Keeping Score with Chip Ainsworth: Countdown to UMass hockey season less than a month away

Published: 09-08-2023 4:22 PM

Good morning!
All eyes are on the gridiron today in Amherst, but over in the Mullins Center the UMass hockey team is already prepping for the long season.

The first official practice was Tuesday, and coach Greg Carvel and his staff have four weeks to get them ready for a grueling start. UMass hosts AIC on Oct. 7, followed by a weekend home series against Michigan (26-12-3) and an away trip to Minnesota State (25-13-1). Then there’s seven games in 22 days against BU, Northeastern, UVM and Providence.

That’s more than one third of the schedule done before Thanksgiving.

UMass finished ninth in Hockey East last season and went one-and-out in the conference tournament but the motto remains: In Greg We Trust. In four years his teams went to two Frozen Fours, won a national title, a Hockey East regular season title and conference tourney title.

At times, Carvel can appear to be cold and reticent. “Intense,” was how a former player described him. 

Loud or quiet intense?

“Loud. But he means well.”

Carvel doesn’t disagree. “I’m a demanding coach, I ask a lot of our players but I also give a lot. Connection is the foundation of everything I try to do as a coach. I want to personally know and interact with the players’ parents, and players can come see me — no appointments necessary. My door is always open.”

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He writes a weekly newsletter, responds to every email and cellphone call and sends a handwritten thank you note to everyone who donates at least $250 to the program, and as many as he can to those who donate less. “I want to be remembered as someone who exemplified everything I wanted from our players.”

Carvel was embarrassed by last season’s performance. The Minutemen were 7-14-3 in Hockey East and were 0-6 against BC and BU, outscored 30-11.

He has reloaded. This will be hockey’s version of Tombstone, his team’s coming and hell’s coming with them. The freshman class includes European forwards Dans Locmelis of Jelgava, Latvia, Aydar Suniev of Kazan, Russia, and defenseman Sebastian Tornqvist of Everlov, Sweden. 

“Every European in this upcoming class was brought forward to us by an advisor who wanted them to play at UMass due to our reputation for developing players,” he said.

“Suniev was a third round pick (Calgary) and is talented, Locmelis is a fifth round Bruins pick who has a lot of potential, and Tornqvist is a good two-way D who has a chance to be a really good player for us for a long time.”

The arrival of 6-foot-7 goaltender Michael Hrabal of Prague portends excellence between the pipes. “Hrabal comes in with the most notoriety,” Carvel said of the Coyotes’ second round pick. “His agent contacted me directly and it was a pretty quick process. He’s a great kid with big potential. I haven’t seen him in person but plenty on video. 

“It’s hard to say how many games he’ll play because he’s very young (18-years-old), especially for a goalie, but he has the potential to make an impact.”

Four freshmen have All American names: forwards Bo Cosman of Milton, Ga., Cam O’Neill of Odeton, Md., Nick Van Tassell of Basking Ridge, N.J. and Jack Musa of Orange Park, Fl.,. “Musa could be sneaky good,” said Carvel. 

The Minutemen took advantage of the transfer portal by landing senior forward Liam Gorman from Princeton who was second in scoring with 12 goals and 10 assists, forward Lucas Vanroboys of Bentley, and defenseman Samuli Niinisaari of Brown. “Niinisaari provides size, experience and grit, all of which were lacking last year,” said Carvel.

It will be Carvel’s job together with assistants Tom Upton and Nolan Glochowski to mesh the newcomers with a solid corps of returning players who include Lucas Mercuri, Ryan Lautenbach, Elliott McDermott, Kenny Connors, Scott Morrow, Ryan Ufko and Aaron Bohlinger.

“Morrow will play a huge role in the success of this team. He’s continued to mature and get stronger, and his skill level has always been there. He and Ufko are two of the best defensemen in Hockey East. Bohlinger will be solid as he’s finally healthy after battling injuries for three years, and Owen Murray played good hockey at the end of the year and will add to the depth.”

Then there’s the enigmatic Taylor Makar. Cale’s younger brother arrived with plenty of swagger but became better known for slamming doors and hopping into the sin bin (54 penalty minutes), but scored 10 goals and finished strong.

