The Long And Twisting Road To Success

No one said rebuilding a program from top to bottom was going to be easy, and it most certainly was going to have its bumps and bruises along the way.

Northeastern has not posted a winning season since the 2001-02 campaign and one has to sift further back in the archives, to the 1997-98 season, for a winning Hockey East record. The Huskies are the only team in Hockey East that has not made it to the semifinals since they moved to the TD Banknorth Garden (FleetCenter) in 1996.

Northeastern hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1994, and has not won a Beanpot since 1988. In 2005, Northeastern hired Greg Cronin to start the rebuilding process.

Greg Cronin has overseen the task of rebuilding the Northeastern Huskies to their former prominence (photo: Melissa Wade).

Greg Cronin has overseen the task of rebuilding the Northeastern Huskies to their former prominence (photo: Melissa Wade).

Cronin came to NU with a strong pedigree, as an assistant under legendary Maine coach Shawn Walsh (he was interim head coach during the 1995-96 season as well). He also assisted at Colorado College during its rebuilding years, led the U.S. Under-18 team, was an assistant for the NHL’s New York Islanders and was the head coach for the Islanders’ AHL affiliate the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

As a player, Cronin skated with Colby College and came close to winning a national championship with the Division III White Mules.

Cronin has Northeastern connections as his father and uncle were both captains of the Huskies during the 1950s. His stint at Colorado College was perhaps the one that sparks the most faith in the NU fans, as he was part of the coaching staff that rebuilt that program.

Northeastern is a team with a storied past, playing at the legendary Matthews Arena with a Frozen Four appearance under its belt (1982), and had some very good teams in the late ’80s and early ’90s under Fern Flaman. Suffice to say, second-year head coach Cronin had his work cut out for him trying to bring the program back to its former glory.

The 2005-06 campaign was a tough one for Northeastern. Most expected a poor season, but few predicted the 3-24-7 record. Northeastern had lost Hockey East scoring champion Jason Guerriero, stellar goaltender Keni Gibson, and other senior leaders such as Jon Awe and Tim Judy.

The lone bright spot was supposed to be the return of first-round NHL draft choice Mike Morris, who then was sidelined for the season due to an non-hockey related injury. The Northeastern lineup was a young one, and it was not odd to see all starting six players be freshmen. As the maturity of the team and of the coaching staff increased, the team seemed to play better and better as time went on.

“Last year, I will be honest with you, was a long inventory and research process. What is the hockey team at Northeastern? What is Northeastern University? What is Hockey East? What is college hockey? Analyzing that while you’re trying to plug yourself into the recruiting,” Cronin said.

Even though Cronin has significant college coaching experience, it was years ago and the college game had changed.

“It’s a different world [now]; when I left college [coaching], there was no e-mail, there was no Internet, AOL had just started, there were no cell phones, I mean we just started getting ATM cards. The traveling, the accessibility to information was all different.

“There was no USCHO back then, or it had just started back in ’95. There wasn’t nearly as much information at your fingertips. The recruiting [was different], there were no agents — you couldn’t have an agent — they call them now ‘family advisors.’

“There were no spinsters behind the scenes trying to sell this guy or sell that guy. There was an honor code recruiting back then that was very ethical. I mean, everyone bent the rules a little and of course at Maine we got speared by the NCAA with some rules violations, and rightfully so,

“But you were recruiting seniors in high school; it was a normal flow to life. You recruited, and then you signed your kids in the spring and you moved on. The USHL was good back then — it was very good — but the Eastern Junior league was just starting, it was the fledgling league. It’s gone, it’s a different landscape, totally different.”

The 2006-07 season has seen things moving in the right direction. The Huskies have already more than doubled last year’s win total and are close to a .500 record. Notable wins came over then-No. 6 Michigan at Yost Arena and a 3-2 OT thriller versus Boston College.

In that contest, the Huskies tied Boston College with just 2.6 seconds remaining on the clock which vaulted the student fan base at NU into pure hockey fever. Northeastern has also collected two weekend sweeps, the first time since the 1999-2000 season since they swept Merrimack and Massachusetts-Lowell.

“I thought we played well earlier in the year. We weren’t getting the wins, but we were playing well enough to get wins or ties. It wasn’t happening but in the month of January we kind of launched ourselves into another level of respectability,” said Cronin.

