Keeping Score

Difference makers

Good morning!

The drive north was an easy 60 mph cruise through Winchester and onto Route 9 in Keene, eastward past small ponds and streams surrounded by forests still knee-deep in snow, past the Hillsborough homestead of our 14th president, Franklin Pierce, and on through Henniker where Red Sox slugger Ted Williams lived for a spell with his third wife Dolores, Miss Vermont of 1956.

Natural beauty remains abundant in New Hampshire, though not necessarily in Manchester, the largest city in the Granite State and the host of this year’s NCAA Hockey Tournament Northeast Regional.

It is a city surrounded by interstates and four-lanes, and I pulled off Route 293 at Exit 5 and parked on Lowell Street next to the Red Arrow Diner, a 24-hour eatery featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Somewhere inside a sound system was playing “The Last Kiss” by J. Frank Reynolds and the Cavaliers. There were four full coffee pots on the Bunn burner and in front of me was a refrigerated pantry filled with fresh cake and éclairs.

“We’ve got a shitload of whoopee pies,” said the waitress who giggled and corrected herself. “I mean a whole bunch of whoopee pies.”

Two hockey fans, one wearing a University of Denver jersey and the other a UNH jersey, laughed with her. I finished my hot turkey sandwich, ordered cherry pie and coffee, then left for Verizon Wireless Arena to watch UMass-Lowell’s freshman-laden hockey team play the University of Wisconsin, a six-time national champion. It was the opening game of a doubleheader and the puck was scheduled to drop at 4:30 p.m.

In previous years matching a team like Wisconsin against a lightly regarded program from a little-known school from a washed-up industrial town would seem like a mismatch. Not anymore. The city and the team, even the university, have made great strides. The UMass-Lowell River Hawks pummeled the Badgers, 6-1, then knocked off their league brethren the UNH Wildcats, 2-0, to advance to the Frozen Four.

Under second-year coach Norm Bazin, the River Hawks have gone 25-3-1 since mid-December and on Thursday will play Yale at the CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh. The winner will advance to play either Quinnipiac or St. Cloud State for the national title a week from tonight.

Ask anybody who was wearing a red, white and blue jersey last weekend how the River Hawks have emerged from oblivion and into national hockey prominence and they’ll mention two names. The first is Bazin, a Manitoba native and River Hawk left wing from 1990 to 1994. He inherited a team that had five wins its previous season and steered them to a winning record and into the NCAA tournament last year, losing to Union College in the regional finals.

It might never have happened if not for surviving a car wreck and 12 hours of surgery after being struck by a drunk driver in 2003. “I feel very fortunate to be alive,” he told the New York Times a year ago. “But around the hockey rink I don’t talk about the accident. The young men on our team play for each other and to bring glory to our program and university. This has never been about me.”

The other person responsible for the UMass-Lowell turnaround is Marty Meehan, a former five-term U.S. Congressman and UML alumnus who became the university’s chancellor in 2007. One of his first priorities was to rescue the hockey program, which was on the chopping block for budget reasons. “Instead of scrapping it, I thought it was time to make hockey a priority,” Meehan told The Times.

His efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

“Marty’s just as responsible for the transformation as the coaches,” said Lowell City Council member Marty Lorrey, who was at the Wisconsin game with his wife Lila. “Marty’s changed everything. He’s down at Murphy’s (sports bar) with the fans right now. He sits in the student cheering section. He encouraged the school to buy Tsongas Arena (where the team plays). Attendance went from 1,200 a game to 6,000. It’s a tough ticket.”

The 10,000-seat Verizon Wireless Arena was nearly three-quarters full by the time Lowell took a 1-0 lead midway through the first period against the Badgers. The Hawks’ big, versatile defensemen steered the red-clad invaders into the boards and away from the net. They blocked shots and head-manned the puck up to their own speedy playmakers, whose hustle and nifty passing dazzled the fans and bewildered their opponents.

When Wisconsin did get a shot on goal, net-minder Connor Hellebuyck kept it out of harm’s way. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound freshman took over the starting goaltending job after the team’s early season slump and his record is 20 wins and two losses. In his three most recent starts against UNH, Wisconsin and BU he’s let in one goal and made 95 saves.

A fifth round draft choice of the Winnipeg Jets, Hellebuyck’s favorite movie is “Miracle” about the 1980 U.S. Olympic team and his favorite athlete is former Washington Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig.

It wasn’t difficult measuring what the hockey team’s success had done for school pride. The stands were filled with students and alumni and during game breaks the school’s pep band pumped out upbeat tunes that reverberated around the arena. Meanwhile the fans chanted “U-M-L!” in the same cadence that Olympic fans like to chant “U-S-A!”

I was watching in the upper level near center ice, next to a fan dressed in khakis and a flannel shirt. “River Hawks fan?” I asked.

“This is my team,” he smiled. “I get to see the best college hockey in the country. My kids have grown up and I have some time. This is my game. This is good hockey.”

He introduced himself, said he was Mike Babin, an electrical engineer from Groton about ten miles west of Lowell. When I asked Babin about Marty Meehan he paused for a moment. “I didn’t care for Meehan because he ran for a fifth term when he said he wouldn’t. But I’ll say this he’s really built up the program. With his job (as chancellor) it’s all about fundraising and that’s what he does. Believe me, you’ve got to hand it to that guy.”

The 58-year-old Meehan was born in Lowell, the eldest of seven children to a father who worked as a typesetter at the Lowell Sun. He is the hometown boy who’s made good by parlaying his political career with a chancellorship and does good deeds for his alma mater.

At the university’s flagship campus in Amherst, there have been eight chancellors since the new millennium. Current Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy arrived from the University of Kentucky, and his predecessor Robert Holub previously worked at the University of Tennessee. Neither had homegrown roots to better work the system.

This contributes to why hockey may never be what it could be in Amherst, despite representing a hockey-crazed state like Massachusetts. When the people in the ivory towers think basketball is the great panacea, then it’s time to pack up the duffle bag and look elsewhere. If I can’t root for UMass-Amherst I can at least root for UMass-Lowell.

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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