The Best Coach in the Business?

“My grandmother could recruit All-Americans for that school.”

Fans have been known to mutter such comments in reference to a rival where hockey has become a self-perpetuating institution. Western schools like Minnesota, home of the 9,305 automatic sellout and season tickets for standing room only seats, provide the best examples. But the shoe fits for some Eastern schools as well, albeit not as snugly.

The perception that such a coach can simply put his feet up on his desk and wait to select the prime applicants who all come begging for scholarships, and then just let the talent win championships, is admittedly an oversimplification. Witness Steve Cedorchuk’s dismal performance at Boston College. However, there is an element of truth in the hyperbole. As long as a coach at “An Institution” is merely competent, the bandwagon should still keep rolling.

Other schools, however, are not as lucky. Only a very special coach can breathe life into a program that lacks a rich history or state-of-the-art facilities. The very short list of active coaches who can perform this feat may begin with Bruce Crowder, with apologies perhaps due Don Lucia at Colorado College.

Crowder achieved exactly that in a mere three years at UMass-Lowell. He took over a program that had gone 31-67-5 the preceding three years and had just been slapped by the NCAA with two years probation and a year of post-season sanctions. Lowell turned the corner in his second year when they posted a winning season of 20-17-2. The following year they topped that with an NCAA bid and came within a double overtime loss of making championship weekend. For his achievements that year Crowder was named Hockey East Coach of the Year, the New England Hockey Writers Association’s Division One Coach of the Year, and was a national Coach of the Year finalist.

After an off-year in 1994-95 fueled by losses to graduation and goaltending woes, the River Hawks shocked the pundits and returned to the NCAA quarterfinal this past year, earning Crowder the Spencer Penrose Award as the NCAA Division One Coach of the Year, the lone coaching award that had eluded him in 1993-94.

In an interview with U.S. College Hockey Online, Crowder talked about his Lowell teams, his coaching philosophy, and his expectations at Northeastern University, with whom he signed a five-year contract in June, a story first broken on these pages.

Without question, the 1995-96 squad’s performance is the crown jewel in Crowder’s coaching crown. “This past year was even more special [than the 93-94 team],” Crowder said. “In 93-94 people expected us to have a pretty good team, but this year no one expected us to do anything. We were picked to finish sixth in Hockey East.”

The team began the year with the goal of returning to the NCAA’s, a possibility quickly dismissed by most insiders. But according to Crowder, “We had a great bunch of players. They came to work everyday in practice. As coaches we tried to keep the practices fun and exciting, but they were still ultimately responsible. We believed in the kids and they performed.”

To achieve their overall goal of reaching the NCAA tourney, Crowder established two intermediate goals: be the least penalized team in Hockey East and give up an average of fewer than three goals a game.

Although Lowell’s penalty minutes didn’t drop to the lowest in the league, they did go from being the most penalized team with 638 penalty minutes to the middle of the pack with 468. “That’s almost three full games of penalties that we eliminated,” said Crowder. “It meant more power play time, fewer penalty kills, plus you also had guys like Ed Campbell and Christian Sbrocca out on the ice more. A lot of people focused on Greg Bullock’s penalty minutes the year before, but Christian and Eddie were just as guilty.”

Bullock had, in fact, been a controversial figure in 1994-95. After a 1993-94 season in which he led Hockey East in scoring as a freshman winning Hockey East Rookie of the Year and helped a largely veteran squad to its first NCAA berth under Crowder, Bullock became a target in his sophomore year. Without the departed seniors around to deflect defensive attention, Bullock found himself being frequently shadowed and goaded into the penalty box. He became frustrated and appeared to lock horns at times with Crowder who felt compelled in some instances to exile his leading scorer to the fourth line and the bench in an attempt to keep Bullock focused on the ice and out of the sin bin. Things came to a head in the Hockey East consolation game when Bullock was left in the locker room for the third period after a particularly unfortunate temper explosion. Bullock soon left for the International Hockey League.

“I consider it more my fault than anything,” said Crowder graciously. “I believe you learn more from your failures than your successes. Things just kept snowballing with Greg. It became a great learning experience for me. I believe that Greg learned from it too.”

