Massachusetts Daily Collegian

John Micheletto ready for a pivotal fourth season at the helm of UMass hockey

By Ross Gienieczko

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John Michelleto

(Collegian Graphics)

Massachusetts hockey coach John Micheletto didn’t grow up like a typical North American hockey player might.

His father didn’t flood his backyard so he could practice day and night. There were no day-long pond hockey binges at some remote lake in the northern part of the United States. Neither of his parents ever played hockey, and when Micheletto was growing up in Chicago, the sport did not garner anywhere near the level of interest seen in the Windy City today.

But one of his parents saw a flyer, and they were always looking for new things for their son to do. Micheletto got signed up for a park league. He learned the game outdoors on double runner skates, and although he didn’t know it then, the club of hockey had gained a member for life.

“I certainly didn’t know at that time how long of a road it was going to end up being,” Micheletto said.

Micheletto went on to play at Milton Academy, where he served as team captain, and later played at Dartmouth. After graduating in 1990, he extended his career by playing briefly in the Netherlands and the now-defunct Atlantic Coast Hockey League.

His ascension as a coach had similar variation. He served as the dean of students and hockey coach at the Hill School in Pennsylvania from 1991-96 before accepting a job as an assistant coach at Union. From there, Micheletto moved onto the same position at Notre Dame before eventually settling down with Vermont in assistant and associate head coach roles.

Micheletto spent nine years with the Catamounts during an eventful time in the program’s history. He helped the team move from the Eastern College Athletic Conference to Hockey East, and helped guide Vermont to the 2009 Frozen Four.

Today, Micheletto stands at the helm of a UMass hockey program facing a crucial season in the program’s development. The Minutemen haven’t had a winning season since 2006-07 and haven’t reached .500 since 2009-10. UMass is entering the fourth year of Micheletto’s regime, and it’s not unfair to say that it’s a make-or-break season for him. He’s spoken with new athletic director Ryan Bamford many times, as their offices border each other on the third floor at Mullins Center.

“All of our conversations have centered around the development of the program in the three years I’ve been here,” Micheletto said. “We’re on really good terms as far as my vision and how the progress of the program is going along. I think he’s really appreciative of the challenges that we have being in Hockey East and the program being in the condition that it was when I first got here.”

Bamford might recognize the challenges UMass faces, but it’s only natural to wonder if the first-year athletic director has change on his mind. After all, Bamford didn’t hire Micheletto, and a recent run of losing has fans whispering about Micheletto’s job status. Check Twitter and the dreaded cliche “hot seat” might appear once or twice.

The Minutemen have had a remarkably steady history at the head coaching position throughout the program’s history. Micheletto is just the third head coach at UMass since its program was reinstated in 1993. In fact, he’s just the fifth coach the school has employed since 1954. Like the others, he has designs on making his tenure here a long one. And he’s been working since he got here to try and make sure that happens.

 

ROSTER OVERHAUL

Like all college sports, roster turnover in hockey is frequent. But even by those standards, changes for UMass in the last two years under Micheletto have been drastic.

The Minutemen will carry 19 underclassmen on their roster this season, the fifth-most in the entire country. The recruiting class Micheletto and staff have brought in for 2016 is talented; four freshmen defensemen are expected to contribute right away and four freshman forwards are too. There’s even new life at the goaltender position.

Last year’s class was full of high-end skill. Sophomore Dennis Kravchenko led the team as a freshman with 33 points in 2014-15 and fellow sophomore Patrick Lee notched 20 points in his rookie year. Brandon Montour was the crown jewel of the group, scoring 20 points in 21 games as a freshman defenseman in one of the toughest conferences in the country. He left to play in the Anaheim Ducks organization, where he was a second round draft pick, but plenty of talent remains.

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

Cade Belisle/Daily Collegian

This year’s group has similar potential. Defensemen William Lagesson and Ivan Chukarov have been drafted to the NHL already. Goalie Nic Renyard joins the team with a trophy case of junior hockey accolades, and forward Austin Plevy has already shown enough skill to earn a spot on the Minutemen’s first line.

“When you aren’t the biggest name of the bunch, you need to work through your recruiting, and I think our recruiting has been as strong as anyone over the last three classes,” assistant coach Joey Gasparini said.

Senior forward Shane Walsh, the only player to have been with UMass for Micheletto’s entire tenure, had similar praise for the recruiting work that’s been done.

“As the years have gone on, you see what good recruiters that he, coach Gasparini and coach (Ryan) Miller are,” Walsh said. “You can see the direction of the program, where it’s going, and it’s exciting.”

Part of Micheletto’s success in that area can be attributed to his willingness to branch out of New England, where teams like BC and BU will always attract top local players. UMass has just three players from Massachusetts on its roster, and only one of the 19 underclassmen on the team hails from the Bay State (sophomore Michael Iovanna).

Instead, recruits have come in from across the continent. The Minutemen have developed a pipeline from western Canada, as 10 players on the roster list their hometowns in Alberta or British Columbia.

Micheletto has done a good job, maybe a great job, at selling players on the University of Massachusetts, and his big-picture strategy is starting to take shape. Gone are the slower, defensive-minded players left over from Don “Toot” Cahoon’s tenure as head coach. Micheletto has filled the void with as much pure talent as he can find, and the new wave of Minutemen are much better equipped to play under him.

That’s been a problem with UMass for a few years – Micheletto wants his team to push the pace of the game, take offensive opportunities whenever it can and play with an aggressive mindset in all three zones. But many of the upperclassmen he inherited were simply not talented enough to play that style of hockey, even if Micheletto would not phrase it that way.

“As a coach you have a philosophy, and you certainly tailor that philosophy to what you have with your players,” Micheletto said. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve altered my big vision of how I’d like to see the team play to try to play to the strengths of the players we have.”

But now, Micheletto raves about the depth the Minutemen have acquired and the in-game benefits they will reap from it.

“It extends our lineup from an offensive standpoint, it allows us to do the things we want defensively and it also creates a heck of a lot of competition, which is one of the best ways guys get better on a day-to-day basis,” Micheletto said. Before this year, Micheletto continues, “we had to make sure we were doing things that all guys could do.”

 

FINDING RESULTS

Players like playing under Micheletto, and in the last few seasons he’s brought in some of the most exciting talent UMass has seen in years.

But head coaches are eternally tied to their records, and there’s no getting around the fact the Minutemen have not won many games during Micheletto’s tenure.

It’s a crucial year for the long-term development of the team.  If UMass can take a step forward this year, it would solidify Micheletto’s status under the Bamford regime, and some exciting hockey would get fans back into the Mullins Center, where thinning crowds have been a theme for a couple years.

But the Minutemen were picked to finish last in a Hockey East preseason coaches’ poll, and one would think another finish near the bottom of the conference would really put pressure on Bamford to think about changes to the program.

Micheletto doesn’t see it that way, however. He brushed off talk about any added pressure going into the season. He’s acquired the players, and really believes this group will thrive under his style.

Micheletto doesn’t think 2015 will be the end of an era in Amherst. With a team that buys into his style, Micheletto is just getting started.

Ross Gienieczko can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @RossGien.

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