When you finish in last place and then graduate your top goaltender, one of your top two scorers and four other forwards, you’d better have a vision for where the program is going because there may not be a lot of instant gratification in the offing. Fortunately for UMass-Amherst, second-year coach Don “Toot” Cahoon has just that vision.
Most observers would suggest that a Massachusetts state school can’t do what the University of Minnesota does, namely thrive using almost exclusively home-grown talent, because there are so many others vying for those players. Between Hockey East and the ECAC, there are seven Division I programs in Massachusetts and 12 in New England.
The argument goes that Boston College and Boston University have always skimmed off the cream of the local crop, Harvard has taken a brainiac here or there, and the rest of the competition snags most of the remaining local blue-chippers. It logically follows that you can’t win in Hockey East fielding a team consisting of crumbs brushed off of other recruiting tables.
Cahoon, however, has boldly gone after the local filet mignon, attempting to make UMass the place of choice rather than the athletic equivalent of a safety school. Nine of the 11 freshmen on the team are from Massachusetts, another is from New York and only one newcomer hails from Canada. The gamble will only pay off if the local kids can play, but Cahoon is confident that UMass hockey is on the right track.
“We think we’ve made some gains in establishing a recruiting program that has tapped the in-state kid and gotten him interested in what we’re doing here,” he says. “Then we tried to complement that by getting a few players from the outside that we think can bring special qualities to the program and maintain a good mix in a diverse type of environment which is reflective of the university itself. That [approach] has been put into place.
“We’ve also tried to establish the ground rules for the players and the people around the program as to what our culture will be. It takes more time than any 15- or 16-month period would allow, but we think, by in large, that we have at least established the ground rules, whether it be the expected behavior or what the practice settings are going to be like or what game environments are going to be like, what preparation will be required and so on.
“We’re just at the embryonic stage, if you will, of trying to put all these pieces in place. That’s basically been the first year’s endeavor along with creating a mindset for training and a commitment to a sense of purpose to moving this program slowly but surely up the ladder of Hockey East.”
How quickly does Cahoon expect to see dividends? This year? Next year? Two years?
“Everybody asks those questions,” says Cahoon. “Your guess is as good as mine, quite honestly. Do I think we will in subtle ways? Yes, we will, but we’re going to be very young.
“I doubt that there will be a team in Division I college hockey younger than us. With that you’re going to get enthusiasm and you’re going to get probably inconsistent play. I hope that some of our young players are viewed as being promising, real good performers within this league. If they are, then they’re going to be terrific college hockey players and we need to nurture those kids. We need to try and merge that group in with the returning players, the veterans, to try to come up with some kind of team concept that can sustain itself.”
The position of greatest transition will be at forward, where five seniors graduated, most notably Jeff Turner. His brother Tim returns as the leading scorer along with Martin Miljko, who could be poised for a big breakout year.
“[Miljko] has real offensive ability,” says Cahoon. “He shoots the puck as well as any college player I’ve seen in quite a while. He has the ability to be a true goalscorer and he’s come in in good shape and he has a good mentality. He had a great first half of the season last year, but really struggled as the team struggled down the stretch. [In the first 18 games, he scored 11 goals and assisted on eight others, compared to only a single goal and two assists in the final 13 contests.] So we’re hoping that he can put it all together this year.
“Tim Turner has been a productive player for us for two years. It will be interesting to see what Timmy can do without his brother. Clearly he has good ability, he has great passion and he’s a physically strong kid, so I expect him to have a productive year.”
Cahoon also expects big things out of Darcy King even though the senior has never totaled more than 13 points.
“He came here as a very young junior player and I think he’s going to come into his own,” says Cahoon. “He’s really demonstrated a level of fitness that we really didn’t have last year and I think that that’s going to really help him a lot.”
Ultimately, however, the fortunes of the offense will rest on almost as many freshman shoulders as veterans. Of the 15 UMass forwards, seven are rookies. Can such a young group be more productive than last year’s unit which finished last in Hockey East scoring?
