PITTSBURGH — The ultimate compliment to any player is when his coach moves to a new program and brings the player along with him. Even more so if that involves making the huge leap from Division III hockey to Division I.
Massachusetts-Lowell coach Norm Bazin held defenseman Joe Houk in just such a high regard. Houk played his first two years of collegiate hockey for Bazin at Hamilton, a Division III program in the New England Small College Athletic Conference.
As a sophomore, Houk played like a man among boys on the blue line, scoring 17 goals and adding 16 assists in just 25 games. He became the first sophomore to earn the league’s player of the year award and also earned Division III first-team All-American honors.
Hamilton, historically a NESCAC also-ran and one that had finished tied for last place three years earlier, took the NESCAC regular season crown.
When Bazin accepted the offer to return to Lowell, his alma mater, the superstar coach took along his superstar player.
Houk redshirted last season due to the transfer rules, and experienced early growing pains adjusting to D-I play, accumulating a minus-6 statistic over the first seven games.
Since then, however, he has recorded only a single negative game in plus-minus (minus-1 on Jan. 12) and has rallied to become tied as the River Hawks top plus-minus performer at plus-17. While he has yet to score his first goal, he’s assisted on 11.
“Joe is an excellent offensive threat,” Bazin said at Wednesday’s news conference. “You haven’t seen that too much at the Division I level yet, but he’s maturing into that.
“He’s had to learn to deal with bigger, stronger, faster players this year, and it’s taken him a while to defend. He’s still working on his offensive game and perfecting his defensive game a little bit more as the season progressed. But I think in time he’ll grow into more of an offensive threat.”
In his first collegiate game at Hamilton, Houk played before a typical D-III “crowd” of 604. This weekend, he’ll play for a D-I national championship in an NHL rink in front of an expected 19,758 fans. There’s also that potential Saturday night ESPN audience.
Suffice it to say that he’s made one gigantic leap.