UMass hockey looks forward after Cahoon’s departure

By Stephen Hewitt

Maria Uminski/Collegian

When the 2012-13 Massachusetts hockey team suits up for the first time together this fall, there will be one glaring difference above all else.

Twenty-five players are expected to return from the 2011-12 roster, but not the man that brought them all together. For the first time in 12 seasons, Don Cahoon won’t be the man calling the shots from the UMass bench, barking out signals and locker room speeches as the Minutemen’s head coach.

Instead, UMass will hire its third coach since it decided to bring the program back after a 14-year hiatus in 1993. And whoever it is will have some big shoes to fill as they try to follow up the career of the man everyone knew as “Toot.”

“He had such a great personality and seemed to genuinely care about every single one of his players,” said forward Eric Filiou, who will be a junior this fall. “After playing for him for two years, I realized how great of a man he was and how my first impression of him was correct. Coach Cahoon had a great set of coaching skills and always taught us to play for each other; ‘team first, team always.’”

Despite some subpar seasons record-wise, Cahoon’s influence was monstrous in bringing the UMass hockey program back to relevance. Even when the Minutemen were struggling during his final seasons as coach, students still regularly packed the Mullins Center in large numbers. Cheers of “Toot” during pregame introductions and a sign with the words, “Welcome to Cahoonville” printed on it above the runway that led to the UMass locker room further cemented his legacy as a beloved figure in the UMass community.

But beyond what those saw from the outside was a man who sacrificed his life for hockey and the program. Former and current players alike marvel at his enthusiasm for the game, and not only what he did for them as players, but as human beings as well.

“I think everyone on the team including myself was close with coach Cahoon,” said forward Troy Power, who will be a junior this fall. “He was a coach that you could not only talk hockey with but about school and life as well. He always took the time to catch up with everyone which showed that he truly cared about every one of his players.

“He pushed everyone to be a positive role model in the community and around campus.”

“Coach and I had a great relationship,” said forward Michael Pereira, who will also be a junior in the fall. “He came out to South Kent School when I was a junior [in high school], which I thought was unique for a head coach to actually do. We sat and chatted there for about two hours. We had great one-on-one talks many times, not only about hockey but also about life more importantly.

“I will remember him as a guy who would do anything. He was a passionate guy and wore his heart on his sleeve.”

Moving on from the Cahoon era certainly won’t be easy for these Minutemen. Few coaches are able to stay as long as Cahoon did and have the kind of impact he did. But it’s just another of the difficult conditions that will be needed to be overcome for a team trying to shake off its second straight losing season.

“I know I speak for everyone on the team when I say we would have loved to finish out our college careers with Toot behind the bench,” said Power, “but I feel as though we have to be nothing but positive and optimistic about the future. Although we will have a new philosophy, we have 25 returning players who will be counted on to continue to lead our team in a positive direction.

“It will be up to the players to adapt to that change as fast as possible in order to have the success we all want to share.”

History says that it will take some time for the Minutemen to receive that success. Since 1917-18 – when UMass hired its first-ever head coach – first-year coaches are a combined 54-80-10 in their first seasons.

That includes Cahoon, who went 8-22-4 in his first season in 2000-01. It took him until his third season to post a winning record and seven seasons to make his biggest difference 2006-07, when he led the Minutemen to their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance behind the goaltending of 2012 Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Quick.

Whatever the case may be and with whoever UMass decides to select as its 13th coach in program history, it will take time. Results may not come immediately, which will make it hard on whomever Cahoon’s successor ends up being. But the players seem to be more than ready for the challenge.

“The change in coaching will allow everyone to gain a fresh start come August,” said Filiou. “I’m sure all my teammates, myself included, won’t change the way they go about their business and will have a very productive summer on and off the ice to make sure the 2012-2013 season will a be a successful one.”

“I think everyone will respond well,” said Pereira. “Everyone will be determined to work harder I think than ever before. We are bringing back 25 members strong who have seen what it has to take to win in our league and we have a great deal of confidence in the freshman class being brought in.

“Toot brought us here for a reason. I feel as if we owe it to him to really make a strong push to what we were aiming for as we left BC in March.”

Stephen Hewitt can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @steve_hewitt.