“That’s the big unknown,” says Cahoon. “Virtually half of those forwards are going to be first-year players. It remains to be seen how they adjust and what guys get caught up with the transition and what guys can just move forward without much difficulty. It’s virtually impossible to think we’re going to be able to go into the season without having them very much in the mix.
“Quite honestly, we’re thinking all the guys are going to be able to contribute. But Greg Mauldin and Matt Walsh are probably physically as ready as any of the freshmen we have.
“Greg was kind of a late bloomer. He surpassed anybody’s expectations at the college level of what he might become. He continues to show us that he’s still improving on a very consistent basis so we’re excited about working with him. That’s not to say that he’s going to come in here and light it up, but I think he’s going to be a pretty good performer and someone we’re looking forward to having in our lineup.
— UMass-Amherst head coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon
“Matt Walsh is a little bit more experienced. He maybe is not going to be a big offensive player for us, but I think he’ll get around the rink and he’ll make his presence felt pretty well. He comes from good stock. His dad is Eddie Walsh, who played with me at BU and is a good friend. We’re thinking Matt certainly can step in.”
Goaltender is the other position in transition. Longtime number one netminder Markus Helanen is gone, leaving behind senior Mike Johnson and highly-regarded freshman Tim Warner. Johnson was hardly a benchwarmer during Helanen’s tenure, figuring in 12 decisions last year and posting a 3.81 GAA and a .891 save percentage.
“They’re both going to contribute, but certainly Mike has the advantage in the early going,” says Cahoon. “He knows exactly what college hockey is all about. He understands the level of the competition. He’s logically a few steps ahead of the curve.
“Timmy was a real good get for us. He’s a high profile player. But it’s a big jump from where he’s been and where he is now, so he has his work cut out for him as he knows.
“Well take it as it comes. I’ve always lived by the adage that if you play well, you get rewarded with further play. It’s all based on their performance. If either one of them play exceptionally well, they’ll carry the load, the motherlode anyway. If they both play well, then they’ll both get a chance to contribute.”
Defense marks the point of greatest stability on the Minutemen. Samuli Jalkanen and Toni Soderholm anchor the unit. Junior Kelly Sickavish and senior Randy Drohan also return along with Nick Kuiper, who joined the team in midseason last year. While freshmen will undoubtedly see a lot of time at forward and potentially in goal, this group will be a tougher one to crack for rookies Jeff Lang (NE Prep All-New England), Sean Regan (NE Prep All-New England) and Dusty Demianiuk.
“I think we’ll get some help from the younger players on defense, but our defensive core is the veteran group,” says Cahoon. “Certainly if you had a preseason all-league team, Soderholm and Jalkanen should be on the list of players to choose from.
“They are very different from each other. Jalkanen has got the big motor; he has an impact in almost every game he plays. Soderholm, who right now is as healthy as he’s been since I’ve been here, is very clever and more traditionally what you’d expect from a European defenseman. He’ll make the nifty passes and the more difficult plays. He’s maybe not as physical as Sammy, but he’s very gifted with the puck. Those two bring the most experience.
“Sickavish and Kuiper are good players, but they’re going to [have to] come into their own in order to get to the status [of the other two].”
Given that there will almost certainly be growing pains with such a young team, Cahoon will have to work at keeping the optimism high regardless of the wins and losses.
“We try to make the whole experience a real positive one,” he says. “I enjoy what I’m doing and I think that clearly defines the way the team functions. They know there’s going to be a level of enthusiasm and there’s going to be a level of energy regardless of what’s happening winning or losing-wise. That hopefully eases some of the difficulties.
“That’s not to say that I’m easy going and I just accept ill fate. I’m just like any other coach. You have to make demands and you have to go after it in a big way. But at the same time, geez, after what has happened in the last few weeks [the Sept. 11 attacks and the death of Shawn Walsh], if you can’t have a perspective and understand that this game is the game you love and it’s supposed to be, above all, fun and really enjoyable, then it’s not worth doing.”