Commentary

Coaches bring change in Hockey East

Updated: October 6, 2011, 11:25 AM ET
By Brion O'Connor | Special to ESPNBoston.com

TBDCourtesy of UMass Lowell/Providence/NortheasternNorm Bazin, Nate Leaman and Jim Madigan are the new coaches on the block in Hockey East.

The winds of change in college hockey are sometimes just a gentle breeze, like they were for Hockey East last year at this time. The same 10 teams, the same 10 coaches, and the usual handful of players coming and going. In fact, it was the same 10 teams and the same 10 coaches that have shown up for opening day since 2005. By and large, it's been business as usual at the start of the season

Not this year. The 2010-11 Hockey East season brought changes that blew in like a nor'easter. Three new coaches met the media last week, against a backdrop that there would be a new team or two likely arriving soon. For many college hockey observers, it was clear that Hockey East was the favored landing spot for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a result of one of college hockey's biggest shake-ups ever.

The Notre Dame scenario, prompted by the formation of two new leagues -- the Big Ten and the National Collegiate Hockey Conference -- played out on Wednesday with Hockey East officials in South Bend, Ind., welcoming the Fighting Irish for the start of the 2013-14 season. And that gave rise to speculation that a 12th team might not be far behind.

But the three new Hockey East coaches, all with ties to the Boston area, are here now.

The highest-profile position, from a Boston-centric perspective, is Northeastern's Jim Madigan, who takes the reins of the Huntington Hounds at revered Matthews Arena. Madigan, a Northeastern alum, former Huskies assistant and longtime NHL scout, got the nod after Greg Cronin departed for the less-regulated life of the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Madigan has also served as an NU associate dean and director of development in the school's College of Business Administration.

"I am the mystery man," said Madigan with a laugh last week. "Certainly, from the outside, the perception was there was instability within the program. From my end, I represented stability for the institution, having been there for 26 years. Was I expecting that three kids were going to decommit, or Jamie Oleksiak was going to sign pro? No. But that's life."

Madigan will have a huge spot to fill on the blue line, with the departure of towering 6-foot-7 defenseman James Oleksiak, a first-round draft choice of the Dallas Stars.

"We were fortunate enough to go out and get some players to help," said Madigan, noting the school lured defender Josh Manson, the son of NHLer Dave Manson and a Quinnipiac recruit, to Northeastern. "We were fortunate enough to bring in another player who we believe will step in and, in time, give us the same production."

Among the key returning lettermen for the Huskies are netminder Chris Rawlings (27-27-10, 2.75 GAA in his first two years), four starting defensemen, and returning forwards Mike McLaughlin and Steve Quailer, as well as highly regarded yet unpredictable Boston University transfer Vinny Saponari and U.S. national team product Adam Reid.

"The key is that the returning players, the core players, believe in themselves," said Madigan. "They know they're good players. Regardless of who's coming or not coming, they have faith and believability in themselves that they can get the job done."

Nate Leaman
Courtesy of Union College Nate Leaman was the AHCA's Division I Coach of the Year last season at Union College.

Meanwhile, Providence College made the biggest splash in the coaching recruitment arena, reeling in reigning Division I Coach of the Year Nate Leaman from Union College to take the helm of the Friars program.

"The attraction is the tradition of the program," said Leaman, a former Harvard assistant, last week. "The tradition is outstanding, with five players with their names on the Stanley Cup, nearly 100 NHL draft picks, and we've won Hockey East twice. We've been to the Frozen Four three times, played for the national championship and lost by a goal. So we have a program that has a very rich tradition."

However, that same "tradition" spawned former coach Tim Army, who was the league's leading scorer with 60 points in 1984-85 and was on the ice when the Friars won the inaugural Hockey East championship. But the harsh reality was that Army didn't get the job done on the other side of the bench at Providence. After an 8-18-8 record last season, and 66-116-28 mark in six years, Army was cut loose (though his son Derek is still a member of the squad), and Providence AD Bob Driscoll went looking for a new coach.

Leaman might not have Army's pedigree, but he was clearly a hot commodity, guiding the Union Dutchmen to a 26-10-4 mark (17-3-2 in ECAC Hockey) and an NCAA bid last season.

"I want to build a program, much like we did at Union, a team that was No. 2 in the country for team defense, and No. 6 in the country for team offense, a team that can basically get it done any way the particular game dictates that night," said Leaman.

The new Friars bench boss has his work cut out for him. According to his colleagues in Hockey East, the once-mighty Friars were picked to finish at the bottom of Hockey East this season. Leaman, however, isn't concerned with preseason polls.

"I wouldn't put much weight into it, whether we were picked for 10th place or first place," said the Ohio native. "Basically, that's someone else's position. My focus has always been the game is played on the ice. In our camp here, we're not going to let other people's opinions affect our work ethic or what we're trying to create here."

Finally, just to the north of Boston, with one of the nicest facilities in Hockey East -- the Tsongas Arena -- UMass Lowell alum Norm Bazin takes over a program that has seen both ends of the spectrum in the past three years under former coach Blaise MacDonald (who resurfaced as an assistant with Donald "Toot" Cahoon at UMass Amherst). In 2009, the River Hawks reached the Hockey East tournament finals, taking eventual national champ Boston University to the wire before dropping a 1-0 decision.

Proving how fickle and unforgiving collegiate sports can be, MacDonald was axed by UMass Lowell just two years following that championship game, and a year after a senior-laden squad finished in a three-way tie for third place during the league's 2009-10 season. A 5-25-4 mark (4-21-2 in Hockey East) last season proved unacceptable to the powers that be in Lowell.

After showing MacDonald the door, UMass Lowell turned to Bazin, a Manitoba native who played for UMass Lowell (then known as the Chiefs) from 1990 to '94, notching "Unsung Hero" accolades his senior year. After eight years as an assistant coach with Colorado College, Bazin took over the Hamilton College program in 2008, and amassed a 38-31-7 record in three years. He inherits a program picked to finish second to last this season.

"We want to score more and give up less," said Bazin. "I know it sound very simplistic, but we've only got one way to go, and that's up. We want to finish much better than we did last year. We've got an enthusiastic group that wants to get better, and right now that's all I can ask."

Actually, Bazin can ask for much more, starting with junior captain Riley Whetmore and senior forward David Vallorani. "Both those boys I expect to make major contributions to our hockey team if we're going to have any kind of success," said the new River Hawks coach.

"I think the guys are working very hard, but they're working with a sense of purpose," said Bazin. "They've got something to prove, and they're going about their business that way. I think together we'll certainly be able to make some headway each and every week to get to a point to where we think we can be in the mix come playoff time."

One of the teams with a new coach will make the Hockey East playoffs. If all three do, it will signify another dramatic shift in the winds of change at Hockey East.

Brion O'Connor is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.

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