Canelas: The time to start winning is now for UMass hockey

By Nick Canelas

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It was just five years ago that the Massachusetts hockey team was arguably the biggest winter attraction in Amherst.

Maria Uminski/Collegian

The Minutemen were in the midst of the best season in program history: They made the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history while spending the majority of the 2006-2007 campaign ranked in the Top 25, all with a future Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe Trophy winner in Jonathan Quick between the pipes.

The next season had all the looks and promise to be just as good, if not better, for UMass despite Quick’s departure for the National Hockey League after just two seasons with the Minutemen.

Men’s basketball was coming off an Atlantic 10 regular-season title and a National Invitation Tournament appearance, but stealing the spotlight in the closing months of 2007 was freshman goalie Paul Dainton and the Mass Attack.

UMass finished 2007 with an impressive 10-3-5 mark following three consecutive wins against teams in the top 10, resulting in a No. 5 ranking, by far the best in program history.

But after ringing in the New Year with six consecutive losses, it was all downhill for the Minutemen.

UMass ended the year with a forgettable 14-16-6 record that concluded with an early exit in the Hockey East quarterfinals after being swept by New Hampshire.

Since then, the Minutemen have yet to finish a season with a record above .500 and have started to become an afterthought on campus in regards to winter sports.

While hockey has fallen, basketball has risen. And with UMass coach Derek Kellogg’s bunch predicted to make a return to the Big Dance for the first time since 1998 following an NIT semifinal appearance, hoops are becoming the talk of the town.

The support of the hockey program from the athletic department also took a hit when the school agreed to a radio deal with WEEI’s Springfield branch, becoming the broadcasting home of UMass football and men’s basketball.

This agreement was the hockey program’s unofficial relegation to second-tier status.

In this past offseason, UMass coach Don Cahoon stepped down from the bench after 12 years with the Minutemen.

Change may be exactly what the program needs to resurrect itself, assuming UMass handles the situation properly.

The Minutemen can handle this figurative demotion one of two ways: The program can continue to sulk the way Cahoon sulked his way out of town, or this can serve as a wake-up call for players and coaches alike.

Regardless of what their approach is, the wins must come fast.

With precisely 31 days separating the hockey and men’s basketball season openers, UMass has nine games to prove this hockey team is worth watching before fans start itching for the men’s basketball opener against Harvard on Nov. 13.

Fortunately, six of UMass’ first nine games are at the Mullins Center, with matchups against Connecticut, defending national champion Boston College and Boston University likely to peak interest across campus.

Another ray of hope comes with the continuously worsening NHL lockout. As regular season games continue to get canceled, the local die-hard hockey fans have little choice but to keep up with the Minutemen for their hockey fix. And with more wins brings more attention to the program, especially when there’s not much else to turn to.

Anyone who follows the men’s basketball team on a regular basis would probably tell you that what they enjoy most about the team is the way they push the tempo and play aggressive on both sides of the ball.

Well, with first-year head coach John Micheletto looking to instill a fast-paced offense generated by an aggressive, in-your-face style of defense looking to force turnovers, there’s reason to believe the 2012-2013 Minutemen should be significantly more fun to watch than last year’s squad.

It’s no question that hockey has the advantage over basketball in terms of intrigue, especially when looking at the teams the program encounters on a yearly basis. Hockey East is arguably the top college hockey conference in the nation with four national champions crowned since 2008 and eight since 1993. The Atlantic 10 certainly can’t say that.

However, playing the best teams in the nation does nothing for the Minutemen if they aren’t winning. And five consecutive first-round exits in the conference tournament isn’t necessarily something that deserves praise.

Although UMass isn’t even expected to make the Hockey East tournament this season based on the preseason rankings, it has the pieces to create a winner for the next couple of years with three of its top five scorers from last season (Conor Sheary, Michael Pereira and Joel Hanley) headlining a class of 13 juniors, as well as sophomore Kevin Boyle in net.

However, the Minutemen can’t expect this young team to be a confident bunch if they aren’t given the significant role they truly deserve. Cahoon spent much of last season shifting lines on a consistent basis while going through a three-man carousel in net.

Micheletto is looking to change that, emphasizing the importance of consistency on a nightly basis so that this young team can grow into a contender as the season progresses.

While Micheletto has emphasized consistency, he also spoke of the importance of his team being at its best towards the end of the season.

“I always want us to be a better second-half team,” he said. “As the season wears on, if you look at any championship program over the past few years you’ll notice teams are playing much better in late March than in October.”

While that’s probably the right way to look at things in terms of the big picture, coming out of the gates slow will certainly not cut it if the program hopes to gain consistent support throughout the season.

The fact of the matter is the first 31 days are key, and if the Minutemen don’t get off to a respectable enough start to keep people interested when basketball season rolls around, it’s going to be a long hill to climb to regain the full support from the fans, student body and athletic department alike.

Nick Canelas can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NickCanelas,