Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass hockey coach Greg Carvel readies for rebuilding process

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(Shannon Broderick/ Daily Collegian)

(Shannon Broderick/ Daily Collegian)

Greg Carvel says when it comes to college hockey, you don’t always get a room with a view.

That’s exactly what the Massachusetts hockey coach has – both literally and figuratively – after making the jump to Amherst from his former coaching position at St. Lawrence.

If Hockey East isn’t the premier conference in college hockey, it has few equals. The ECAC, which houses the Saints along with other schools like Quinnipiac, Union, Harvard and Yale, is no small-time league. But with the Minutemen, Carvel joins a select group of head coaches who oversee some of the most iconic and successful teams in the country. After climbing the proverbial corporate ladder as an assistant in the National Hockey League and with his first head coaching gig at St. Lawrence, Carvel’s getting closer to the corner office of college hockey coaching.

Carvel’s office is a third-floor suite at Mullins Center with a birds-eye view of the arena below. Come this fall, he’ll also be behind the bench at ice level.

That is where the Canton, New York native is set to work on building the foundation of his program. In his first weeks with the Minutemen, Carvel spent long hours talking with recruits, interviewing assistants and getting up to speed on all things UMass.

While most coaches were shutting things down after the end of a long and arduous season, Carvel was starting over again.

“It’s been crazy,” Carvel told the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. “But it’s fine. I knew what I was getting into. These are short term things.”

Sharing a wall with athletic director Ryan Bamford’s, that third-floor office is where Carvel’s vision for the Minutemen starts to take shape.

The first steps

Carvel has just four years of head coaching experience, going 72-63-15 at his alma matter of St. Lawrence after taking over for his former coach, Saints legend Joe Marsh. But that experience is bolstered by another dozen years in the NHL as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks and Ottawa Senators.

He is tasked with changing the culture of a UMass program that hasn’t seen a winning season in 10 years, something he insists will start between the boards.

“We’re in Massachusetts here, where people know hockey. It’s not like we’re in a southern state where fans are fickle and they only come out if you win,” Carvel says. “Knowing true hockey fans, they can see and respect a team that plays well, plays together, plays with emotion and purpose. I feel like if you can create a culture for your team, and that culture carries into the way you play on the ice, that’s easily identified by people who know the game. People who know that respect it.”

The logistics of an on-ice turnaround are pretty straightforward. The Minutemen need structure and discipline, and they need to keep the talent stream flowing to Amherst. Carvel, a former ECAC Outstanding Defensive Forward award winner in his playing days, seems poised to accomplish that, and has already had success instilling his system at St. Lawrence.

The challenges are even larger off the ice. Massachusetts is one of the hockey hotbeds of the nation, but fan attendance has plummeted at Mullins in recent seasons, especially among students. Fewer and fewer students are going to hockey games, and the Minutemen don’t have much presence on campus or in the community.

Aside from his hockey experience, Bamford thinks Carvel is the type of person to change that.

“We talked a lot about that in the process,” Bamford said. “The first time we met, it was great conversation regarding building and engaging with the students and this community and our alumni having a presence in this state, which is a state that cares about hockey.”

Bamford added: “He recognizes it because he’s been here, he’s seen it, and he understands that. When I did my homework on him, that was a strength of his at St. Lawrence. He is a unifier. He is somebody who can do that. That really resonated with me.”

In terms of fan engagement, Carvel says talking with former UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon during the hiring process gave him an idea of what is required off the ice.

“He told me what he did to ingratiate himself into the student body and the town. If you’re not willing to do that, this isn’t the right job for you,” Carvel said. “You need someone who’s willing to do that, who’s willing to reach out to try to pull people in. I did that at St. Lawrence at a smaller scale. It’s just a bigger scale here. But in the world of social media, the electronic world that we live in, it’s not that hard, you just have to make the effort.”

Possibility for Cahoon to return

Cahoon thinks the Minutemen are heading in the right direction with Carvel at the helm and Bamford leading the athletic department. The Marblehead native spent 12 years coaching at UMass from 2000-2012, and says that Carvel was highly recommended to him by Joe Marsh, a resident of nearby Lynn and close friend.

Carvel says he’d love to have Cahoon involved with the program in some capacity, and the coaching icon had conversations with both Carvel and Bamford during the hiring process. However, he spoke with caution regarding any formal role back with the University.

“We have to go slow with that piece of it, in that there’s nothing formal that’s really taking shape. I have a lot of respect for Greg, and I have a lot of respect for what Ryan Bamford is doing for the hockey program and for the whole athletic program for that matter,” Cahoon said.

“Ryan and I have talked, Greg and I have talked, but certainly nothing formal has been established. I want to help in any way I can, but right now it’s very informal.”

Cahoon resigned from UMass after going 13-18-5 in his final season with the Minutemen. However, regardless of the departure nearly five years ago, Cahoon still feels confident in Bamford and Carvel’s ability to revitalize the program.

“I think they’ll stabilize things, become a little bit more consistent. Once they do that and they start to reach out to the community, have a little more of a footprint on the community to build the movement, become energized,” Cahoon said. “The students will start to come out consistently like they did years ago. And I think they can win more than ever because I think the potential has always been there.”

Carvel, who spoke with Cahoon several times while considering the UMass job, had nothing but praise for the coaching veteran.

“I know Toot a little bit, he’s a unique and fantastic person,” Carvel said. “An iconic guy like that, you want him involved. His personality is infectious. I’d be crazy not to want him around.”

Looking ahead

Carvel says he can “absolutely” picture a sold-out Mullins Center during his tenure in Amherst, but cautioned that the changes he plans on making will take time. Cahoon agreed, and said an extended, continued push is needed from the University if it wants the hockey program to compete with the best teams in the country.

Ultimately, building a fan base to Mullins may be what Carvel is judged on during his first years in Amherst. Building a winning team takes time, so Carvel’s short term goals are more realistic: Stabilize a rocky program and give fans something to believe in again.

“I come into this situation knowing it’s a team that needs a bit of a rebuild, but I do know you just have to make progress,” Carvel says. “Whether that’s winning a couple more games next year and finishing ninth or tenth … there has to be a sense within the team and through the support for the team that things are going the right way. It gives you hope and gives you energy, and it gives us motivation for all of us to keep pushing forward.”

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

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