“Taylor needs to be a game changer for us this year,” said Carvel. “He can do it with his size and skating ability, but he needs to have more discipline. He is a great kid who wants to be a great teammate.”

Meanwhile, defenseman Kennedy O’Connor is a Springfield native who’s climbed the ladder from Eaglebrook to Loomis Chaffee to the USHL and played 21 games last season. “Kennedy’s a high character kid who could evolve into a third pair player who kills penalties and plays with size and physicality. He’s one of the finest people in our program.”

College hockey’s six month gauntlet ends in St. Paul, Minn., and don’t put it past Carvel to book another trip to Frozen Foursville.

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The not-quite-ready-for-prime-time players are back in Amherst for their home opener today against Miami Ohio. The RedHawks have the dubious distinction of being one of the dirty dozen FBS teams to have already lost to UMass. This is the 10th anniversary of that 17-10 win on Oct. 12, 2013, when Rob Blanchflower hauled in a 47-yard pass from A.J. Doyle for the go-ahead touchdown.

McGuirk’s been undergoing a facelift all summer, the grandstands have been thoroughly washed and cleaned, the facade has a fresh coat of white with maroon trim, there’s new signage for the restrooms, handicap access and stadium maps, and the flower boxes are teeming with autumnal colors.

Fans will have a better idea if UMass is ready to pull off another upset when they see if quarterback Taisun Phommachanh is on the gridiron and recovered from the lower body injury he suffered at Auburn.

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The 59-14 loss at Auburn was broadcast nationally by the Entertainment Sports Programming Network, better known as ESPN.

Play-by-play voice Beth Mowins said that UMass desperately wants to join a conference but has done nothing to warrant an invite. “They are 0-for-10 against the SEC and 0-26 against the Power 5.”

Analyst Kirk Morrison apparently thought UMass is near the ocean. “I feel everyone on that coaching staff loves clam chowder,” he said. Ha ha. Lol.

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BC hosts Holy Cross at noon today and needs a win after last week’s embarrassing 26-23 overtime loss to Northern Illinois. The Crusaders are no pushover, ranked No. 5 in the FCS behind quarterback Matthew Sluka. What’s worse, “They have a former BC receivers coach who knows all the skeletons.” said BC radio analyst Pete Cronin, referring to Rich Gunnell.

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Red Smith wrote that baseball is a dull sport for people with dull minds. With that in mind, whoever produces ESPN’s Sunday night baseball must think the sport is dull or we wouldn’t have meaningless split screen interviews while the game’s in progress. Whoever you are, if we didn’t like baseball we wouldn’t be watching.

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SQUIBBERS: Wonder what an NFL beatwriter makes? The Athletic wants someone to cover the Philadelphia Eagles for between $85K and $115K, according to freedomwithwriting.com. … The man for whom the John Francis Kennedy Center is named has completed his mission to tee off in all 50 states after finishing 18 holes at the Stock Farm Club in Hamilton, Mo. What’s his favorite? “Got to think about that, but probably Cypress Point in Pebble Beach,” texted Kennedy. … Texas Rangers fans are thinking what if, as in what if we had Jacob deGrom, who’s out with Tommy John surgery. …  The NY Post’s Steve Serby picks the Pats to finish 9-8, and the Jets to go 10-7. … Prior to the Buffs-TCU kickoff, Colorado coach Deion Sanders said of his recruits: “It’s like Christmas. I can’t wait to open up these presents.”… Keep an eye on today’s New Mexico State-Liberty score for a clue of how big the UMass win was against the Aggies two weeks ago. Liberty is favored by 10.5 points. … Next week’s opponent Eastern Michigan is a 20.5 ‘dog at Minnesota today. … CBS analyst Ross Tucker’s power rankings puts the Bills 6th overall, followed by the Jets (7th), Dolphins (10th) and Patriots (20th). …. Greenfield native Steve Kramer teed it up with former Mahar coach Greg Scotland in Utah last month. “Great match between the Wave and Senators 2,500 miles away,” wrote Kramer. … The Post’s Johnny Oleksinski, quoting Hamburg’s Alexander Zverev regarding odorous conditions at the U.S. Open: “Court 17 definitely smells like Snoop Dogg’s living room.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning colum nist who has penned his observations about sports for decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at chipjet715@icloud.com