College hockey teams are a week away from the 2018-2019 season. On 60 collegiate campuses in the United States, optimism for a competitive season is high. Perhaps nowhere is that sense of optimism stronger than in a former college hockey ghost town: Amherst, Massachusetts.
The University of Massachusetts has only made the NCAA Tournament one season since their team turned Division I in 1994. That trip, in 2007, Jonathan Quick pitched a shutout for the program’s first NCAA Tournament victory over Clarkson. They could not get through the Maine Black Bears and fell a game short of the Frozen Four. After that year, the Minutemen did not find their stride. They went 11 years without hosting a playoff series, won two playoff games in that stretch, and did not finish above .500 in any year. There were talented individual players at the Mullins Center in that time. Frank Vatrano, Connor Sheary, and Brandon Montour are all established NHL players who spent time at UMass. Unfortunately, they were not enough to help Don “Toot” Cahoon or John Micheletto to lift the Minutemen to a winning record.
New Athletic Director Ryan Bamford arrived in 2015 with a pledge to resurrect the entire Massachusetts athletic program, including the hockey team. He set about that work by bringing in new Head Coach Greg Carvel from St. Lawrence in 2016. He walked into the Mullins Center with a winning reputation, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals twice as an assistant coach with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003 and the Ottawa Senators in 2007. He also led the Skating Saints of St. Lawrence to two ECAC Final Fours in 2015 and 2016.
Carvel’s first season in Amherst was a hard one, with 17 consecutive losses to close the year and a harsh playoff sweep at Providence’s hands. Yet, Carvel kept optimism about the program. “You go into that year without much expectation. But my expectation was to have a team that competed every night. And we did. We were in games, we taught the kids how to play with structure, and we laid the foundation for a team that plays hard and plays great.”
The next season brought a massive talent infusion with a great freshman class, headlined by three-star players: Cale Makar, Mario Ferraro, and John Leonard. Makar walked into Amherst with massive expectations, as the 4th overall pick of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, the highest selection of any UMass player. The Calgary, Alberta, native was pressured to leave Amherst after last season but decided to stay. Carvel noted “Cale is mature enough to know his weaknesses and understand where he is as a player. He’s gonna be an NHL player for 15 years when he’s ready.”
The other major arrivals, Ferraro and Leonard showed skills before playing for the Minutemen but improved their stock greatly with strong freshman years. Ferraro was paired with Makar on the blue line and played with him all season. He matched the skill and puck movement well, forming a dynamic pairing and terrorizing Hockey East in just their first year.
Leonard was the most frustrating player from the rookie crop. Carvel knew that when the Amherst, MA, native arrived after a stint with the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers. He debuted late due to injury but was the team’s leading scorer when he hit the ice. He capped his transition from frustrating scorer to a bonafide first liner with a beautiful double toe drag in the last home playoff game versus Vermont. “That goal wouldn’t have happened earlier in the year,” Carvel said. “That play started because of a strong check at his blue line. Then he showed his talent.” Both were drafted by the San Jose Sharks, Ferraro in the 2nd round of 2017 and Leonard in the 6th round of 2018.
These three leaders, along with Mitchell Chaffee, Oliver Chau, and many more, helped UMass get their first home playoff games in 11 seasons, where they beat the Vermont Catamounts in three games with a loud Mullins Center pulling for their team. With highlight plays by Makar and Leonard, the Minutemen earned respect for the program. The team fell to Northeastern in the next round but still gave hope to a struggling program.
This season, the Minutemen are expected to take the next step up the standings. Makar and Ferraro wear letters on their jerseys this season. They return the entire freshman class and bring in another blast of quality young talent.
Brothers Marc and Anthony Del Gaizo had decorated junior careers and bring scoring to the forwards and blue line respectively. Anthony was the 2018 USHL Player of the year and it’s leading goal scorer and point producer. Marc led the USHL in goals scored by defensemen. Their teammate from the Muskegon Lumberjacks, Bobby Kaiser, brings a bruising presence to the forward corps. Robert Trivingo is the final freshman forward. He brings championship pedigree from Shattuck-Saint Mary’s and offers more scoring depth to a quality unit.
The blue line got an additional infusion of speed and toughness. Ty Farmer helped the Fargo Force to a Clark Cup in the USHL as one of the team’s leading scorers. Colin Felix fills the enforcer role with 27 points and 166 penalty minutes from last season in the USHL. Carvel grinned in approval when his toughness was discussed. “You can’t win games without a physical edge. We play on a big sheet here, which limits the kinds of hits we can use to change momentum, but you still need to hit in this game.” Malden, MA, native Kolby Vegara rounds out the new skaters after a quality scoring season and wearing a letter for the NAHL’s Philadelphia Rebels.
There are older classes back for another round of competition as well. The Junior class boasts Captain Niko Hildenbrand and Jake Suter up front and Jake McLaughlin on the back end. All three are intelligent players with a nose for important moments. They’ve played for Carvel for two years and will help instill good decision making in the younger guys.
The senior class only has four members, but those players play important roles on this team. Brett Boeing, Jacob Pritchard, and Kurt Keats set a physical tone up front and Ivan Chukarov helped carry UMass in it’s darkest years. He is rewarded with a young team that he can help expand on the foundation put there.
One final addition arrived late. Graduate transfer Jacob Pritchard arrives for his final collegiate season after three years at St. Lawrence. Carvel actually recruited him to Canton NY and brought the Manom, Michigan, native to Amherst to provide a little more leadership to an otherwise wildly young team.
The biggest uncertainty is between the pipes. Carvel frequently noted how he wanted someone to take the starting job and make it theirs in 2017-18. Sadly, for much of the season, no one did. Matt Murray, another member of the talented freshman class, did claim the job late in the year. However, he got injured in the playoff series with Vermont and Ryan Wischow closed the series. The sophomore from Green Bay, Wisconsin, competed well with Northeastern in the next round, but the Minutemen were overmatched by the top scoring line in the nation. Murray is the likely starter for the start of the season, but there is competition. Late Finnish arrival Filip Lindberg will be part of the competition for the job.
UMass boasts a dramatically changed culture off the ice also. Carvel noted that he “heard horror stories about guys barely going to class at all.” Last year, the Minutemen had five players named ACHA All-American Scholars, with a 3.6 GPA or higher. “I’ve never understood why you couldn’t do both,” Carvel noted. “I was a good student at St. Lawrence.” Carvel was the first CoSIDA Academic All-American in St. Lawrence’s history and has transformed the Minutemen’s culture on and off the ice. The hope is for that culture to result in another step forward for the program in 2019.