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Gienieczko: UMass hockey revitalization easier said than done with new head coach on the way

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(Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian)

University of Massachusetts athletic director Ryan Bamford wasted little time before pulling the trigger.

Just one day after the UMass hockey team was eliminated from the Hockey East tournament with a 5-4 loss against Boston University, John Micheletto was fired from his position as head coach of the Minutemen.

There was one year left on Micheletto’s contract, which meant firing him resulted in a buyout with a value of $259,715. UMass is on the hook for that money next year in addition to whatever it pays a new coach, but it’s an encouraging sign that the first-year athletic director is serious about fixing the University’s broken hockey program.

“Hockey is important to us. Hockey in this state is an important sport and there’s no reason why the flagship university of this state can’t be successful in hockey,” Bamford said in a conference call March 7.

“I believe in that, I love college hockey and we’re going to do everything we can in this hire and thereafter to give our new head coach the opportunity to have success.”

Over a week removed from the firing, Bamford is moving forward and personally heading the search for a new coach for the Minutemen, which is even more good news for the program after the last search resulted in a drawn out, publicized ordeal.

“We won’t have a search firm involved in either search. We’re going to do it internally,” Bamford said. “In terms of what they’ve done here in the past, I divorce myself from that. I don’t look back.”

If firing Micheletto was an easy first step in Bamford’s process to rejuvenate the hockey program, the next steps will present more difficult problems to solve.

The first and most important part of that process starts with hiring a new head coach. Several names have already been discussed in a Daily Hampshire Gazette article from March 8 because of their natural connections to the school or western Massachusetts area. Rick Bennett, a Springfield native and current head coach at Union College, is a name that’s appeared in multiple outlets early on in this search period. St. Lawrence’s Greg Carvel and Merrimack’s Mark Dennehy are other head coaches with ties to Amherst, as Carvel earned a master’s degree in sport management from UMass and Dennehy was a former assistant for the Minutemen under Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon, Micheletto’s predecessor.

But it’s unclear if any of those coaches would be willing to leave their current schools, and Bamford has yet to comment on any specifics regarding candidates for the job. The truth is his list of candidates could differ vastly from consensus public opinion.

This is the first coach Bamford will hire in his tenure at UMass – Darrice Griffin will head the search for UMass’ next women’s basketball coach – and it could well be his most important. With football coach Mark Whipple and basketball coach Derek Kellogg firmly entrenched in their positions, the new leader of the hockey program might be the only impact hire Bamford will have to make for some time.

If Bamford hits a home run, the Minutemen have a chance to gain the national relevance he desires within a few years. A swing and a miss, however, could set the program back again and doom UMass to more painful years of losing and irrelevance on the national scale.

Reining national champion and conference rival Providence College is a model Bamford looks to for his vision of what the Minutemen could be. The Friars floundered for years in the doldrums of the Hockey East, but have undergone an impressive turnaround that culminated in last year’s national championship victory over BU.

“Right now, if you look at our league – and it’s changed, certainly, in the last couple of years – you have a couple of programs, Providence being one that comes to mind, that were in the bottom half of the league with us for a number of years. And they have made a commitment, hired a new coach in Nate Leaman and won a national championship last year,” Bamford said.

“I wouldn’t tell you that I think we’re going to win a national championship right off the bat, but I sure as heck am going to do my best to support that type of competitive opportunity.”

Whoever Bamford chooses to take the reins will inherit a program that’s seen declines in performance and fan interest in the last half-decade.

The average attendance of hockey games at Mullins Center has dropped from 5,313 in 2009-10 to 2,868 last year. Certainly, a winning team would be the best marketing tool, but plenty of other college hockey buildings support losing teams with at least a faint heartbeat of a crowd.

A number of embarrassing home losses – 8-0 to Boston College this year, 11-1 to Vermont in 2014, 9-0 to New Hampshire in 2013 and several more – haven’t helped. They’re usually defeats that come around once every couple of years for a program, but they’ve become commonplace at Mullins. In those games, the building gets incredibly quiet. It’s the type of atmosphere that has driven away the casual fan, and diminishing ticket sales prove it.

“I think we’ve lost about $150,000 in ticket revenue from 2011-12 to this past season,” Bamford said. “For a budget of $34 million, it doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s $150,000 that we can put back into our program and build the resources to a level where we’re going to have some sustained success.”

UMass students are admitted for free – when they show up – so the lack of ticket sales can’t be blamed on them. Even when they do show up, many have filed out by the start of the third period. The t-shirt toss is regularly the loudest moment in the building on a given night.

On the ice, the Minutemen haven’t posted a record of .500 or better since that 2009-10 season, also the last time UMass won more than 13 games. UMass won six, 13, 12, eight, 11, and eight games in the following seasons.

Finally, the new coach will have to figure out ways to keep some of the high-end talent that come to UMass with the program for more than a year. Last year, Brandon Montour and Frank Vatrano left the school after just one season each with the Minutemen.

This offseason, defenseman William Lagesson (a fourth-round draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers) figures to be the top flight risk among a number of candidates who have shown professional potential and might be tempted to leave a UMass program in upheaval. Fellow freshman defenseman Callum Fryer impressed this year and has a chance to hear his named called at the NHL entry draft. Center Dennis Kravchenko is a streaky but talented playmaker who has shown the speed and skill that will certainly draw interest from professional teams sooner rather than later.

Again, this problem isn’t unique to UMass. Bigger, better and more prestigious teams around the country lose top players to the NHL each year. But keeping elite players is especially important for the Minutemen, who struggle to cultivate the depth required to be competitive in Hockey East from year to year.

“Hockey’s tricky because of roster and talent management year to year because of the pro piece,” Bamford said. “One, you’re managing the kids in your program and, two, you’re managing the recruits and when they’re coming into your program. A lot of them are playing club and junior hockey now.”

Whatever path Bamford takes UMass down – and with whomever he hires – the turnaround in Amherst won’t be easy, and a number of things need to fall into place for his goal of national relevance to be realized.

Ross Gienieczko can be reached at rgieniec@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @RossGien.

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