January was a good month for the Huskies as they went 4-2-2 with six of those games against teams ranked in the top ten nationally.

So how does one rebuild a program from basically nothing more than a name, an arena, a schedule, and a smattering of players left from the Bruce Crowder era?

“When we came in here, it was not a typical rebuilding process. That implies you are building on top of a foundation — where we came in, I think the foundation had been cracked significantly.” said Cronin.

Another problem facing Cronin was that he was coming into the recruiting game late, “When I arrived here in the office in June, the roster has 11 healthy forwards and six healthy ‘D.’ Not too many people are going to find recruiting gems in mid-June to replace critical positions.”

With little left to your program outside of its name, recruiting can be difficult, but Cronin has come up with a solid strategy. There are three parts to the Cronin model of recruiting: the academic model, the social model, and the athletic model.

“Academically, if a player is going to school because he is sincerely interested in getting a great education, Northeastern is a top 100 school; it’s at 98 right now. Its got a nationally-recognized college of business, school of engineering, journalism school.

“Those are really catchy places; criminology is world-known. Students that have those academic ambitions, would certainly be drawn to [Northeastern].

“The social model is an easy one for recruiting. Some kids don’t like the city, some kids like the city. The great thing that has happened with Northeastern within the last 10 to 12 years is that the neighborhood around Northeastern has been gentrified. Its such an attractive place to live in the city, a real hot place to live, [and] the South End been revitalized.

“All the neighborhood improvements have certainly made Northeastern’s campus safer, more attractive, more energetic, more colorful and then the campus itself has gone from an asphalt commuter campus with 12,000 kids to 8,400 students with a lot of fun.”

The social model and the academic model are very much tied into each other. “You can take a walk around campus in 15 minutes and go ‘Holy Smokes! The Museum of Fine Arts is there, Fenway Park is over there. Trains run right though campus.’

“I mean, how many kids get to got to school in dormitories that have ceiling to floor glass windows that look into Fenway Park and downtown Boston that literally are worth a million dollars on the open market? That sells.”

There is also the co-op that Northeastern can provide for its student-athletes. The co-op program is unique to Northeastern, giving students a chance to work full-time in a professional environment for a four- to six-month period.

Sophomore defensemen Denis Chisholm is currently on co-op.

“It’s been a rewarding opportunity being on co-op at R.W. Sullivan [an engineering firm in Boston],” he said. “It has given me the chance to gain experience in the engineering field while having a flexible schedule, which I am very thankful for because it allows me to play hockey and work at the same time.”

And finally there is the athletic model.

“We play in a great league — we play in a neighborhood league where we don’t have long road trips and you can be in your bed most nights,” said Cronin. “Hockey East might be the most competitive league in college hockey right now from top to bottom. You’ve got the Beanpot, which is a tremendous attraction for kids both locally and internationally.

“If you ask anyone who plays in Hockey East what one of their favorite buildings to play in, it’s Matthews Arena. The balcony is unique, the ice is great. It’s the Fenway Park of hockey, it really is. You can really sell that: it’s one of the most unique buildings in sports.

“Forget about just hockey, you can sell that.”

Northeastern has advantages in recruiting both across the nation and even within its own conference. The fact that NU has not won in so long will make the class that wins even that much more special. Everyone still remembers Wayne “Beanpot” Turner, who scored the game winning overtime goal to give NU its first Beanpot, and whoever nets the next will instantly be enshrined in Northeastern lore.

But it is not without disadvantages as well, including high tuition and scholarships tied up in players who are not playing right now — some not even on the roster due to Northeastern scholarship rules. Another disadvantage is that Cronin and company must fight off traditional national powerhouses Boston College and Boston University.

Northeastern also has to combat an image of less-than-stellar play over the past years. The past, however, is something that does not worry freshman Chad Costello,

“As far as the record before I came here, I knew it wasn’t very good, but as far as I knew, I heard that this was a program on the way up with a lot of promise for the future,” he said.

So things are starting to look good on Huntington Ave. Attendance is up thanks to a rabid fan base that goes to every game, and a groundswell of alumni who are waiting and wishing to win.

All make this program one that people want to get their hands on.