LOWELL, Mass. — Blaise McDonald, a native of nearby Billerica, Mass., was named head coach at UMass-Lowell late Thursday.
With the move, MacDonald leaves Niagara, a program he helped start from scratch in 1995. In his five years there, MacDonald led Niagara to an NCAA tournament appearance in 2000, which included a win over New Hampshire.
MacDonald, who was an assistant to ex-Lowell coach Billy Riley, Jr., from 1988-1990, replaces Tim Whitehead, who announced his resignation last week after five years as head coach.
“When I look at UMass Lowell, I look at the great coaches who were there before me: Billy Riley, who was the founding father, Bruce Crowder and Tim Whitehead, who put in an outstanding ten years,” MacDonald said. “They put in place the building blocks for today.”
MacDonald comes despite questions that have recently arisen regarding the future of Lowell’s program. There has been talk in the Massachussets legislature of abandoning support for a Division I men’s program at Lowell. But that concern was not enough to keep MacDonald away from a job he originally pursued in 1996.
“I think there is a terrific commitment from the University,” MacDonald said from his office in Buffalo, N.Y. “The culture of the workplace from the chancellor to the athletic department is outstanding and strives for high performance.
“The obvious connection with me and UMass-Lowell is the fact that I grew up in Billerica. I grew up a fan of the Lowell Chiefs and players like Craig MacTavish and Dean Jenkins. This is a dream situation for me in that perspective, especially considering the exciting growth of the campus.”
MacDonald inherits a River Hawk program which posted a 19-16-3 overall record and placed fifth in Hockey East last season. UML returns 21 of 26 veterans from the 2000-01 team.
“What drives UMass-Lowell’s potential on the ice is the character of the players and belief that they can take themselves to places nobody else thought they could,” MacDonald said. “As I looked at UMass-Lowell as a potential career move, I equated Hockey East with the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) to basketball.
“I have a great deal of respect for every head coach and assistant coach in the league. That alone provides our staff with exciting challenges every night.”
MacDonald pursued the opening created by the departure of Crowder in 1996, but had to pull himself out of the running late in the process because Niagara would not allow him out his contract.
MacDonald leaves a Niagara program which returns 24 veterans from last year’s 14-19-3 team.
“I will be forever indebted to my coaching staff and our wonderful players at Niagara,” MacDonald said. “Because of them, I have this opportunity. I want to thank Niagara for the best five years of my life and the continued commitment to Niagara hockey. It is a place that is close to my heart and always will be.”
MacDonald and his wife, Carol, are expecting their third child on Friday. He will address the UML team and media next week.
“This is a great day for UMass-Lowell,” said school athletic director Dana Skinner. “One can’t help but be impressed by Blaise’s work ethic, commitment and passion. I have little doubt that the level of commitment that Blaise brings to the table will serve to inspire the entire University community.”
Prior to Niagara, MacDonald served as an assistant coach and later recruiting coordinator and associate head coach at Boston University (1990-96), as well as an assistant at Princeton (1987-88) and Dartmouth (1985-87).
A 1985 graduate of RIT, MacDonald compiled an all-time record of 91-58-17 in five seasons at Niagara, highlighted by a 30-8-4 overall mark and 15-0-2 finish in College Hockey America (CHA) in 1999-00. During the run, the Purple Eagles posted victories over Boston University, Colorado College and Rensselaer.
In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Niagara stunned 1998-99 NCAA runner-up New Hampshire (4-1) before falling to eventual national champion North Dakota (4-1). MacDonald was voted runner-up for the Spencer-Penrose Award as National Coach of the Year.
MacDonald started the Niagara program in 1996 with all freshmen and guided the Purple Eagles to a 16-9-2 record as a member of the Division III ECAC West. He was voted the ECAC West co-Coach of the Year by his peers.
Before joining CHA, NU spent the 1998-99 season as a Division I independent and posted a 17-12-3 record. The Purple Eagles opened the year with a stunning two-game effort at defending national champion Michigan, losing in overtime in the first meeting, and winning 2-1 a day later.
As a player, MacDonald was an All-America defenseman in his senior season at RIT and led the Tigers to the NCAA Division III championship in 1983 and 1985. He helped RIT defeat UMass-Lowell, 5-1, in the 1983 Tournament semifinal at Tully Forum. During his career, MacDonald set former RIT records for career assists (106) and points (119) as a defenseman. He was inducted into the RIT Hall of Fame in 1991.