Leveling The Playing Field

Among the teams making the recent transition to the Division I level, none stubbed its collective toe harder than Fairfield University last year.

The Stags suffered through a debut season in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference that would have stretched the patience of any good Jesuit priest.

Their only victory came in the final third of the season. Opponents outscored the Stags by over five goals per game.

The University administration felt it had two options in light of the frequently embarrassing on-ice results, which included surrendering 10 or more goals on five occasions. The school could drop ice hockey altogether or make a greater commitment to the sport, with the goal of becoming a contender in the MAAC and, possibly, beyond. Their decision to stick with hockey is already being rewarded.

“The hockey program here got caught by surprise last year,” said Dorchester, Massachusetts, native Mark Dennehy, Fairfield’s first-year head coach. “The MAAC was supposed to be a ‘cost-contained’ alternative to the other Division I leagues. But some other schools were ramping up a year or two in advance and had a big advantage.”

Dennehy is the first full-time hockey coach in the history of Stags hockey. That alone is evidence of the renewed pledge in favor of the program. He is also the right man for the job; in many ways similar to Blaise MacDonald, the phenomenally successful fourth-year coach at Niagara University. Both are young, energetic, ambitious and well-schooled in recruiting and game strategy.

Dennehy also enjoys a reputation for being a player’s coach who keeps an open door and engages in an easy rapport with his charges.

Fairfield’s rookie head coach inherits a team that should be easy to convince that better days are ahead. The roster is stocked with 13 freshmen and eight sophomores who are ready and willing to listen to their new coach. The upperclass minority, all of whom arrived on campus at the Division III level, have gracefully accepted that the underclassmen may hold more prominent roles on the team.

Improvement under the new regime is already on display. Fairfield’s goal differential is under three per game and the team has been competitive in most outings, including a pair of wins over MAAC rival Bentley and ties against Army and Sacred Heart. Opponents are finding that the scrappy Stags are also surprisingly skilled, particularly the freshman line of Rae Metz, Ryan Tormey and Dan Cotter.

“We have a great freshman class and that has helped us tremendously,” Metz said. “As a team, we have started to turn things around in the last few games after going through a bit of a learning process in the beginning of the season.”

Metz leads the club in scoring at a point-per-game clip, followed by Tormey, classmate Casey Laflamme and Cotter. Laflamme and first-year defensemen Steve Calderara join the Metz line on the top power-play unit, which has been productive enough to instill Dennehy with a sense of confidence about the team’s future. Credit for the recruiting effort goes to Dennehy’s predecessor, Mark Doneghey, who is now the top assistant at Merrimack College under Chris Serino.

“I don’t expect to see a class of players like the seniors I had at Princeton last year again anytime soon,” said Dennehy, referring to a group of Tigers that included All-America Steve Shirreffs, current Washington Capital Jeff Halpern and ECAC Defensive Forward of the Year Syl Apps. “But this (freshman) class has a lot of the same qualities as that class.”

Dennehy’s own recruiting efforts will focus on the kind of players who “slip between the cracks” of the college hockey powerhouses. He did much the same thing at Princeton, where he was instructed by head coach Don Cahoon to find players with heart and character as well as skilled players who might be overlooked by other programs for one reason or another. Cahoon, Dennehy and head assistant Len Quesnelle then set about molding these lumps of hockey coal into diamonds like Halpern or Shirreffs.

Much of Dennehy’s approach to the game seems to follow Cahoon’s. The Fairfield coach talks about having a team that is willing to compete on every shift, a team that plays “in your face” hockey, but a team that can also adapt to various styles of play.

In that sense, Metz, Tormey and Cotter appear to be the ideal line combination for the new Fairfield look. Metz is the patient quarterback with the hands and vision to find open teammates and a willingness to take an offensive chance. Tormey’s on-ice leadership and intensity reminds Dennehy of Apps. Cotter is an up-and-down with a goal-scorer’s touch around the net.

Like many other teams in the MAAC, Fairfield has several older freshmen who spent a few years after high school trying to draw the interest of an established Division I program. Tormey and Cotter wound up on the same North American Hockey League team as Metz in Danville, Illinois, last year and ultimately convinced Metz to matriculate to the suburbs of Connecticut with them.

“I had come to see Fairfield a couple of times to visit friends and thought it was a great place to go to school. The fact that it had hockey was really just a bonus,” Tormey said. “Rae was one of the first guys in Danville that Dan and I started to get along with, and we developed a good relationship.”

Metz’ family in Ohio would take Cotter and Tormey out with them after Danville games. The Massachusetts-based Cotters and Tormeys now return the favor for Metz. The three players live together on campus as well. Like the rest of the Stags, the three roommates wake up early every morning for the ten-minute van ride to their off-campus rink, the Bridgeport Wonderland of Ice. Not having an on-campus rink is a burden, but one which their MAAC competitors generally share. Dennehy thinks that Fairfield has other means of attracting bona fide Division I talent.

“Fairfield is not what I would consider a ‘sleeping giant’; we don’t have the resources of a Michigan or a Notre Dame, but I thought the school could take a step to another level when I was looking at the job,” said Dennehy. “Geographically, the school is in a great spot. We are 45 minutes from New York City, not too far from Boston, and Fairfield County is gorgeous. We have an academic profile that is on the rise — the average SAT of a freshman here is 1210 — and, unlike a lot of other schools, we are having no trouble filling beds. Plus, the athletics here are strong. A number of teams compete for national titles.”

