Massachusetts is no stranger to massive construction projects, as any Boston commuter in the 1990s or earlier portion of the last decade can tell you.
But while the behemoth remodeling of the cityâ€™s major road artery is complete, there’s another rebuilding project taking place at Western New England College, where first year head coach Greg Heffernan is starting a process he hopes will reverse the Golden Bears’ struggles, which can be traced back almost as far as the start of the Big Dig.
Western New England hasn’t had a winning record since the 1993-94 season, but Heffernan is looking to bring the hockey team’s success up to par with the rest of the athletics program, which has sent 33 teams to NCAA Division III Championships over the past 12 seasons.
“There’s been some frustrating parts and some really good parts,” Heffernan said of his first season thus far. “Anyone that is 2-17 is going to have some frustration.”
Heffernan replaced Chris Bernard at Western New England last August after spending 2006-09 as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Fredonia under Jeff Meredith. Prior to that, he was a graduate assistant for Mercyhurt head coach Rick Gotkin from 2002-04.
If he’s able to mimic even some of the success of his former bosses, Western New England should be in good shape. Meredith, in his 22nd season, took over a team that was 0-25 and led a rapid turnaround that culminated in back-to-back NCAA Final Four trips eight seasons after his hiring.
Gotkin oversaw Mercyhurt’s transition from a Division III team to a successful Division I program that made the NCAA tournament in the 2004-05 season.
Those previous stops have helped Heffernan understand what needs to be done at Western New England.
“We need to reinforce the culture,” he said. “Not that things were bad here, but they needed a little tuning up. When taking over a 3-20 program, there’s certainly is a lot of area for improvement. Division III is evaluated less on winning, but all the kids want to win. That’s why they play. If not, they’d be playing intramurals.”
A three game stretch from the end of January into the first week of February is proof that Heffernan’s changes might be making an impact.
The Golden Bears lost to No. 13 and ECAC Northeast leader Wentworth 3-1 on a last minute power play goal and an empty netter on Jan. 31. They followed that by setting the program scoring mark in a 12-6 win over non-conference opponent Assumption before losing to second place Curry 3-2 last Thursday on another late goal.
Heffernan said Western New England played each of these games with 10 forwards, five defensemen and two goalies after an off-ice incident forced the suspension of six players.
“Clearly making changes to our lineup by eliminating less committed student athletes has positively affected us,” he said. “We have a good solid nucleus of kids that will be successful in the future and are committed to being great college athletes.”
To bolster his ranks for the upcoming season, Heffernan has taken “aggressive” approach on the recruiting trail.
“We’re recruiting character first and foremost,” he said. “We want kids who want a great academic experience from our school as well as a successful athletic experience.”
With the season winding down and a large portion of his roster eligible to return next season (the Golden Bears have four seniors and one graduate student), Heffernan compared his job to a teacher evaluating their students.
“We look at all our players as if they were students in class. We look at a number of different things: skill level, academic success, and most importantly, character and commitment to the program,” he said.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day and while there’s been some frustrating points I believe there’s going to be a tremendous amount of success in the future. Like anybody, I wish it was tomorrow, but I’m smart enough to realize that it’s not going to be. We have to continue every day even when some are harder than others.”
Curry head coach Rob Davies might be the most accurate forecaster in all of New England right now, even though he probably wishes he wasn’t.
While many meteorologists whiffed on the predictions of monstrous snow storm Wednesday, Davies cautiously warned of a “surprise team” pulling off a win in the closing month of the season.
Sure enough, the second place Colonels were dealt their first conference loss of the season in overtime Saturday to Suffolk, as Pat Welch’s power play goal 55 seconds into overtime allowed the Rams to escape with a 3-2 win. Curry will look to rebound Saturday against Salve Regina.
Elsewhere in the ECAC Northeast
Wentworth grabbed a win over the weekend and reclaimed a spot in the latest USCHO.com Division III poll, checking in at No. 13. The Leopards downed Nichols 6-1 Sunday. Salve Regina remained winless in conference play with a 4-1 loss to Johnson & Wales Saturday, while Becker defeated Western New England 5-1 Sunday … Wentworth’s Jeff Olitch was honored as ECAC Northeast Player of the Week, posting four goals and three assists in a pair of wins the past week. Teammate Shaun Jameson took home the Rookie of the Week award, adding three goals and an assist over the same span. Jeff Rose of Suffolk was named the conference’s top goaltender after stopping 40 shots Saturday in the overtime win against Curry … A pair of Wednesday night contests were postponed. The Curry at Nichols game was rescheduled to Feb. 15 at 2:30, while Johnson & Wales will host Becker Feb. 23 at 7 p.m.
For the second week in a row, Fitchburg State finds itself alone atop the MASCAC. The Falcons defeated the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth 3-1 Thursday and hold 20 points in conference play. Each of the following three teams are exactly one point ahead of one another, as Salem State (19 points) tied Worcester State 2-2 Thursday and beat UMass-Dartmouth, 4-2, Saturday.
Westfield State (18) lost to Plymouth State 7-3 Thursday before slugging out a 9-5 win over Framingham State Saturday. Worcester State played the role of spoiler again Saturday, battling fourth place Plymouth State (17) to a 2-2 tie. The Lancers’ Dan Hansen posted 44 and 36 saves, respectively, in the ties with Salem and Plymouth, earning conference goalie of the week honors. Westfield State’s Casey Mignone was awarded MASCAC Player of the Week after notching two goals and two assists for the Owls.
Happy Truck Day to all you New Englanders. I know this is a hockey site, but I’m a baseball guy at heart and once the Super Bowl ends that can only mean one thing: baseball season … .I caught the end of what was an entertaining game between BC and BU for the Beanpot Championship. BC won 4-3 and check out this goal by BC freshman and Rangers’ first round pick Chris Kreider.
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