Greg Carvel’s first senior night honoring four-year Minutemen was special

The fourth-year head coach praised his three-man senior class after Saturday’s 4-3 win

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UMass Athletics

By Liam Flaherty, Assistant Sports Editor

Greg Carvel’s been a head coach in college hockey for eight years. He was only at St. Lawrence for four years, so he only experienced one class of four-year seniors that played under his rule during his time there. That class had four players in it.

In his fourth year with the Massachusetts hockey team, his first four-year class is a group of three.

And on Saturday night, following a big 4-3 bounce-back win against UConn, he and the rest of the coaching staff honored that trio of seniors: Niko Hildenbrand, Jake McLaughlin and Jack Suter.

Interestingly enough, unlike most teams, Carvel prefers doing the festivities after the game. While most schools do it before the game, he wants it to be more about the people on the ice than those sitting in the stands. He wants the parents to really appreciate the moment and be able to take it all in.

“I started doing that at St. Lawrence and I love it,” he said postgame. “Especially after you win.”

With the three families on the goal line and the rest of the Minutemen lined up along the blue line, highlight videos of their four-year careers played on the video boards as the seniors went down the line hugging their teammates, while the rest of the crowd that stuck around to thank them looked on.

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After the crucial Hockey East win, Carvel praised each of them for their different paths. Because they were at UMass for the entire ride, they’ve really seen it all. They saw the program surge from five wins to an improved 17, all the way up to 31 and an appearance in the national championship.

For Carvel, this four-year senior class is special.

“Three different kids, all really, really great kids to coach,” he said on Saturday.  “Three very different arcs of their time here. Those kids will always be special to me that we did the whole thing together.”

While McLaughlin and Suter were Carvel-raised recruits, Hildenbrand was not. In fact, he was recruited by the previous UMass coaching staff before the now-head coach arrived in Amherst.

When Carvel was hired in 2016, the California native stuck to his commitment; to Carvel’s joy.

“We knew he was a high-character kid and we knew we needed to bring that into the program,” Carvel said. “Niko’s just been, from day one, the guy that we know what we’re going to get every game: consistently just eats pucks and takes hits and he’s physical and we’ve got that every game for four years. [He’s] a two-year captain – there’s not many people that can say they were a two-year captain and took a team to the national final.”

McLaughlin was on Carvel’s radar before he even got the UMass job; he’d recruited him to play at St. Lawrence. When Carvel made the move, the Illinois native stuck with his new head coach, he said.

“Lucky for me, he was loyal and came with me.”

Ever since that decision, McLaughlin’s Minuteman career has been a whirlwind. From a minus-17 rating as a freshman to plus-26 now, he slowly grew his game until being named assistant captain.

“Jake McLaughlin is a guy that to me that had to grow up and when he decided to grow up, he got really good, really fast,” Carvel said. “I thought last year when that blue line with Cale and Mario got all the press and attention, I thought he was probably the best fifth, sixth defenseman.”

A year since that run, the transformation into a defensive stalwart has continued on even further.

“And then this year to me he’s the No. 1 D,” Carvel said. “He wins every battle in the corner, he settles the game down. He doesn’t get a lot of points, but he scores big goals. [He] stepped up, he filled that void where Mario would win battles and get us out of our zone – Jake took that over.”

Finally, Jack Suter. Perhaps the most surprising senior to come out of the three-man group.

According to Carvel, Suter was a last-minute addition to the freshman class of 2016-17.

“Jack was supposed to go to I believe Air Force, and he realized that probably wasn’t what he wanted in college, so he was a late pick-up,” Carvel said. “[He] was a very secondary player for three years and this year he’s our No. 1 center. He’s got 20 points; I think had 17 points in his first three years. And he’s a high, high-quality character kid. He’s one of these 4.0 students – he’s going to be a huge success in life and he’s really enjoyable to coach.”

Going into his senior year, Carvel wasn’t even sure what role he would fill on the team, he said. But, like McLaughlin, he slowly but surely filled out into a crucial player that’s now one of the main pieces.

“I didn’t know where [he] was going to fit into the team,” he said, “and now he’s leading, he’s a leader.”

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Although Carvel obviously has a tight bond with each of the players, there’s more to it than that.

“To me, the extra bonus is the relationships I have with some of the parents,” he said. “I still remember clear as day six-seven years ago when I was scurrying around a rink asking, ‘Who is Jake McLaughlin’s dad? I need to talk to him. Who is his dad?’ and I found him in a corner, and we clicked, and he trusted me. Tremendous with both his mom and his dad, and to me, that’s really that extra layer that really makes coaching at this level special. You see his parents out there tonight tears are in their eyes; they’re thanking me and I’m thanking them. That’s why I love doing senior night after the game.”

When talking at length about his three beloved seniors, Carvel was pensive, reflecting on what has been a truly wild ride since he first stepped foot on UMass soil back in 2016, aiming for a turnaround.

Four years later, he’s done just that – and he’s done it with the same three familiar faces along the way.

“They’ll all leave here proud of their individual accomplishments, but they also get to leave here knowing that they were all – they saw the full arc,” Carvel added. “They were a part of the five-win season, and they were a part of the 31-win season.

“They’ve had great college experiences.”

Liam Flaherty can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @_LiamFlaherty.