Boston, MA- After three long years, the Hockey East Tournament Championship returned to its rightful home: TD Garden. The participants were unfamiliar to that ice in late March. But in the wake of UMass’s 2-1 overtime win against Connecticut on Saturday night, its pretty apparent that Hockey East is changing and the fans from Storrs and Amherst will be expected visitors to Boston for the foreseeable future.
For just the third time since Hockey East formed in the 1984-85 season, noneof Boston University, Boston College, New Hampshire, or Maine appeared in the Championship game. In fact, none of those schools made the Conference Semi-Finals, a first for Hockey East. In fact this year’s championship contenders had combined for four previous semi-final trips and two championship trips. And all prior program trips here belonged to UMass with in the last four years and last year in an empty Mullins Center 96 miles away from Boston.
Greg Carvel’s Minutemen wandered in the desert of irrelevance for the majority of their prior 26 years as a Division I program. Today, they’re the two-time defending conference and reigning national champions with no sign of slowing down. So their presence at TD Garden this weekend was no surprise to recent observers.
UConn’s run was only a slight surprise, but a welcome one. Mike Cavanaugh led the Huskies into Hockey East in the 2014-15 season and has slowly but surely built UConn into a respected program that needed a breakthrough moment. The last two weeks have been that badly needed breakthrough. With wins against Boston University and Northeastern, UConn provided a hockey loving state with the best season from the largest public school in not just Connecticut but all of New England.
Both schools carry large and passionate fan bases that until the last few seasons didn’t have successful hockey programs to pull for. Now, both fan bases are engaged with the hockey teams who have no reason to limit expectations for future success.
Greg Carvel is locked into his job with Amherst and in his six seasons has amassed a trophy case that surpasses some program’s entire histories. He’s activated a fan base who previously had very little to cheer for and has changed the recruiting dynamics in eastern hockey. UMass is here to stay.
And UConn has no reason to believe they won’t be back at TD Garden in the near future. Cavanaugh has built up a recruiting pipeline to Eastern Europe that’s unique to the conference and has a tremendous amount of good will built in the transfer portal thanks to Jarrod Gourley and Darion Hanson contributing so mightily this season to the Huskies.
Saturday night was a reflection of where Hockey East is today and what the future will look like. Both the Minutemen and Huskies will be major players in the conference’s future and the product for Hockey East fans is bound to improve while the fan base expands.
The attendance was only about 12 thousand, which isn’t a sell-out at TD Garden, but close to doubled the NCHC’s championship game turnout which was also played at an NHL venue, the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, and featured two passionate fan bases in Western Michigan and Minnesota-Duluth. Also after there was no 2020 college hockey postseason and the 2021 postseason was played in empty buildings or in front of limited and distanced crowds, the passionate cheers and heckles from the Husky and Minutemen supporters were a welcome pleasure for all involved.
UConn and UMass are still relatively new fan bases to the biggest hockey stages, but the crowds were engaged, energetic, and fun tone setters at a building used to Terriers, Eagles, RiverHawks, Wildcats, Black Bears, and more recently, black and red Huskies. The blue Huskies and Minutemen have a chance to become the full-time headlining acts in a changing but still competitive Hockey East.
Of the four teams who went to Boston for the semi-final weekend, only UConn will miss out on the National Tournament and only slightly at that. UMass will be a serious player for a second straight National Champion. Northeastern and UMass Lowell will be lower seeds but still dangerous players in the national tournament. Mike Cavanaugh has a challenging task ahead of him with nine seniors or graduate students on their way out. But Coach Cav has built up UConn to respectability that only a decade ago was unlikely to be kind.
It is impossible to see college hockey without a competitive UMass program for the foreseeable future. So its likely that the matchup of the two largest public universities in New England, long a throw-away list at the bottom of the sports pages of the Hartford Courant or MassLive, will be at top of mind in the conference.