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Niko Hildenbrand provides important voice in UMass locker room

  • UMass forward Niko Hildenbrand, shown Jan. 12 against Vermont, has become a vocal leader in the Minutemen’s locker room this season. AP File

  • UMass defenseman Cale Makar, right, reaches for the puck with Vermont forward Vlad Dzhioshvili close behind during a Jan. 12 game in Amherst. AP File

Staff Writer
Published: 3/14/2019 9:23:01 PM

AMHERST – For most of the 15-minute intermission between periods, Greg Carvel isn’t with his players.

While the team is cooling down and re-hydrating for the next period, Carvel and his staff are in their own room discussing what they saw from the previous period and making any alterations necessary to the gameplan. That time period without coaches in the locker room is also a time for the players to speak and try to spark themselves.

That is where having good captains comes in handy for Carvel and No. 3 UMass.

“The players have a lot of time on their own and the captains have a lot of autonomy to say the right things,” Carvel said.

In recent weeks, it has been junior captain Niko Hildenbrand who has become the vocal presence in the locker room when adversity strikes the Minutemen. He spoke at length after the second period at Merrimack when UMass trailed 2-1, and most of his teammates as well as Carvel said that talk was a turning point for the Minutemen’s 4-2 win that sealed the Hockey East regular-season title. He was also the main voice in the locker room when UMass trailed UConn 2-0 after the first period last Friday.

Although Carvel said he pushed Hildenbrand to speak after the opening 20 minutes at UConn, for the most part, the junior picks his moments when to speak and then tells his teammates exactly what’s on his mind.

“It’s something that I feel,” Hildenbrand said. “It’s whatever the time of the game is, the situation, what I feel like will help motivate the guys. It’s nothing I come in there with already off the top of my head, it’s just me saying how I feel because that’s what this thing is about. Sometimes everything’s not going to go our way and that’s same with some of those situations I’ve had to talk about.” 

Hildenbrand has really evolved as a vocal leader over the course of this season as he has adjusted to wearing the captain’s “C” on his uniform. He was named the captain in April, roughly a month after the Minutemen’s season ended last year, and assistant captain Cale Makar said Hildenbrand has done a great job adapting to his role as he’s learned more about this year’s team.

Makar said Hildenbrand’s voice is a key reason UMass was able to sustain its level of play and secure the regular-season conference championship.

“I give a lot of credit to Niko, he’s gotten so much better as a leader over the entire year,” Makar said. “That’s nothing on him, he was a good leader at the start, but you kind of evolve as a person and learn from everything around you. Everything has been going well for him and he’s been really helping us out a lot lately. Him stepping up in those moments and reminding the boys why we’re doing what we’re doing is big for us and that’s why we are where we are right now.”

Hildenbrand said he’s become more confident in his voice as the season has progressed and appreciates the respect his teammates have shown him. However, he said he’s just trying to set a good example for the rest of the players and inspire them to use their voices as well when they see fit.

“It’s just been me being comfortable being able to speak up and knowing guys have enough respect to listen to me and value what I say,” Hildenbrand said. “It’s also me just voicing my opinion and it’s important that everybody is able to do that, too. It’s not just me, everyone is a leader on this team and it’s important (that everyone have a voice).”

That type of leadership will be even more important as the top-seeded Minutemen (26-8-0) begin their Hockey East quarterfinals series against eighth-seeded New Hampshire (12-13-9) on Friday at the Mullins Center. All of these experiences will be new for a young UMass squad, which is hosting the quarterfinals for the first time in 12 years. The Minutemen haven’t even won a quarterfinals game in a decade and just seven total in their 16 previous appearances.

Carvel has kept his message to the team consistent throughout the year in order to not make any game more important than the others. It has worked in that both Hildenbrand and Makar said this week didn’t feel any different than a week in December. Yet, Hildenbrand and Makar both said messages can be more powerful coming from teammates, and most likely, it will be Hildenbrand saying those words in big moments during the postseason.

“We’ve talked about that with Carvy, too, sometimes messages have to be sent between guys on the team rather than come straight from Carvy,” Hildenbrand said. “It is a different message and guys respond to it differently, and it’s important that sometimes we do need to echo the message he’s telling us because guys take it different ways and maybe it will resonate with them a bit differently.”

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