BUFFALO – While a 3-0 loss to Minnesota Duluth in the championship game of the Frozen Four at KeyBank Center was not how the UMass men’s hockey team wanted to end its season, it will not overshadow what the team accomplished this season.
The awards and records were many, from sophomore defenseman Cale Makar winning the Hobey Baker Award, to coach Greg Carvel being named the national coach of the year. The team also had several program firsts, which included ascending to the No. 1 ranking in the country, capturing the Hockey East regular season title and reaching the Frozen Four. Its 31 wins shattered the previous season-high of 21, set in 2007.
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It also demonstrated that fans will support a winning program, with the Mullins Center filled to near capacity as the Minutemen continued to roll.
“You see 7,000-8,000 in the stands, it’s just good for school spirit,’’ said UMass president Marty Meehan. “Even when you’re recruiting students and faculty that aren’t going to play hockey, if you put them into an arena with this kind of enthusiasm, it’s contagious, and it’s good for universities. That’s why universities want excellence in everything.’’
That enthusiasm extended beyond the friendly confines of Amherst. When team hit the road, it was greeted by boisterous supporters, with the back and forth chants of “UUUU!’’ and “Masss!’’ echoing at Matthews Arena, Agganis Arena and Conte Forum in Hockey East battles with Northeastern, Boston University, and Boston College, respectively.
When the team reached the Hockey East semifinals for the first time since 2007, UMass supporters helped drive the attendance at TD Garden to more than 13,000. And the scene in Buffalo this past week was surreal, giving it an Amherst North feel, particularly at Friday’s Hobey Baker ceremony as the Minutemen faithful turned out to see Makar get his just reward.
“It’s tough right now. I’m pretty sour,’’ Makar said after the loss. “But you look back at the two years that I’ve been at this school, especially this year. The amount of respect that we’ve created for this emblem of Massachusetts and UMass, it’s just amazing.
“The group of guys we have in that room are just a testament to the character guys we’re going to be bringing in in the future, as well.’’
But Makar does not figure to be in that future, as he signed an entry-level contract with the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday, who selected him fourth overall in 2017. Seniors Brett Boeing, Kurt Keats and Jacob Pritchard will also be departing the program, but the Minutemen should have a strong nucleus back, provided there are no additional early departures.
Sophomore forward John Leonard (16 goals, 24 assists) and sophomore defenseman Mario Ferraro (2 goals, 12 assists) are both San Jose Sharks draft picks and have NHL potential, but could benefit with another year at Amherst. Goalies Matt Murray (20-5-0) and Filip Lindberg (11-4-0) should also return for the Minutemen.
Last year, the NHL came calling for NCAA head coaches, with David Quinn leaving Boston University and Jim Montgomery stepping down from Denver to take over the New York Rangers and Dallas Stars, respectively. Carvel may not be in the mix this offseason, but given his NHL experience (he spent 12 seasons, 1999 through 2011, with the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators, including the last eight as an assistant coach with both organizations), he would certainly be on their radar.
Meehan has been down this road before, back when he was chancellor at UMass Lowell, and Norm Bazin won Coach of the Year honors and led the River Hawks to the Frozen Four in 2013.
“You always have concerns about that. So what you try to do is reward performance and do everything you can to keep a coach in an environment where they’re enjoying themselves and they like it, and you try to pay them fairly, and that’s what we need to do,’’ said Meehan. “He’s a young coach. He’s a very good coach. We need to create an environment where he’s committed over the long run, and I think he is. He’s had a great year.’’
Makar was quick to credit for UMass’s success this season, and in the future.
“The culture that we’ve instilled in all these guys, the coaches that have put it on us, everybody has just bought in,’’ said Makar. “That’s one of the main reasons we’ve been such a success this year, why this team will be such a success in the years to come.
It’s just a culture that everybody’s bought into.’’