With a national championship win, Greg Carvel completes improbable turnaround of UMass hockey

Greg Carvel turned UMass hockey around in five years

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Nina Walat/Daily Collegian

By Evan Marinofsky, Assistant Sports Editor

Greg Carvel showed up to UMass on March 29, 2016 with a vision.

“My vision was never to win a national championship,” Carvel said late Saturday night. “My vision was to build a program that great pride could be taken in.”

That’d be an ambitious goal to have for any coach joining a new program. But this wasn’t just any new program. This was the Massachusetts hockey team – the doormat of Hockey East for the better part of its tenure in the conference.

The irony of the name “Massachusetts hockey team” is that at the time, when it came to the state of Massachusetts, it was far from considered as the Commonwealth’s team. UMass sat out on an island in Western Massachusetts mired in irrelevance. There was Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern, UMass Lowell and then maybe, just maybe, UMass.

Here was Carvel who spontaneously left a cushy job at St. Lawrence, his alma mater, to coach this beaten up and beaten down hockey program.

Fast forward to April 10, 2021 and the Minutemen are national champions.

How?

“I got lucky with people I surrounded myself with,” Carvel said after the 5-0 win over St. Cloud State.

Carvel credits Mark Randall, the sports psychologist who drilled the importance of culture into Carvel’s hockey head. He credits assistants Ben Barr and Jared DeMichiel who work their recruiting magic every year to bring in NCAA Tournament-worthy recruiting classes.

But even just bringing in good people isn’t enough to turn a program from having five wins in 2016-17 (Carvel’s first year at the helm) to a national championship in year No. 5. Those good people had to be brought in to fit along with that vision.

“I think for a lot of us that came in and were recruited by Carvel, when the team had five wins he had a dream to bring it to the national level or competing at a national level and building a culture of really good kids that work really hard and are high character,” UMass captain Jake Gaudet said after the national championship win. “And I think the rest has taken care of itself.”

Phil Lagnuov, who had a dazzling goal in the championship game, was also part of that crew to come in after the five-win season.

“It all stems from the recruiting,” Lagunov said of why things turned around so fast at UMass. “I think all the guys in the locker room are really close, high-character kids. And Carv does a really good job having a single vision and single purpose and setting the high standards so we know what to do no matter what.”

Lagunov is right. The recruiting results from those kids brought to Amherst in the past few years has been plentiful. Cale Makar and Mario Ferraro and John Leonard and Mitchell Chaffee are the standous – all four have gone onto varying levels of success at the pro hockey level.

Then there’s all the guys on this current team. From Marc Del Gaizo to Reed Lebster to Linden Alger – they all played roles in completing Carvel’s plan of returning the program back to relevance.

Anyone who’s worn the UMass sweater – whether for Carvel or for a different coach – played some sort of role in putting the Minutemen on top of the college hockey mountain.

“When you win your first national championship, you really want to think about the people that laid the foundation and [Friday] was a bit emotional because Red was one of those people, and I loved Red. He was a big part…When I lifted that trophy, I thought of people like that and former players.”

Carvel’s first five years with the Minutemen will be studied and looked at hundreds of different ways by programs across college hockey for the next 10 to 20 years. Athletic directors with struggling hockey programs will ask “How do we become the next UMass?” or “How do we find the next Greg Carvel?”.

In the present, though, the national championship is still fresh. Around Western Massachusetts and across New England, that freshness will last until the puck drops on next season. For most, it’ll extend beyond that.

And even though Carvel’s vision didn’t include national championships in it, Saturday night’s sure brought a lot of pride back to a once-dying program. That success doesn’t seem to be going anywhere either.

Evan Marinofsky can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @emarinofsky.