When the season opened for Massachusetts co-captains Tim Turner and Kelly Sickavish, there weren’t very many reasons to be optimistic. The Minutemen had finished in the Hockey East cellar the last two seasons and had escaped it the year before by only a single point. Over the seniors’ three years they had endured a cumulative record of 27-66-11 overall and 15-49-9 within Hockey East.
Most expected that the long-term future of the program looked bright, but the odds were long of any significant improvement this year. Turner and Sickavish were the only seniors on a squad that added only three more juniors. Teams, especially those in the early building stages, don’t win with a freshman and sophomore dominated lineup.
Check back in two years, the conventional wisdom said. UMass might be something by then, but this looked like another long season. For Turner and Sickavish, that would be four-for-four. Or oh-for-four depending on how you were counting.
Like the Biblical Moses, they might be able to see the Promised Land from a distance, but they wouldn’t enter it themselves. Despite the competitiveness that is fundamental to any athlete, Turner and Sickavish would have to be satisfied with being stepping stones to a brighter future. Stepping stones that would get walked on a lot this year.
The Hockey East coaches’ preseason poll pegged the Minutemen for eighth place. This writer penciled them in for another cellar-dwelling season.
“No one wants to lose,” said Sickavish at the preseason Hockey East Media Day. “No one goes into a game thinking, ‘We’re going to lose tonight.’ It is tough year after year being at the bottom of the barrel, but we’re here to play hockey and that’s what we’re doing.
“This year with the new recruits coming in, it’ll give us an opportunity to build something that maybe Tim and I are not around for, but at least we’ll know that we were part of that building process.”
Turner added, “I think we can make the best out of it and we can open some eyes and surprise some people.”
A funny thing happened on the way to another losing season.
— Massachusetts coach Don Cahoon
With a 12-7-1 record in early January, UMass became a nationally-ranked team for the first time in the school’s history. After rebounding from a subsequent tough stretch that included eight losses in nine games, the Minutemen finished the regular season with their first winning record as a member of Hockey East, including wins over four nationally-ranked teams.
So much for being stepping stones. So much for not getting to enter the Promised Land.
For traditional powerhouses, the Promised Land might be a national championship. Arguably, though, perennial doormats can consider their short-term Promised Land to be a winning season.
Turner and Sickavish had gotten there after all, albeit with Sickavish sidelined after suffering a season-ending injury on Dec. 7.
“One of the things we tried to do over the three years that we’ve been together as a coaching staff,” said UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon, “is figure out who would buy into the whole process of what we’re trying to do.
“We felt that we really had to get the guys to understand the commitment necessary to compete at this level in order to be successful. We’re asking a lot from people who hadn’t experienced that focus in the past.
“Kelly and Tim were as good as we had. They led by example. They led by being positive influences to their teammates. They led by their competitive spirit.
“Tim, being the consummate competitor that he is, just led by example on the ice. We never did a wind sprint that that kid didn’t try to win.
“Even though Kelly never played a game since December 6, he never missed a practice, never missed a meeting, never missed a game meal, never missed anything that his teammates were involved in. He offered a great deal of support to all the younger guys, encouraging guys that were in and out of the lineup.”
For Sickavish, missing the games was difficult, but maintaining his dedication to his teammates was easy.
“It’s my team and I enjoy watching hockey,” he said. “I really don’t know what else I’d do with my time if I wasn’t going to the rink every day. So I’d go down and hang out with the guys before practice and after practice and just be there if anyone wanted to goof around or whatever and just be there for them.
“No one likes to end the season halfway through their senior year and not being able to play. It’s tough, real tough, but I’m happy for the guys.”
As it turned out, the story didn’t end there. As the No. 6 seed, UMass traveled to Maine to face the fourth-ranked Black Bears in the Hockey East quarterfinals. Maine had not lost a single Hockey East playoff game at home; the Minutemen had never won in the building.
What had been expected to be a long season in a negative way became a longer season in a jubilant way. The freshmen and sophomore-dominated team stunned the college hockey world, sweeping Maine to advance to the FleetCenter for the first time in the program’s history.
Can you say Promised Land? Could a team possibly exceed expectations any more than this?
Well, almost. In the semifinal contest against third-ranked New Hampshire, UMass battled back twice from two-goal deficits to create a 4-4 deadlock with three minutes remaining in regulation. Performing in front of a sellout crowd of 17,565 — an all-time Hockey East record — the team played with a poise that belied its youth.
Turner was front and center, following freshman Stephen Werner’s second goal of the evening that had made it 4-3 with the game-tying goal just 10 seconds later, tying a league playoff record for rapid-fire goals.
Although UNH would end the Minutemen’s season at 17:31 with a Preston Callander goal, denying them a shocking berth in the championship game, only a fool would argue that UMass failed to reach this year’s Promised Land.
“We have a tradition of getting on our feet and giving ourselves a hand when we win,” said Cahoon. “We never do it after a loss. Tonight was the exception to the rule. I told them to get on their feet and give themselves a hand for their effort — they gave their heart and their soul — and give a hand to their captains for the leadership they offered to them all season long.”
Despite the loss that ended his collegiate career, Turner could look back with satisfaction at the preseason’s low expectations that the Minutemen defied and the milestones they achieved.
“We started the season off with a lot of new faces in the locker room,” he said. “We really worked hard. Our goal was to be a good team.
“Not many people thought we were going to be a good team this year. I read it and a lot of people read it. We turned out to be a really good team.
“It took a lot of intensity and a lot of hard work by the players and the coaches and everyone in the organization. I can’t say enough about the people in this program. This program is only going to go up.”
Turner then set the bar for future UMass teams and the Promised Land they might enter.
“I can’t wait to be able to watch them down the road in the Frozen Four.”