Life on the other side of the glass
The rowdy fanbase that helps propel UMass hockey’s success through relentless support
December 29, 2022
“U–Mass! U–Mass! U–Mass!”
The deep echo of the cross-section chants from the 7,297 in attendance at the Mullins Center on Oct. 14, range deep through the air, internalized directly within all present. The exchange was nothing short of pure electricity.
This surge ultimately sparked the Massachusetts hockey team to upset the defending national champion Denver Pioneers in a two-game sweep; marking the first time in program history UMass shut out a No.1 ranked opponent.
The results don’t stop there. The Minutemen and their fans consistently bring the same intensity; scoring a staggering fourteen goals over their weekend home series against Union College later that month.
With a rich culture of excellence as of late, anything short of seeing the mass of UMass hockey hoodies and Cale Makar jerseys across campus daily seems incomprehensible; foreign even. However, there was a time in recent memory where the talk of hockey at UMass was silenced to a mere hum.
When the program’s initial establishment began in 1909, a lack in funding and a consistent place to play rendered the Minutemen a pond club; playing on the campus pond until its’ conditions worsened to the point where continued play was unwise.
UMass eventually found a more consistent residency in Amherst College’s Orr Rink. This eventually culminated in the team’s first Eastern College Athletic Association Championship (ECAC) in 1972. Under the helm of head coach Jack Canniff, the then Division II program formed its’ first real identity; ultimately going 15-3 in the 1971-72 regular season with a schedule including Division I teams such as Boston University and Providence College.
“I wondered if [the championship] might be the worst thing to happen to us. Now they’ll think we can win every year without a rink,” said the late Canniff to Worcester Gazette reporter, Bill Ballou.
Ken Richard, a 1980 UMass graduate, was an integral player to the Minutemen of the late 70s. Once a leading goal-scorer, Richard was a part of the last team before the University dropped the hockey program following a 1-18-1 season.
“I was on the last team that existed for a while,” Richard said. “I didn’t get to play my senior year and first learned that I couldn’t from the Daily Collegian newspaper. It was quite a shock.”
After over a decade-long drought of affiliated hockey on campus, the construction of UMass’ $51 million Mullins Center in 1993 signaled a new era for the program: one with the assets necessary to build a stable organization.
“Our goalie, John Riley helped with so much of the funding for the Mullins Center,” Richard said. “We wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for John. [Riley] actually got the game puck from an official after a massive game when we beat Army at West Point, and that puck is actually buried in the foundation of the Mullins Center, right in center ice.”
The 2021 Mullins Center is a far cry from the Minutemen’s former venue. With the Orr Rink’s capacity sitting at approximately 1,200, UMass hockey’s first official home of the Mullins Center has the space to house nearly 9,493 – with state of the art facilities and resources the Minutemen of the 1970s could only dream of.
“It was hard going over to Orr Rink to play because we had to get dressed at the [Curry Hicks] Cage space we shared with the basketball team,” Richard said. “And then we schlepped over to Orr rink, half dressed. There weren’t even showers over there. But we loved the game so much, there was nothing that was going to stop us from playing.”
Though the Minutemen had many external makings of a winning team, they experienced a fair share of rocky bouts in their infantile seasons at the Mullins Center; losing a once record 28 games in a single season. However, a shift in tone beginning in 2016 would forever alter UMass hockey as we know it.
“You can’t just build a rink and think people are going to come,” Richard said. “But when you start winning, you start getting people’s attention. Then suddenly the arena starts filling up and now everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. And that’s not a bad thing. You’ve to earn it, like everything else in life. Nothing is handed to you have to go out and get it and that starts with Coach.”
With the start of Greg Carvel’s tenure as UMass head coach, glimpses of success began with the development of players such as Cale Makar, who went on to become a Hobey Baker, Conn Smythe, and Stanley Cup winner at 24 years old.
But it wasn’t until 2019 that the program really took flight. What is known widely across UMass hockey’s fan base as the “Cale” year, Makar and Carvel led the team to their first ever DI NCAA National Championship berth with a record-breaking 31 wins.
Despite getting shutout in the 2019 National Championship, the year marked one of real momentum: momentum that the team and their fans sprinted with ever since. Now with three Hockey East Championships, and one National Championship banner raised high into the rafters; UMass hockey racked the hardware to magnetize the masses.
Fans in attendance at UMass’ home games span from children to the elderly and current to former students; some having lived through the evolution of UMass hockey.
One of which comes in former alum and eastern Mass., resident, Eric Kelliher. While visiting his daughter for Family Weekend, Kelliher reminisced on the ups and downs of being a part of the fan base over the course of over three decades.
“I’ve been a fan of UMass hockey since its’ inception in the 80s,” Kelliher said. “This school has needed a solid hockey program, even when I went here. It was the perfect time in the 90s for them to develop the program, invest in the team, and just help build this facility. I think it is a great thing for the university and the state. My daughter and her friends love going to games, and I do too.”
There were many at the Minutemen’s home opener that didn’t have the same longevity as Kelliher, but nevertheless rivaled veteran fans’ excitement and pride for the team. Freshman Aivree Kus became interested in hockey while in high school after learning of UMass’ success; a discovery she attributes to her hometown of Ludlow, Mass., being so close to Amherst.
“It is something very close by for people who live around here to get involved in,” Kus said. “The team, their organization, and fans just have great public outreach, they are very engaging.”
A big part of this outreach has come from what is widely known as “UMass Twitter”. Though the social media accounts run directly by UMass Athletics continuously put out consistent content and coverage, the following of these pages created a sizeable community by extension. Through daily Twitter spaces and threads, fans have an outlet to contribute and consume to the conversation about all things UMass sports.
One key figure in this group is UMass senior, Quinn McCarron. Though many may not recall his real name, McCarron made quite the name for himself as, “UMass Reindeer”. Affectionately known by the reindeer onesie he dons under UMass apparel, McCarron amounted nearly 2,500 Twitter followers through his unwavering support of the Minutemen and Minutewomen; planted behind the glass in back of the home goal at every UMass hockey game.
“[UMass Twitter] is awesome,” McCarron said. “They are the best. They bought 27 tickets for a regional game and sent 27 kids there. They are super big on getting students here to hype up the team, I love their support.”
The hype generated is not only emblematic throughout fans, but just as much so across the team itself. Senior Matt Koopman is a recent transfer from Providence College, but nonetheless is one of several in the lineup to express how the UMass fans’ passion is immediately transferable to their own play.
“Anytime you can get that energy from the crowd right away, you’re coming out of the tunnel and it just gives you that extra boost,” Koopman said.
The resurgence of UMass hockey ushered in a new culture quite unlike any other the University has seen before. Once a fairly recognized school in the heart of Western Mass., UMass placed itself firmly on the map as a pillar hockey powerhouse for years to come; with a committed support system behind them just as powerful.
“We’ve seen heaven, I think we’re going to see it again because success breeds success,” Richard said. “We’re not going to win every game. We’re not going to win the national championship every year. It’s a process over a period of time, but the Minutemen matter.”
Shanti Furtado can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @ShantiFurtado.