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Keeping Score

Difference maker

Good morning!

On New Year’s Eve in Hanover, N.H., the UMass hockey team won its first holiday tournament in five years. The Minutemen came from behind twice, winning the first game, 4-3, against Bemidji State and beating nationally-ranked Dartmouth, 3-2, in the title game of the Ledyard National Bank Classic before a packed house inside Dartmouth’s Thompson Arena.

By one newspaper account, the UMass players’ reaction to the sweep was raucous and over-the-top. “The Minutemen posed for a group photo with the championship plaque, acting as if they’d won a league championship and not a tournament crown,” wrote the Dartmouth College beat writer in The Valley News of Lebanon, N.H.

“State U beat Ivy and it didn’t sit well,” cracked Montague’s Brock Hines, the radio voice of UMass hockey for 20 seasons. Broadcasting hockey has been a labor of love that began when he and former WHAI play-by-play man Marty Tirrell did high school hockey games from above the men’s bathroom at Collins-Moylan Arena.

Now he’s moved from his regular analyst gig into the play-by-play chair when John Hennessey decided not to return for another season. “At first it was daunting, a whole different approach. My concern was that it would be like looking into a kaleidoscope and trying to describe what I saw. Or doing play-by-play of a pinball game. I wish I had the cigarette-and-coffee voice of a Gary Thorne or Bob Wilson, but nobody’s crabbing about me so I feel everything’s decent and okay.”

A loyal soldier, he’s been careful not to burn bridges or antagonize the powers that be. He does his homework, knows the players and coaches and goes about his business. He is the go-to guy for information about UMass hockey, like the effect that new coach John Micheletto has had on the hockey program.

“It’s gone better than expected,” said Hines. “John’s a pretty sharp guy, from all accounts the players have bought into him.”

Micheletto was hired over the summer when longtime coach Don “Toot” Cahoon retired under mysterious circumstances. By most accounts his departure was the result of a falling out with athletic director John McCutcheon over what Cahoon perceived to be a lack of support for the program.

Micheletto inherited virtually the entire roster from Cahoon’s team last season and none are among the 37 NHL draft picks playing in Hockey East. He’s taken what he was given and transformed the group into a lunch bucket gang of hard workers and overachievers.

“The difference between (Cahoon and Micheletto) is their emotion,” said Hines. “John tries to project that everything is good. No matter what the score he comes out of the locker room, shakes my hand and says, ‘Hey, what’s up?” He isn’t yelling the ship is sinking. He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. Toot, after a gut wrenching loss, I’d get a lot of raw emotion.”

Another coaching contrast, said Hines, is Micheletto’s tendency to stay with the same lineup. “When John finds something that works he sticks with it. He won coming back from two goals down to Bemidji State and his lineup the next night was exactly the same. Toot was always tweaking his lines and changing his defense to try and make something better. He was always under the hood trying to tune up the engine instead of just rolling with the same lineup four or five nights in a row.”

Ask to name the team’s MVP at the midway point Hines said, “There’s two guys. I like (Branden) Gracel, who got the MVP of the tournament. He’s got a nose for the net, and I like (Steven) Guzzo, who’s a center and both are excellent at taking face-offs. If you have puck possession that’s critical and both those guys are very good at taking the face-offs.

“Kevin Boyle has emerged as the top goaltender and when he’s on he’s good. He’s been inconsistent but if he can be steady in net he’ll do some real damage.”

Going into last night’s game against Providence at the Mullins Center the Minutemen were three points out of fourth place and home ice for the first round of the Hockey East tournament that begins in mid-March.

“The league is weaker and any one of several teams can get fourth,” said Hines. “Our schedule isn’t set up for a second-half collapse. We’ve already played a combined five games against the metal (BC, BU and UNH). Winning the Dartmouth tournament will pay dividends. It’s taught them how to win in tougher situations.”

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Five of the 70 college teams that played in bowl games finished with losing records. Duke, Minnesota, Air Force, Iowa State and Purdue all wound up at 6-7; Georgia Tech finished at 7-7 and 11 other bowl teams finished with lukewarm 7-6 records.

Quantity and not quality has become the norm during bowl season. The allure of postseason pageantry and the support of corporate purchasing helped account for 1,684,470 tickets sold at bowl games from Mobile to Nashville and from Miami to Honolulu. That’s more tickets than four major league baseball teams — the A’s, Indians, Astros and Rays — sold all least season.

Average attendance was 48,127, ranging from 17,385 at the Northrup Grumman Military Bowl at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., to the 93,359 who turned out for the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on New Year’s Day.

People can squawk all they want, but college football will never expand to an eight- or 16-team playoff format. They’ll keep the system as-is because it’s a moneymaker and nobody wants to mess with a good thing.

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Conference USA posted the best showing during the bowl season, going 4-1 (.800), followed by the Atlantic Coast Conference at 4-2 (.667) and Southeastern Conference at 5-3 (.625), while Mid-American Conference was 2-5 and the Mountain West Conference was 1-4. ... At FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas, last Saturday, North Dakota State won its second straight FCS title by beating Sam Houston State, 39-13, in front of 21,411 fans. ... My son Mat and his buddies Nick Mulvaney and Jamin Hemenway remain in mourning over Alabama’s pummeling of Notre Dame on Monday night. This loss was like the old George Brett line, “If a tie is like kissing your sister, losing is like kissing your grandmother with her teeth out.” ... “Performance enhancing is part of life,” says Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. “I’m 65 years old and I have a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old. Thank God for performance enhancing.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.

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