It was still January when they mathematically clinched their playoff berths. Pulling away from the pack and creating a seven-point gap between them and their nearest challengers for home ice were Boston College, New Hampshire, Boston University and Maine.
In other words, the usual suspects. When it comes to the Hockey East title over the past decade or so, these four programs have consistently been the teams to beat.
Maine’s run began in the 1986-87 season, the late Shawn Walsh’s third year at the helm and also the third year of Hockey East. In the 18 years since, the Black Bears have earned home ice in all but the forfeit season of 1993-94 and in 1997-98.
New Hampshire didn’t take home ice in 1990-91, losing out to Providence on a tiebreaker, but since then has hosted the Hockey East quarterfinals for all but 1995-96.
Boston College took the regular season title the first four years of the league and six of the first seven, a run from 1984-85 through 1990-91 that was interrupted only by the 1986-87 Olympic year. After a dry spell, the Eagles resumed their place among the perennial powers in 1997-98 and since then have missed out on home ice only in 2001-02, the year after they won the national championship.
Boston University has experienced a few ups and downs in recent seasons, but took home ice in 13 of the first 14 years of the league’s existence. Starting in 1993-94, the Terriers won the regular season title five times straight and six of seven.
These powerhouses also own all of the league’s national championships: Maine (1993 and 1999), BU (1995) and BC (2001). UNH would have had one, too, in 1999 if not for the Black Bears.
So it’s no surprise to see these “usual suspects” once again out in front in the Hockey East race.
But why have those four teams been so consistent and such a tough nut for the other league schools to crack?
“Because those are good programs you’re talking about,” BU coach Jack Parker says. “One of those programs, BU, has won more games than any other school in the nation except two other schools, and they’re both out West. I think BC is fifth in the nation overall in terms of long-time ability to win games. Maine since Shawn Walsh’s arrival and continuing on has been a terrific team, and UNH was terrific when Charlie Holt was there and has been very good since Dick Umile has been there.
“It’s tough to break into those because those are four real good programs. Some people have dips once in a while — BC has had some dips, BU’s had some dips, UNH has had some dips — but, in general, there’s a reason why they have success over a long period of time: they have good hockey players.
“Hopefully we’ll continue to do that. But what makes our league so good is not BC, BU, and UNH, it’s [teams like] Northeastern and Lowell. It’s not automatically more of the same.”
The last teams to crack the Big Four’s stranglehold are UMass, which finished third last year, and Lowell (with an asterisk) since the River Hawks would have taken fourth place had they not forfeited games due to an administrative error. The two schools provide an interesting view of the powerhouses from the outside looking in.
What Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald sees are not only recruiting juggernauts, but also teams that have “that something extra.”
“The big difference that I see in sustaining the excellence that those four programs have achieved is you learn how to win,” he says. “You learn how to have success under adverse conditions when you’re not playing well. You seize momentum at the proper time.
“Those programs and players within those programs have over time learned those lessons. Programs like Lowell, we can play well and go undefeated against UNH and BU like we did last year, but can we sustain that?
“We haven’t had the sample size of opportunities to learn that lesson. I think that’s the big difference.”
Which, of course, is a lesson MacDonald is trying to instill over time in the River Hawks.
“It’s through experience,” he says. “I can’t tell you, show you or give you examples. You have to live it.”
UMass coach Don “Toot” Cahoon is quick to point out that the powerhouses are not a curse, but a blessing.
“I’m thankful that we have teams like that in our league,” he says. “The quality of the hockey is that much better. The intensity of what we’re doing is that much greater. I don’t think anybody is looking for the easy way out here at UMass.
“So it’s a real credit to our kids when we can have some success against some of those teams. It’s a monstrous task to try to recruit the types of kids who are going to compete with those programs game in and game out.
“When people asked me a year or two ago if I was surprised that we were able to compete with some of these teams, to some degree I was. I said that we were a little bit ahead of schedule. Knowing what we have to do to compete with some of those high-profile players that go to those teams on a consistent basis, I wasn’t sure that we’d do it in three years.”
Having broken through last year, UMass has faced tough challenges this season after the departure of several key contributors to that breakthrough.
“Now, what we’re trying to do is retool and reshape the program and its roster,” Cahoon says. “We’re trying to continue to develop a culture, get strong enough and align ourselves with the best teams in the country.
“I think as we go through this second cycle, this will be pivotal in [determining whether] UMass can catch these teams on a pretty regular basis. The first cycle was just to try to put all the pieces together. Shape it and take your run.
“Here, as we get into year five [of my time here] and six and seven, hopefully we’re putting together a roster that can sustain itself over time to be able to play with these guys. Only time will tell.
“I think I understand what it takes. Now it’s a question if we can get it done.”
For the usual suspects, however, getting it done is only rarely a question.