The coach himself was also seduced by an educational philosophy that served him well at Boston College High School and Boston College. Like those schools, Fairfield was founded by the Jesuits.

“When I first took the job it felt comfortable right away, like stepping into an old shoe. It reminded me a lot of what I learned at B.C. High and Boston College,” said Dennehy, who played on three Hockey East championship teams for the Eagles before graduating in 1991. “There are a lot of good qualities in the way the Jesuits educate their students that translate well into other areas of life in this day and age.”

Dennehy’s optimism about Fairfield’s hockey future is just what the Doctor ordered — Doc McCarthy, that is. Professor John F. McCarthy was the first head hockey coach that Fairfield ever had, and held the job for 28 years. He was also one of Fairfield’s most effective recruiters in the hiring process. “I told a group of alumni recently that we had something in common — we were all recruited by Doc McCarthy,” Dennehy said. “He was integral to my coming here; he knew what buttons to push and spurred my interest in the program.”

McCarthy, a professor of clinical psychology and the academic advisor for the team’s freshmen, has a proprietary interest. He founded the program without any official support as a club team in 1968 and built it into a consistent winner at the Division III level. McCarthy grew up in Lynn, just north of Boston, and seems to have found a kindred spirit in Dennehy.

“(Mark) comes from a background where he understands the Fairfield educational philosophy,” McCarthy said. “He had been at Princeton doing the recruiting, and obviously those skills were apparent. He also has the Irish gift of gab — he made a very favorable impression on me even before he was interested in the position; he was head and shoulders above the other candidates.”

McCarthy’s last official role as head coach of the program was to assist in the transition from Division III to Division I. It was a move that was necessitated by the University’s Division I status in other sports and the incompatibility of the program with its existing league arrangement.

“There was always a tension when we played in the ECAC South Division; it was not truly a Division III league because there was a mixture of schools,” McCarthy said. “For example, we were listed as Division I independent because of the status of the university athletic programs. Eventually, that resulted in the ECAC ousting Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart and ourselves from the league on the grounds that we gave scholarships, but at the same time we had to abide by Division I rules, such as requiring transfers to sit out for a year where other schools in the league didn’t have to do that.”

The MAAC came to fruition as a result of the ECAC’s decision to ostracize the three schools. Other, similarly situated programs like the University of Connecticut and Holy Cross jumped on the bandwagon in addition to Canisius, Iona and American International. Bentley and Mercyhurst joined the MAAC this season, and Army will come on board next year.

Each team can offer up to 11 athletic scholarships; Fairfield currently extends an equivalent of approximately nine spread out over several players.

“I think this is an up-and-coming league,” Tormey said. “A few of the top schools, like Quinnipiac and Connecticut, are already playing teams from other leagues. That exposure will help us all. I would love to play against a Hockey East or an ECAC school. It would help the MAAC and would open up the Northeast to even more college hockey.”

Tormey would not have been playing Division I hockey but for the MAAC. He is a poster child for improving access to Division I college hockey programs, having blossomed as a player late in his teens. Dennehy thinks there are a lot more kids like Tormey out there still looking for a chance to prove themselves.

“I don’t share the view that hockey is watered down,” the Fairfield coach said. “I think we are producing pretty good players at the college level and that there are more players out there than ever before. Pro hockey is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, but there are still only 54 Division I teams. We have to give these kids an opportunity to play.”

Dennehy’s vision for the MAAC would see the league expand slowly and focus on building new rinks before increasing the number of available scholarships. McCarthy agrees and is hopeful that Fairfield will lead the way.

“I am always optimistic about the possibility of building a rink on campus, but I don’t want it to be the John F. McCarthy Memorial Rink — I want to see it in my lifetime,” McCarthy said. “There is a lot of building going on right now on campus, and (the University administration has) expressed an interest in something like Conte Forum in the past as an upgrade of the athletic facilities, but the issue is money. I may be overly optimistic, but it is within the realm of possibility.”

In the interim, McCarthy is impressed with the level of play he sees from Dennehy’s young club. The former coach anticipates that one good recruiting class will lift the club into the middle of the MAAC pack, just in time for the prospect of the league earning an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.

Dennehy knows from his experience at Princeton that postseason play provides the greatest opportunity to put his program on the map.

“We saw at Princeton that anything can happen in an elimination tournament. It is the games that you win in March that count, not the ones you win in November or December,” said Dennehy, who helped the Tigers advance to three ECAC semifinals and an NCAA tournament berth in his three years in New Jersey.

On the other hand, the Stags head coach is not so naive as to overlook the fact that Fairfield still has a long way to go. He reads the weekly postings on the USCHO message board, where the Stags have held down the No. 1 spot on the “Bottom Ten” for as long as he can remember.

“It is the nature of sports that there have to be a winner and a loser,” Dennehy said, “To have a team at the top of the poll, you have to have a team at the bottom. But that doesn’t mean you always have to be at the bottom forever.

“I have been lucky to have seen it from both sides. I went from winning at Boston College to UMass-Amherst, where we struggled. Both perspectives were good for me. You will always have good days and bad days. The important thing is what you do on the bad days. I will say that I am looking forward to the day we graduate (from the Bottom Ten).”

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