When people think about Hockey East, they inevitably think of the Boston College-Boston University rivalry, the great Maine teams of the 1990s, even the dominant Northeastern squads of the ’80s.
Yet woven into the very fabric of the league is the story of Providence College, one of the original seven Hockey East members and the alma mater of league architect Lou Lamoriello (Providence, R.I.), for whom the league championship trophy is named.
Recently, though, Providence hasn’t been in the conversation — not in Hockey East, not in New England, not really at all in college hockey. In the 10 years prior to 2011-12, the Friars had just three winning seasons, losing a combined 50 more games than they’d won. In the past three seasons, they were 25-60-17, sitting out the playoffs three consecutive times after never missing the Hockey East tournament in their first 24 years.
They also went through three coaches, with Paul Pooley’s once-promising but ultimately disappointing reign giving way to Tim Army (East Providence, R.I.), an alumnus who immediately brought some energy to the program, both on-ice and off. Yet Army posted just one winning season — his first, in 2005-06 — and was never able to translate that energy to results.
Providence dismissed Army at the end of the 2010-11 season, and immediately began looking for his successor.
Meanwhile, Nate Leaman completed one of the most impressive building projects in all of college hockey last season. Using a foundation built by current Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon, Leaman brought Union from perennial also-ran status in the ECAC to a league championship and the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament appearance in 2010-11 — a feat made even more noteworthy by the fact that Union, a Division 3 athletic program that “plays up” in hockey, doesn’t give out sports scholarships. He owns the school’s coaching wins record (138) and best all-time winning percentage (.518), and last season won the Spencer Penrose Award as the nation’s top Div. 1 coach.
At Providence, former BU associate coach and current Lake Erie (AHL) head coach David Quinn (Cranston, R.I.) was linked to the job for some time, but PC turned instead to Leaman.
“I think that sometimes you just need a change,” said senior captain Danny New, who was initially recruited by Leaman, and very nearly chose to join him at Union before opting for Providence. “It was big for us; it really got a different excitement, a different look down at the rink.”
His hiring was officially announced April 22, right around the same time he visited his new team and delivered a message.
“I remember shaking his hand and talking to him for five minutes,” senior goaltender Alex Beaudry said, “and the first thing that came to mind was ‘This guy means business.’”
Leaman’s business, throughout his coaching career, has been working with struggling programs and making them better. Before bringing Union up the ladder, he was an assistant under Mark Mazzoleni at Harvard as that venerable program climbed out of the lean years of the late-’90s into being a contender.
That résumé alone gave New some confidence in the new coach.
“I was excited because I knew he came from a program that he basically turned around, and getting the success he had at a school like Union, which doesn’t give out scholarships, is pretty crazy,” he said. “Now he comes here, the recruiting he can do here, I knew he was going to turn the program around.”
Leaman has made it clear to his team that he doesn’t want to wait to accomplish that goal.
“As a senior, one of the things I think we were worried about, does this guy see us winning next year, or does he see us winning in three years when we’re all gone?” Beaudry said. “He made it clear that he was not just interested in rebuilding. He wanted to win right away.”
Providence plays in a league with behemoths of the game such as BC, BU, Maine and New Hampshire, and it’s competing in the second-smallest building in the conference, 38-year-old Schneider Arena with its 3,030-person capacity. While college hockey has evolved and teams with higher profiles have moved into sterling new buildings, through squinted eyes at Providence you can still feel like you’re watching a game in 1985.
In short, Providence won’t win a lot of battles for the best recruits based on facilities or prestige, but the Friars and their new coach still believe they can compete. Through the first month and a half of the season, they showed they might be right. They won six of their first 10 games, including four against Hockey East opponents to match last season’s entire league win haul.
“I think we know we’re not necessarily the most talented team, don’t have the attention that BU, BC, those bigger schools have,” Beaudry said in mid-November, with the Friars sitting in third place. “But what we do have is a bunch of angry hockey players who haven’t had the success we wished they did.
“So we’re ready to bust our behinds every game and practice, and prove to the world that we don’t want to finish in 10th, we want to make the playoffs, we want to host (quarterfinal series),” Beaudry said. “We’ve got Merrimack and BC ahead of us, who knows? Can we catch them? Let’s find out.”
When asked for causes to the Friars’ hot start, Beaudry was the first thing to cross Leaman’s mind.
“I think it’s good goaltending. Alex Beaudry’s been terrific for us,” Leaman said. “And we have a lot of guys in new roles, (senior) Tim (Schaller) had always been a checking center, had six career goals, and this season he has eight. So we’ve had a lot of guys step up in a lot of areas.”
As for Leaman’s contribution, Beaudry said the effect of the new coach has less to do with Xs and Os, and more to do with a generally stronger group dynamic.
“It’s holding each other accountable this year, that we might not have done in the past,” he said. “It’s a new culture around here, we don’t have a losing culture around here anymore.”
Andrew Merritt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org