Back In The Saddle

Before the season started, Joe Mallen was realistic. One year earlier, he’d recruited Tim Lovell from Maine after NCAA sanctions put the Black Bears out of postseason action. Lovell had practiced with the Minutemen all year long and been the best player on the ice, but a year without any game action was certain to leave its mark.

“As the rust wears off, I think he’s going to do some great things for us,” said Mallen.

"When I think about him, I just smile. He’s going to make things happen."

— UMass-Amherst coach Joe Mallen

However, in performances that belied Mallen’s cautious optimism, Lovell either assisted on, or scored, all eight Minuteman goals in the opening games of the UMass season.

His play prompted opposing coaches like BU’s Jack Parker to remark, “Tim Lovell gives them a whole new look offensively.”

So much for the rust.

Lovell’s return to the form that earned him All-Hockey East honors in his junior year came as no surprise to his former mentor, Maine coach Shawn Walsh.

“He’s a terrific on-ice competitor,” said Walsh. “He can generate offense five-on-five, which is unusual in this day and age of college hockey. He certainly makes players around him better. He’s the kind of guy who can put up huge numbers if he’s got real talented offensive people playing with him.”

Walsh saw first-hand Lovell’s contributions during the 5-10, 170-pounder’s first two years with the Black Bears, highlighted by Maine’s 1994-95 run to the national championship game.

The following year, however, Maine’s self-imposed penalties kept the Black Bears out of the NCAA tournament. When a year ago last August, the NCAA added another lost postseason, the exodus began.

“The team we would have had there would have been an incredible team,” said Lovell. “But the sanctions came down and we really weren’t going to be playing for anything. That had happened in my junior year, so when I found out in August I wouldn’t be playing for anything except for myself again, I decided to make a change. I wanted to play playoff hockey.”

While teammates Blair Allison and Jeff Tory left for the Canadian national team, Brett Clark for major juniors and Brad Mahoney for a significantly larger role at Northeastern, Lovell’s transfer to UMass-Amherst caused the most head-scratching.

Why would an All-Hockey East player, unhappy at being denied a playoff berth, opt for a program still in its early developmental stages, a school likely to have a brief postseason? Why not go to one of the teams already at the top of the league?

“My credits didn’t transfer to a lot of schools,” said Lovell. “That was a big problem. UMass took my credits and they were one of my top choices in the first place. I liked the idea of going to a new, up-and-coming program.”

“The key thing I sold him on,” said Mallen, “was the fact that he could get a terrific education and he could get his degree. Sitting down with his mom and his dad, we basically set a course for him on a two-year program. We thought it might be one, but it wound up being two years in which he could get a degree from the University of Massachusetts. As a Massachusetts kid, I think he feels very proud about that.

“He also felt that he could be a big part of a program on the upswing. At Maine, he was an outstanding member of the team, but they have a lot of outstanding players. For us, I thought he could really be a big fish in a small pond.”

With the Minutemen, he planned to either join the team in the second semester when he became eligible, or sit out the entire year. The latter option begged the question: why not turn pro rather than lose a whole year?

“I saw a lot of kids my age going and playing in the pros right away,” said Lovell. “That kind of gets you deep inside. But I looked at it from the point of view that if I ever got hurt, I wouldn’t have graduated. I thought I could graduate and still go on a year later and probably be a better player because I would have matured physically.”

So Plan A became that if the Minutemen, led by Rob Bonneau and Warren Norris, got off to a great start, Lovell would join them after the holidays. Unfortunately, that plan fell by the wayside.

“We went 1-6 at the start,” said Lovell. “I knew right after that that I’d rather wait the whole season and have a fresh year coming out and trying to make the team a lot better from the start.”

In the meantime, Lovell put a lot of sweat into improving his game.

“I worked on my strength,” said Lovell. “I worked in the weight room extra hard. And I tried to fine-tune my game to get smarter at what I was doing, looking at the game as a whole.”

This year, he faces new challenges. For the first time, he is now the big fish in a pond that doesn’t have teammates of the stature of Chris Imes, Dan Shermerhorn and Steve Kariya.

“I realize that,” said Lovell. “Teams may try to key on me, but I’m ready for it. I’ve just got to manage my frustrations. If I don’t feel I can get the puck to other people, I’ll just put the puck in the net.”

In addition to providing the Minutemen with their most potent scoring punch since the program’s rebirth in 1993, he also brings several intangibles to the table.

“I think I bring a winning tradition to the University of Massachusetts,” he said.

Additionally, and in the long run most importantly, he has also brought a credibility that any new program needs to bootstrap recruiting. In the first couple years, the Minutemen attracted athletes like Rob Bonneau, for whom the UMass full scholarship was their only such offer. Building a winning team through hidden jewels and developing second-tier prospects is a slow process.

This year’s incoming freshmen, however, mark a major step forward. Jeff Turner, the United States Hockey League’s number-two scorer, and Kris Wallis, the third-leading scorer in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League, both arrived on campus as the school’s strongest recruits since the program’s resurrection.

Lovell factored into recruiting both players.

“We were able to say that they’d be able to play a year with Tim Lovell,” said Mallen. “His name and the way he plays the game with passion [are] going to attract other players, even when people come in to visit this year and watch him play. You always try to parlay and use a positive with a positive in recruiting. I think for Tim to choose to leave a program like Maine and come to UMass was a huge statement about where our program is going.”

Lovell endorsed this approach fully.

“They told me they were going to use my name and that’s great,” said Lovell. “I know when I went to the University of Maine, I looked at guys like Paul Kariya who were there. You’re going to use your top players to help recruiting.”

And to help just about everything else, too. Mallen has Lovell on the penalty kill, the power play, a regular shift and an occasional double-shift, too.

“A player of that ability, you’ve got to go with him,” said Mallen. “Ray Bourque is the first guy over the boards no matter how old he is. He’s on the power play, penalty kill and plays his regular shift. There are some guys that are the keys to your team and they’ve got to be prepared to play those kind of minutes because they can do it all.”

On the power play, Lovell can now be found on the point. His career statistics show almost as many goals (51) as assists (57), which might argue for more of a close-to-the-net sniper’s role on the man advantage than as playmaker from the point. But there’s no arguing with his success there to date.

“He can shoot the puck a ton for a little guy,” said Mallen. “He sees the ice better than any other guy we have, so he’s a good quarterback. As time goes on, it’ll be interesting to see how we can move him around to try to change the look, but for right now I like to see him run the show up top.”

Although every game he’ll play for the Minutemen this year will be important, Lovell has already mentally circled the weekend of February 13 and 14 as something special. And that has nothing to do with Valentine’s Day.

That weekend, UMass-Amherst travels to Maine for a two-game set. It will be Lovell’s first return to his old haunts. Many of the Maine fans still feel betrayed by Lovell’s defection and are likely to let him know it.

“I just want to get that behind me,” he said. “I’m part of a new team now. It’ll be kind of like getting traded. I know I’ll hear the boos, but I hope they respect my decision.

“I have a lot of friends up there and I really respect that school a lot and I respect the coaching staff. But it’s the move that I made and I’m proud of it.”

Shawn Walsh, though obviously disappointed when Lovell left, wishes him well.

“I’ve talked to Timmy since then,” said Walsh. “From what I can gather, now he’s going to get his degree, so I’m happy for him.”

Perhaps, then, Black Bear fans will remember Lovell upon his return for his three great years at Maine, rather than the one he’s spending this season in another uniform.

Whether they do or not, in future years UMass-Amherst fans are likely to look back fondly at Lovell as the “recruit” that helped take the Minutemen to the next level.