In 2014, the University of Connecticut Huskies left the Atlantic Hockey Conference. They made the jump to Hockey East, the premier college conference on the east coast. It’s a remarkable leap, but the Huskies have performed well in the new league. Ever since hopping on the ice bus, playing their games at the XL Center in Hartford, 40 minutes away from Storrs, they have played hard and beaten the big competitors. The first Hockey East home game was a 1-0 victory against the reigning conference champion Boston College Eagles in front of a sell-out crowd at the XL Center in downtown Hartford. A picture of that game hangs in Head Coach Mike Cavanaugh’s office.
“That was a great night. And that was a fun year” Cavanaugh explained with a smile on his face. “We came in looking to compete and we did.”
UConn only finished ninth in the conference that year and got swept out of the playoffs by New Hampshire, but the year was a success. “We had some older kids that really competed and got after the puck and the other team. It was one of the most fun years I’ve had in coaching. Now it’s time to build on that success and build the program.”
If anyone is prepared to lead the Huskies into elite company, it is Mike Cavanaugh. The 49-year-old played his college career at Division III Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, graduating in 1990. He then played a year for the Richmond Flyers of the now defunct British Hockey League. After a year, he decided to end his professional playing career and get into coaching. The North Andover native got a job as an assistant coach at nearby Belmont High School. Looking to jump-start his career on the collegiate level, he wrote to every college hockey coach he could. One responded: the decorated head coach of Bowling Green, Jerry York. Cavanaugh accepted a graduate assistant position teaching physical education classes at Bowling Green and serving as a volunteer coach for the Falcons. After that year, York helped Cavanaugh find a job as an assistant coach with the Big Green of Dartmouth College. Cavanaugh spent two years in Hanover.
In 1995, Jerry York came calling again. The already legendary coach had taken a job at his alma mater, Boston College, the year before. York was looking for a new assistant coach and wanted Cavanaugh to fill the role. Cavanaugh accepted, and he set about turning the Eagles from a middling program into a great one.
“The first few years were tough. That was in the middle of a six-year stretch where BC didn’t finish above .500.”
In Cavanaugh’s third year, the program broke through. They finished second in the Hockey East regular season standings, won their first conference tournament, reached the Frozen Four, and played in their first National Championship game since 1978.
The Eagles fell short in overtime against Michigan, but the Eagles were back to dominance. They would make the Frozen Four each of the next three years after. They finally won the program’s first National Championship, with an overtime thriller in Albany against North Dakota in 2001.
“After we made those four straight Frozen Fours, the program mostly ran itself. We oversaw it and recruited as hard as we could, but the groundwork was laid from 1995-2001 for our program’s successes.”
Cavanaugh helped to see BC to more successes, winning three more National Championships in 2008, 2010, and 2012, cementing themselves as one of college hockey’s finest programs.
In 2013, Cavanaugh was approached by UConn’s athletic director, Warde Manuel about succeeding Bruce Marshall as the head coach in Storrs. He went down to Connecticut, discussed hockey strategy, philosophy, and the ultimate goal of the program. They shared a vision of the soon to be new Hockey East team, and after a week of consideration, Manuel offered Cavanaugh the job.
“I was very happy and fortunate for the chance to build my own program from the ground up; a program that you can have your fingerprints on.”
Since then, the Huskies have made the jump to Hockey East and increased their conference point total from their first year. They’ve won against the big schools, and they’ve been in the top three in attendance each year. The groundwork is there for a program on the rise. UConn looks to improve on a season which ended bitterly against Northeastern. And they have the talent to do so.
Sophomore Adam Huska returns as the starting goaltender and will look to improve on a season where he showed flashes of excellence.
“Huska didn’t quite hit his ceiling last year, but when he was on, we were hard to beat.”
Huska will be backed up by Tanner Creel and Bradley Stone in net. The rest of the Husky defense is filled with crafty veterans who know how to skate and hit hard. Seniors Derek Pratt and David Drake headline the defense with size and physicality matched by few in the conference. The 6’2″ Pratt is the captain of the unit and Drake measures 6’6″. They’re followed by Wyatt Newpower, Philip Nyberg, and Johnny Austin, all players who have developed at UConn and know how to skate with each other. Ridgefield, CT, native Adam Karashik joins as a freshman with high offensive talent and stick handling. He’ll help the blue line contribute to the offense.
The forward unit for the Huskies is a powerful group. Last season’s leading scorer, Tage Thompson did decide to bolt for the St. Louis Blue’s system, but two members of the top line are back. Maxim Leutenov and Kasperi Ojantekanen feature on the team. They provide speed and scoring prowess that is needed to win. Karl El-Mir, Max Kalter, and Corey Ronan all return as well and bring grit and toughness to compliment the big scorers. They fit into Cavanaugh’s scheme of out hustling and outworking the other team. “Hockey is the one sport where you can outwork a more talented team and win the game. I want guys who will work and make it hard on the other team. These guys will do that.” Freshmen Evan Wisocky and Zac Robbins add some speed and quality skating that the unit will need as well.
UConn is a rising program in Hockey East. They have not yet broken through into the upper ranks, but every year has seen the program add new pieces. Cavanaugh came in 2013, they joined Hockey East in 2014, they stole Ojantekanen from Boston University in the recruiting race, and have played hard in the playoffs each year. Cavanaugh’s time at BC has proven he can craft and maintain a winning program. This year will be a success if the team can increase their point total from 20 and can finish in the middle of the pack. They have the talent to do that and to compete with the top programs and the coaching to guide them there. The ice bus is gaining momentum. Cavanaugh hopes he can drive it to national prominence this year.