Crowder also learned that year from what he termed “my biggest mistake ever.” Following the graduation of All-Everything goaltender Dwayne Roloson, Crowder brought in freshmen Martin Fillion and Scott Fankhouser to battle with returning, but untested, sophomore Craig Lindsay. What resulted was the worst collective goaltending in Hockey East. With three goalies vying for time, the freshmen battled with their confidence, as freshmen goalies are wont to do, and no goalie had the opportunity to work himself out of a bad game or put together a string of good ones. To correct the problem, Fankhouser was sent to play this past year in the Saskatchewan juniors (“where,” Crowder joked earlier this season, “if the cable goes out, they just watch the Northern Lights.”).

Given the opportunity, Fillion did emerge as a solid goaltender, though not quite of the caliber of a Blair Allison, Greg Taylor, or Dan Dennis. This was a key element in addressing Crowder’s second point of emphasis for the year, allowing fewer than three goals a game. As with penalty minutes, the River Hawks also fell short of the goal, but did lower their goals against totals by almost a goal a game.

In this case, however, accepting more than three goals a game against was an acceptable tradeoff for increased offensive production. “I like to preach defense first,” said Crowder of his team’s success in wide-open games, “but if you’ve got a horse that can run, you let it run. We finished fifth in the country in scoring. If we can score five or more goals a game, I’ll take that. We even got over thirty goals from our defensemen.”

So while there may be offensive-minded coaches and defensive-minded ones, the Bruce Crowder style is to succeed one way or another. “I believe in a KISS style. Keep It Simple, Stupid. I don’t really get into line-matching much. What I try to do is make sure the kids have parameters as to what they can do. They do have responsibilities in the defensive zone, but beyond that I don’t want to restrict their offensive creativity. With players like Christian Sbrocca, who I considered to be as skilled as anyone in the country, I wanted them to have the offensive freedom to create.”

Crowder’s one other recurring theme is hard work. “What I learned from my playing career at UNH and the Bruins is the value of a work ethic. I’ve always been a blue-collar kind of guy. That’s how I approach a game and how I expect my players to play. Sometimes skill by itself will win out, but for the most part you’ve got to come to work.”

When Crowder did make the transition from player to coach he was first an assistant coach at Maine under Shawn Walsh from 1986 to 1990, and then associate head coach/head coach designee for one year at Lowell under Bill Riley. At each stop along the way, both while playing and then behind the bench, “I was a sponge,” according to Crowder. “I learned a lot while playing for Charlie Holt [at UNH] and Gerry Cheevers [with the Boston Bruins].”

Some things about the player-to-coach transition, however, were difficult. “Things I did naturally as a player, I had to figure out how to describe. Although today’s player is faster and quicker, sometimes they’ve been overcoached and don’t have as much hockey sense.” Communicating knowledge that had been instinctive wasn’t always as easy as he thought it would be. “Now I tend to use a lot of analogies.”

As he began his first season as a head coach in 1991-92, he wondered how he would handle success and failure. He had a lot more of the latter to deal with than the former as his team went 11-19-4. “When things are going wrong and it seems like everyone else is losing their head, you have to make sure you’re on an even keel,” Crowder commented, in reference to his baptism by fire and to tough times in general. He added, “I still was fortunate to be working with good people who had the same vision of where the program was headed.”

One of the major problems facing Crowder at UML was how to put fannies in the seats. “We figured that winning would eventually solve the attendance problems, but in the meantime we tried to get the local people excited about the team. We took the Burger King ™ and McDonald’s ™ approach and went after kids with our Youngstars program. Then we got the players involved in the community with things like Special Olympics.” Not only was this good for the players as individuals but, “we figured that people might feel that they were good guys and support them even if they weren’t winning.”

The team’s initiatives with the community did pay off and attendance began to climb, especially as the team quickly progressed from near-doormat to league power. Expectations mounted of building the same type of recruiting powerhouse Crowder had experienced firsthand as an assistant at Maine. These expectations, however, proved unwarranted.

“Recruiting is the name of the game,” according to Crowder. This was a lesson he learned under Shawn Walsh. Unfortunately, recruiting at UMass-Lowell was a tougher sell than for the Black Bears. Maine featured a rink on campus with over five thousand fans and was the only show in town. Lowell, by contrast, had an off-campus rink and no monopoly on the affection of the local populace. Even after aggressive marketing and becoming one of the top teams in Hockey East, attendance still averaged no more than 2200. Lowell also was a smaller school with perhaps more limited academic choices. “We lost out on a lot of kids,” said Crowder. “We weren’t able to out-recruit other schools. What we were able to do was develop the kids we got.”

