The future of the Umass-Lowell hockey program appears safe, thanks to the intervention of Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci.
In recent weeks, there were numerous reports that the state legislature was considering abandoning the Lowell hockey program because of funding and gender equity concerns, and forcing a so-called “merger” with the UMass-Amherst program.
As recently as Thursday, the future was still in doubt. “There is reason for concern,” said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna on the USCHO Frozen Four Pre-Game Show.
But a report in Friday’s Lowell Sun says that Cellucci stepped in and urged UMass president William Bulger and Board of Higher Education Chairman Stephen Tocco to back away from “merger” talk. Cellucci, the new U.S. Ambassador to Canada, is said to be an ardent college hockey fan.
— UMass-Lowell athletic director Dana Skinner
“The team will remain in Lowell,” said UMass spokesman John Hoey to the Lowell Sun. “The president is very supportive of keeping the team in Lowell and he understands the impact the Tsongas Arena and the River Hawks have on Lowell.”
Men’s ice hockey is the only Division I program at UMass-Lowell. It is funded through $1.5 million in tuition waivers, used for scholarships, but the funding runs out in June. Some board members wanted to see the money used for women’s programs, and to support just one men’s program in the UMass system.
“The governor’s a pretty big fan of UMass-Lowell and a particular fan of Lowell and when he saw the report, he got a little concerned about it,” said Cellucci spokesman John Birtwell to the Lowell Sun. “He’s looking for the president’s support to keep the River Hawks in Lowell.”
Recently, Tocco seemed to shift the onus to each school’s board of trustees on how to handle a reduction in finances. He indicated that having two men’s programs and no women’s programs was unacceptable, but that UMass-Amherst and UMass-Lowell themselves should decide what to do about it. This began the concern of many Lowell supporters.
UMass-Lowell athletic director Dana Skinner was finding out about the rumors the same way as everyone else.
“At the FleetCenter [during the Hockey East tournament], I had reporters ask me if I had any comment, and I said it was the first I heard of it,” Skinner said. “People at Lowell are perceiving it as fighting for their lives.”
Skinner said he wasn’t sure whether there would be a specific demand made to create a women’s hockey program. He said that Lowell has been moving closer to gender equity for years, but that there are ways of achieving it without necessarily adding women’s hockey.
“Whether that’s a critical component of these [merger] discussions, I don’t know,” Skinner said. “I have no doubt Tocco thinks women’s hockey is an important thing to do. It’s a rising sport.
“There’s lots of ways to get into compliance, and we’re exploring them all right now. We’ve got a situation, because we don’t own the building … there’s not a lot of time left over. We’re still exploring the possibility of adding women’s hockey. Whether that is the path we choose to achieve [compliance], we’re not sure.”
Despite the governor’s reassurances, Skinner will continue to take any threats to Lowell’s program seriously, especially the implication that Lowell needs to do more to self-support its men’s hockey program. If that is a concern, Skinner believes he’s addressing it by, among other things, hiring Blaise MacDonald as his new coach.
“I’m not saying we have to [self-support financially], because I don’t know how serious the [merger] discussions are,” said Skinner. “But I don’t think anyone could argue … if we’re more successful on a more consistent basis, and that generated more support, the chance of that [merger] conversation taking place are non-existent.”
Skinner named MacDonald, a former Lowell assistant and most recently head coach at Niagara, as the team’s new head coach on Thursday. He replaces Tim Whitehead, who resigned following a contract dispute.