Opinion: The Only Change UML Needs Is Support

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

There are two Division I state-funded men’s ice hockey programs in the state of Massachusetts. Both have had somewhat mediocre success over the past few years which prompts a trustee to question why the state needs two Division I hockey programs.

Okay, so the average college hockey fan might not have a clue what I’m talking about. But those in tune with college hockey and politics, especially in New England, are familiar with the name of Stephen Tocco.

Six years ago, in the spring of 2001, Tocco, a trustee of the University of Massachusetts system, moved to combine two state programs on the Lowell and Amherst campuses into one. At that time, Tocco’s plan was met with sufficient opposition and nothing ever came of it.

Here we are six years later and while some things have remained the same, other things have changed within the UMass system.

Neither program — Lowell or Amherst — has won a league championship or made it to the NCAA tournament since then. Both have had somewhat successful seasons; in fact, Amherst had one of its most successful ever this season, earning home ice in this weekend’s Hockey East quarterfinals for just the second time in history. The Minutemen could be a series win over Maine away from the school’s first NCAA berth.

Lowell, on the other hand, struggled through this year, enduring a 20-game winless skid and an early end to the season when the River Hawks’ late-season rally fell short of a playoff berth.

But let’s not worry, for now, about what’s happening on the ice. Off the ice, Tocco — who has served much of his professional life in government-appointed positions — has a new title to add to his résumé. This past summer, Tocco garnered enough support to be named Chairman of the UMass Board of Trustees.

With his newfound power, Tocco is back on the warpath. In last week’s Lowell Sun it was reported that Tocco is having the Trustees’ athletics committee form a task force to review Lowell’s membership in Hockey East. At the time he was quoted as saying, in reference to the Lowell program, that “if they can get to a national championship in another league, we should look at another Division I conference where they can be a dominant team.”

Ah yes, yet another non-athletic person trying to make an athletic decision at the college level.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. College athletics’ governing body — the NCAA — is comprised almost entirely of people who have little to no background in college athletics making decisions that govern student-athletes across the country.

If it weren’t for those who are vocal within the athletic community, I’m pretty sure Division I college hockey would only have Division I schools (excluding Division II and III schools like, say, North Dakota, Lake Superior and even Lowell). That’s what happens when non-athletic people make decisions that affect college athletics.

Tocco went on to tell the Sun that if the Lowell program were to become “dominant” in another league, then it will “bring people into the building, get people excited and bring a national championship.”

So let me get this straight, Mr. Tocco. If you push Lowell into another league, say, Atlantic Hockey, you expect them to draw the big-name recruits that will fill the 6,000-plus seat Tsongas Arena and win a national championship?

With no slight to Atlantic Hockey — I always have and always will respect the league and its programs — the league’s members have won a total of one NCAA tournament game in history. If Lowell steps in, you expect them to still attract the players that will win national championships? Hmmm. Interesting reasoning.

The only thing that seems to be correct in Tocco’s reasoning is the fact that Lowell needs a bigger fan base. Even UML athletics director Dana Skinner, a former college athlete and coach himself, agrees that something must change in terms of how the Lowell hockey program is supported.

“We need support for the program,” said Skinner, who spoke with confidence saying that he’s not fearing this process as much as others. “As the Chairman of the Board was quoted, all the options are on the table except the status quo, and that’s something I support.”

“Support.” That’s a key word here. Yes, the Lowell program needs significant support from the local community — the students, Merrimack Valley residents and local businesses. There was a huge cry in the early- to mid-’90s to move the Lowell program from the quaint Joe Tully Forum in Billerica to a state-of-the-art on-campus facility.

I guess this wasn’t Field of Dreams, because when the building was built, they didn’t come.

Attendance at the Tsongas Arena for hockey has been dismal. Despite playing in one of the nicest buildings in Hockey East, the River Hawks are challenged to fill half of their building on a nightly basis. One obstacle is that the American Hockey League has continuously attempted to root a minor league team in the building as well. Whether it be the Lowell Lock Monsters or the Lowell Devils, the team has consistently been last in the AHL in attendance.

If one of these programs goes away, does the other benefit? That’s to be seen, but you shouldn’t have to count on something that drastic to be successful.

What’s needed is a stronger marketing effort, which generally means devoting more resources. The Sun reported that the Lowell program currently operates at approximately a $671,000 deficit. Logic would say reducing the amount spent would help curb the losses, but anyone with an MBA also knows that when you cut your marketing budgets, you generally see sales decline. What Lowell needs is additional spending on efforts to put bodies in seats.

As I talk so much about support, Lowell is truly fortunate to have plenty of support from those within Hockey East. This isn’t a league that has shied away from the controversy surrounding this story, nor will it be. Hockey East recognizes Lowell’s contributions as one of its original members.

“Where I stand, [Lowell is] a very valuable member of the league,” said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, who also noted that he strongly hopes that the trustees will involve him in the evaluation process.

“[Lowell] is a program that has really helped Hockey East,” said BC head coach Jerry York. “They have a great facility, they compete very well and they’ve had a great history with us. I’m hoping [a move from the league] won’t materialize. It’s hard to picture losing a team from our league.”

Talking to Lowell head coach Blaise MacDonald, it’s hard, even with his team is under the microscope as it is now, not to get a positive vibe. When I spoke with him he put forth a sincere message that he believes when all is said and done in this review process, his team will be better off for it.

“When the dust settles, we will be a better, stronger member of Hockey East than we ever have been,” said MacDonald. “It’s a situation where you have a new Chairman or the Board of Trustees and new Chair of the athletics committee. And it’s their job to analyze what’s best in all areas.

“That’s really common business practice. That will help us define our level of excellence and how that excellence will be achieved.”

Better and stronger? We can only hope. Hockey East, and college hockey in general, doesn’t need any of its programs weakened. This is a niche sport with limited membership, and the strength of the sport is only as great as the strength of all of its programs.

Still, you have to question the timing of this news. If there are any recruits that MacDonald might have on the hook for commitments, news like this can severely sway decisions. Hopefully he can convey to them the same positive message he conveyed to me.

According to Skinner, the entire review process should be completed by June. And at that time, let’s hope MacDonald’s prophecy is correct — that Lowell is a better and stronger member of Hockey East.

Let’s also hope that the bumps and bruises that the program needs to withstand between now and then don’t leave any permanent scars.