LOWELL, Mass. — New UMass-Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald outlined his vision for the River Hawks in front of a collection of media and fans inside the Tsongas Arena. The native of neighboring Billerica, Mass., apologized for being short of sleep due to the birth of his third child before proceeding to be sharp as a tack. He pushed all the right buttons in praising both the local political leaders in attendance and former coach Tim Whitehead while also exhorting the fans to help him fill the empty seats.
“This is a dream situation for me,” he said. “I have a real unconditional passion for Lowell hockey. I used to go up to Skate 3 in Tyngsboro and was fortunate enough to see Lowell win some [Division II] national championships. That sense of pride — of unconditional love for the school — started at that point in time.”
MacDonald also announced that Ken Rausch, an assistant coach at Niagara for the past three years, will join him on the River Hawk bench. Rounding out the UML coaching staff will be John Hynes, who has been an assistant at Lowell for the past year. Pertti Hasanen will not return.
MacDonald, Rausch and Hynes were all members of Boston University’s 1995 national championship team. MacDonald served as associate head coach and recruiting coordinator, while Rausch and Hynes were both players.
With the Lowell recruits for the upcoming season already in place, the 2002-2003 freshman class will be the first upon which MacDonald, a highly-regarded recruiter, will make his mark.
Mindful that many in the audience still support Whitehead, MacDonald was careful to praise the former coach.
“Tim Whitehead put his heart and soul into the program for 10 years,” said MacDonald. “Tim Whitehead brought us into the Tsongas Arena and did a terrific job. It’s hard for me because I’m coming in and taking his place and there are some people who feel very strongly, and rightfully so, about Tim’s ability and certainly Tim’s character. I’ve always thought that he’s one of the class guys and will always be one of the class guys in the business.
“But sometimes organizations need to make progress. … Sometimes you need to embrace change. The success we [will] have can be directly attributed to Tim Whitehead’s team as well.”
MacDonald addressed head-on what has been the school’s biggest challenge since moving into the spacious confines of the Tsongas Arena.
“The one thing that is missing that I’m desperate to try to capture is the fan support,” he said. “You look at Shawn Walsh when he took over the Maine program years ago. Maine struggled for a few years, but they always had packed houses there. They always had passionate fans. … If we can do that, the sky’s the limit.
“I feel very good about us challenging to get into the NCAA tournament this year. [But] my challenge is not so much hockey. It’s to really reach out and connect with the community. … I’ll do whatever it takes to get people to support this team. This team is worthy of it and they deserve it. When we come out here, I don’t want to see a lot of blue seats.
“I told the team that I’ll be standing on Route 3 where a lot of the construction is going on with signs at 3 o’clock. I won’t be at the pre-game meal on Friday, because I’ll be out [with a sign]: GAME TONIGHT. Whatever it takes, I’ll do.”
The diminutive coach then quipped, “SUVs will be going right over my head.”
He rejected the notion that at a commuter school, the students would be tough to get to the games.
“If their car can drive them to the campus, their car can drive them to the Tsongas Arena,” he said. “That can work to our advantage. We’ve got mobile fans.”
Beyond the challenge of marketing the River Hawks, MacDonald stressed the need for the same culture that he considered a key in Niagara’s success.
“One of my major goals is to bring a very detailed, structured and high-performance culture here,” he said. “Duke basketball has a pretty strong culture there. North Carolina basketball when Dean Smith was there did cultural things to develop a tight bond that is unique.
“It’s as silly as: I don’t let guys wear hats indoors. I don’t let guys have their shirts untucked. When we go on the road and eat, we bus our own tables. It’s things like that that create this culture.
“My biggest mission is to instill this culture. I feel very strongly about that. It’s a culture I’ve played in and coached in.
“Culture drives behavior. Behavior drives how things get done. And how things get done drives performance.”
If the seniors in attendance were representative, MacDonald sold the River Hawks in his Wednesday evening team meeting.
“Coach MacDonald just blew me away,” said Dan Fontas. “I love it. He’s got so much enthusiasm.
“We had a pretty good year last year and we want to take it to the next level next year. He’s the right guy that’s going to do it for us.”