Scheduling was another occasional problem. Each Hockey East team has ten non-league games to fill. Although Crowder tried to enhance the UML schedule, there were roadblocks. For example, Crowder pointed out, “We tried to get into the Great Western Freeze Out, but were told we didn’t have a significant alumni base.” As a result, empty game slots would go to Division One Independents like Army and Air Force. These teams did little for Lowell’s national reputation and likely formed another recruiting hindrance.

All of which paled to the sense of injustice felt when UMass-Lowell was sent to the Western Regional both in 1993-94 and 1995-96 despite being a high enough seed to stay in the Eastern Regional held in Albany, New York. “One of the NCAA’s stated criteria was to maximize the draw at the regionals,” Crowder said in resignation. “They were convinced we wouldn’t get the fans there.”

Even so, Lowell fans basked in the glow of the shockingly upbeat 1995-96 season and assumed a bright future ahead with a new rink on the way, two successful NCAA appearances in the last three years, and a long-term extension for Crowder all but signed, sealed, and delivered.

It was the best of times. Unfortunately, it would soon become the worst of times.

When Northeastern University coach Ben Smith left to coach the US Olympic Women’s hockey team, NU Athletic Director Barry Gallup had a very short list of who he wanted as coach. At the top of the list was one name: Bruce Crowder.

The contract extension that according to sources had been agreed upon between Lowell Athletic Director Dana Skinner and Crowder had been languishing on the desk of UMass-Lowell’s Chancellor Hogan for months. Crowder has since been characteristically gracious in referring mildly to the “stalled” contract talks, but many Lowell fans are willing to put the villain’s hat squarely on the head of Chancellor Hogan, the Grinch Who Lost The Best Coach in Hockey.

Initially Crowder wasn’t interested in Northeastern. But Gallup persisted, and with the Lowell contract extension stalled, Crowder listened. The more he listened, the more he liked what he heard. Eventually Crowder felt that the move was the right one for his family and, although it was a difficult decision, inked the five-year deal.

“They’ve really put a lot of things in place here,” Crowder said. “They’ve done a great job with Matthews Arena and just spent another million dollars on [the facilities]. They feel this is one of the few sports that they can win a national title in and are willing to do everything they can to achieve that. Everything that I said I needed, they agreed to.”

Crowder hopes to bring his entire coaching staff with him from Lowell. However, Tim Whitehead, his assistant, is also a finalist for the head position at Lowell that Crowder just vacated. Crowder has strongly and publicly recommended Whitehead for the position but if Whitehead is passed over, then Crowder will happily welcome him to Northeastern. Regardless of the Whitehead decision, the current Northeastern assistants will not be retained.

Crowder now faces his latest challenge realistically. “I’ve inherited a seventh place team that graduated both its goaltenders, an All-Hockey East defenseman, and half of its offense. Fill in the blanks.”

Crowder can’t say when the Huntington Hounds might become national championship caliber. “We’ll have to see what the kids we’ve got now can do and how well we recruit the next two or three years.”

Still, Crowder remains optimistic. “I think I have a few more things in my recruiting bag now than I did at Lowell. There may be kids we lost at Lowell that might have come to Northeastern.” Chief, though not alone, among these recruiting advantages is The Beanpot. “And I’m very confident that we’ll continue to successfully develop players.”

Some returning Huskies players and recruits will likely feel uneasy over playing for a coach that didn’t recruit them. “I’m going to tell them,” says Crowder, “‘We’re all in this together. You’re going to have to live with me and I’m going to have to live with you. A lot of Lowell players in the same situation went on to be pretty good players.'”

When asked what players he’ll be relying on, Crowder responded, “We’ll rely on the whole team. Whatever they’ve done before doesn’t matter. What they do now will count. Positions, power play time, and all those things will work themselves out.”

One thing Crowder is sure about is that he won’t repeat his goaltending trio mistake of 1994-95. He has returning third-string senior Kevin Noke as well as recruits Marc Robitaille and Judd Brackett. “I won’t go with three guys playing. It’ll be two guys and we’ll either split them or one will earn the bulk of the time.”

Crowder expects to incorporate at Northeastern many of the marketing ideas that proved successful at UML. A packed and festive Matthews Arena is part of his equation for Huskies success.

When asked if in the future any other school could potentially woo him away from Northeastern, he answered, “I like the challenge ahead of me. I like being in the Boston market. You never say never, but I would expect that if there is a next move it would be a pro move. But unless they fail to live up to their commitments here, I don’t see myself going anywhere. I like what I’m doing.”

Sooner or later Northeastern fans will probably like what Bruce Crowder is doing too.