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College Hockey:
With lessons from York, Cavanaugh sets off on his own head coaching path

The new Connecticut leader spent the last 18 years working with college hockey's all-time winningest coach.

The year was 1992 and email blasts were still a thing of the future.

To get your resume in front of the eyes that matter, one actually had to stuff a bunch of envelopes and lick a lot of stamps.

And Mike Cavanaugh licked plenty of them.

Bitten hard by the coaching bug after winding up his playing days at Bowdoin, Cavanaugh mailed out a hand-addressed offer for his services to dozens of Division I coaches.

“I said, ‘I’d like for you to consider me as a graduate assistant,’” Cavanaugh said.

And then he waited for the responses to come rolling in.

Only two of them did, but one — from Bowling Green’s Jerry York — was the one that changed his life and set him on a coaching track that has now led him to Connecticut.

“I’m sure glad he [York] returned that letter,” said Cavanaugh, who is UConn’s newly minted head coach after a 21-year apprenticeship as a college assistant coach. That includes 19 seasons under York, the last 18 of them at Boston College.

“Jerry took me as an infant in this business,” Cavanaugh said. “And now he’s kicking me off to college. Telling me to go do my own thing now.”

Indeed.

After putting his fingerprints on four BC national championships and the careers of countless Eagles players who made good in the pros, it’s time for Cavanaugh to wrap his hands around his own team.

“I think it’s really exciting,” Cavanaugh said, “to take a program that hasn’t had scholarships for a number of years [but] is making the commitment to elevate its program. If I was going to leave Boston College, and essentially build a program at an outstanding university, [this] is more than I can ever ask for.”

Cavanaugh, who hails from North Andover, Mass., takes over from interim coach David Berard, who led the Huskies to an Atlantic Hockey semifinal berth last year.

He reportedly beat out two other finalists — Berard and former Denver and Miami coach George Gwozdecky — for the job.

(Ironically, Gwozdecky was the other coach who responded positively to Cavanaugh’s letter-writing campaign, way back when.)

I0000bpzqVHyf8WE With lessons from York, Cavanaugh sets off on his own head coaching path

When it comes to recruiting, Mike Cavanaugh will be in a Hockey East mind-set right away at Connecticut (photo: Melissa Wade).

With UConn set to move into Hockey East in 2014-15, and with a new on-campus rink in the early planning stages, Cavanaugh has a chance to turn the hockey Huskies into a major player in Division I, which for him, is the chance of a lifetime.

“I always wanted to be a head coach,” he said. “[But] I always stayed away from looking into the future. My philosophy is the job I have now is the one I’m going to commit 100 percent to. I never got caught up in saying, ‘If I’m not a head coach by this point,’ or whatever. I just worked as hard as I could as an assistant coach at Boston College every year I was there.

“I didn’t focus on whether I was going to be a career assistant, or a head coach at ‘X’ school. I’ve always focused on whatever job I’ve had at the time. Right now, I’m the head coach at the University of Connecticut.”

Which for the moment, means he’s doing double duty.

First off, he has to prepare the Huskies for the ultimate swan song, a run at an Atlantic Hockey crown (which would be their first) in their final year there.

And then there is task of getting UConn ready for the transition to Hockey East, where Cavanaugh’s long history and intimate familiarity with that conference are bound to be helpful.

Needless to say, Cavanaugh has plenty of work ahead of him. And for him, it’s first things first.

“Hockey East can wait,” he said. “I’m not really focused on Hockey East. I’ve gotten calls asking me about scheduling two years down the road, and frankly, that’s very low on my priority list. I’m really focused on winning an Atlantic Hockey championship. I think the seniors on our team deserve that kind of commitment.

“Now, recruiting will be a different issue. Recruiting will be focused on Hockey East.”

And that means he’ll be often be mucking it up in the corners with his old boss York for prime recruits, including those in his own, new backyard.

Pat Mullane, Tommy Cross, Ben Smith, and Cam and Tommy Atkinson are all recent Eagles standouts who were harvested from the Nutmeg State.

No doubt Cavanaugh will win a few and lose a few of those living room visits that lay ahead.

What will always stick with the new head Huskies coach is the stamp he bears from York, who amassed 476 of his record 935 wins with Cavanaugh by his side.

Working with York day in and out for two decades was akin to an immersion coaching clinic.

But if you ask Cavanaugh, the most important lessons gleaned from the York curriculum had nothing to do with power plays, line rolls or OKing championship ring designs.

Instead, he said, it’s York’s fourth-line humility, which overshadows his Hall of Fame credentials, that stands out the most.

“I just think it’s his modesty,” Cavanaugh said. “How humble he is. It’s really unique for someone in his position. He is the all-time winningest coach. I remember when he broke the record [last season], [Boston Celtics coach] Doc Rivers sent him an email saying that when you’re the all-time in anything, it’s pretty neat.

“If he sat down with you at Dunkin’ Donuts, he’d talk with you for 10 minutes. Maybe 20. He doesn’t have any airs about him, and if there is one thing I can take with him, it’s how modest and humble he is. I’ve said on many occasions that in my career, if I can be as modest and humble as Jerry York, then I’ll be doing OK for myself.”

Cavanaugh is now assembling his own staff, and hopes to make those hires soon.

Who knows? Maybe there’s a resume sitting in his mailbox worth opening.


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  • antioch1098

    Good night trying to step out of the shadows of mighty Quinnipiac and Yale.

    • gojohnnygo13

      Granted, Connecticut players now have some options they may have not had a few years ago, but to say that the ECAC is better than Hockey East is just not correct. ECAC had a great year and when the conferences met in the tournment, ECAC came out on top (and good for them). This was the first ECAC title in how many years? HEA owns 4 of the last 6. Being a “better” conference has to have a longevity element to it. 2012-13 belonged to ECAC, but that’s not a sign of the better conference. A sign of a conference getting better? Maybe. Depends on what the future holds.

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