and he’s making steps to be a better player,” Bazin said. “When he gets to a point where he’s comfortable defending, I think more offense will come out of him. Until that time, we’ll just let it progress the way it has, and see what comes of it.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
Andrew Merritt covers Hockey East for New England Hockey Journal and hockeyjournal.com.