Last season set the stage for UMass hockey’s success

  • UMass head coach Greg Carvel, front, talks to his team during practice, Dec. 4 at the Mullins Center Practice Rink. In less than three seasons, Carvel has pulled the Minutemen from the bottom of Hockey East to the Frozen Four. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • UMass head coach Greg Carvel, standing left, talks to his team during their 4-0 win against Harvard in the Northeast Regional, March 29 at SNHU Arena in Manchester, N.H. In less than three seasons, Carvel has pulled the Minutemen from the bottom of Hockey East to the Frozen Four. FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/5/2019 9:33:58 PM

Greg Carvel was driving one day before the season when Mike Snee came on the radio.

Snee, the executive director of College Hockey Inc., made a comment warning listeners that it wouldn’t be surprising to see UMass playing at the Frozen Four this season. Carvel nearly drove off the road after hearing that type of praise for his team, but yet that prediction has come to fruition — the Minutemen are facing Denver in the second semifinal next Thursday in Buffalo, New York.

What shocked Carvel as much as anything about Snee’s comment was that he didn’t want to set expectations so high. Last season, the Minutemen improved by 12 wins from his first year, a rate that seemed unlikely to be sustainable. He and his staff knew this team had the potential to be special, but with 19 freshmen and sophomores – many of whom would be playing important roles – it was easy to dismiss the idea UMass could put everything together to be one of the last four teams standing.

Yet, the Minutemen have already won 13 games more than it did last season en route to winning the Hockey East regular-season championship and being a top-two team for most of the season. Even Carvel admitted he didn’t think UMass would reach this point as quickly as it did.

“It’s way ahead of schedule,” Carvel said. “Last year was a really big step because I think we brought some pride back. We still were a sub-.500 team last year, but people walked away thinking ‘that’s a pretty good team, they play hard, they don’t quit, they’ve got some skill.’ People could see we were moving in the right direction.”

Last season was always scheduled to be a big year for Carvel and the status of his rebuilding efforts at UMass. He was an intriguing candidate to athletics director Ryan Bamford because of how well he succeed in rebuilding St. Lawrence into a relevant program in the ECAC and Bamford wanted to make sure Carvel had the security to do the same thing in Amherst. Bamford said he set last year as a guide post for himself when putting together Carvel’s first contract and making sure he took stock of the program once Carvel had two full years to adjust to his new surroundings.

“I put that in his (initial) contract that we’re going to look into his contract after two years,” Bamford said. “We’re going to know in two years if we’ve set the right culture and if we’re going in the right direction. There was no doubt after last year that we were doing that.”

That confidence was bred in the locker room, the area where Carvel made the most changes in his first year or so as the Minutemen’s coach. The roster turnover was significant between Carvel’s first and second year, but it opened the door for the foundation that Bamford and Carvel were eager to establish to be put in place. Only five players from Carvel’s first team are on the roster – there were six to begin the season but Ivan Chukarov left in February to sign a pro contract – and only one – Kurt Keats – predates Carvel.

Keats said there were several times when Carvel first took over when he wasn’t sure if he would survive the changes to the program as he saw more talented players leave Amherst. However, he knew that being a good teammate would pay off, and it was characters like Keats that Carvel used as the cornerstone of his program. Keats said the Minutemen’s success begins with that identity, which he said was first really cultivated in the locker room at the beginning of last season.

“Last year was kind of the first time everybody really, truly started buying in,” Keats said. “This year, you add a couple more pieces, it’s no mistake we’re winning games with the culture we have and an incredible group. When Carv first came in, he preached no (jerks), he wanted to weed guys out. At the time, I thought to myself ‘It’s going to be hard to find 30 guys and not have one weed in the group,’ but I credit the staff and everybody, we really do have an amazing group in there.”

Even opponents marvel at the speed at which Carvel has turned UMass into a respected program in college hockey. Harvard coach Ted Donato said he wasn’t surprised Carvel has found success, but was impressed with how quickly he had the Minutemen at the top of the national polls.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame left Hockey East after Carvel’s first season in charge and Fighting Irish coach Jeff Jackson has had to watch the Minutemen’s progression from afar. Jackson, who said he interviewed for a job at UMass in the early 1990s when the program returned to Division I status, said he always knew there was potential at the school and credited Carvel for turning that vision into a reality.

“Obviously they’ve come a long way,” Jackson said. “They’ve done a great job recruiting, bringing in some premier guys which elevated their program in a major way. … They have done a tremendous job bringing in high-end talent and bringing a good culture to the university. … Obviously Greg has done a tremendous job him and his staff because the recruiting has been phenomenal, too.”


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