Massachusetts-Lowell, Bazin share a similar story: Survival, then success

When it comes to sports, the words “life support” are not typically positive ones.

You don’t want find yourself behind in a playoff game knowing that your season is on life support.

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And you certainly don’t want to have whispers and rumors that someone is trying to ax your program, as was the case a few years back for the Massachusetts-Lowell River Hawks men’s ice hockey team. Struggling to pile up wins, the Board of Trustees for the UMass system in 2007 considered eliminating the Lowell program, conceivably injecting the program’s resources into the team at the system’s flagship school in Amherst.

Fast forward to last weekend, when that very same Lowell program beat New Hampshire 2-0 to reach the Frozen Four for the first time in school history, and you realize that as bad as being on life support can be in sports, the ability to come back and rise to the top is a compelling story.

“No athletic director should have to wait 26 years to go to the Frozen Four with his team,” said Lowell athletic director Dana Skinner, a major cog in the program’s resurgence.

Skinner, while jubilant at Lowell’s recent success, also was reluctant to talk too much about the negative — the days where back-room negotiations and last-minute politicking were needed to save the program.

“I try to stay away from [talking about dropping the program], because it demeans our program,” Skinner said.

What he and chancellor Marty Meehan, who was prominently involved in the negotiations to save the program, will talk about are the steps the university has taken in the days since the program was saved to build what now is being looked at as one of the model Division I programs in the nation.

“We’ve got a Division I hockey team in which we’ve made investments,” Meehan said.

Those investments began with the building in which the River Hawks play. When Meehan took over as chancellor seven years ago, Tsongas Arena was owned by the city and hemorrhaging money, losing $1.1 million per year.

“Many people thought that was a mistake to take that building over,” Meehan said. “I felt that we had to have the building if we were going to achieve the success and excellence in our hockey program.”

After negotiating the purchase of the building, Meehan, Skinner and the university dumped massive resources into improving it. It began with construction of pavilion-level seating where fans can watch the game and network while enjoying quality food and full bar service.

Then there was the purchase of a high-definition scoreboard for center ice. This past offseason, luxury boxes were reconstructed to be more functional and a new strength and conditioning center and video editing suite were added to the locker room.

In total, $5 million was invested into the building, renamed the Tsongas Center. According to Skinner, that has made all the difference in the world when marketing the program to recruits.

“We added all of those things that you need on the recruiting trail to demonstrate to perspective student-athletes that you’re fully committed to their development,” Skinner said.

“It was very strategic. But then we got lucky.”

That luck was coach Norm Bazin. Following the 2010-11 campaign, a five-win season, head coach Blaise MacDonald stepped down. What followed was a national search for a coach with multiple top assistant coaches in the nation throwing their hat in the ring.

The well-documented result was the hiring of Bazin, who this year became only the second coach in Hockey East history to earn two straight coach of the year honors.

Whether intentional or accidental, much of Bazin’s own life mirrored that of the Lowell program. Taking aside the fact that Bazin had played there from 1990 to 1994 and served as an assistant coach under Tim Whitehead from 1996 to 2000, Bazin had his own story of survival.

It was 2003 and Bazin was on the road recruiting as an assistant at Colorado College when his car was struck by a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction driven by a drunk driver. A severed aorta along with numerous broken bones led to 12 hours of life-saving surgery and a medically-induced coma.

Through extremely hard work in the rehabilitation process, Bazin was able to make a full recovery. Today, mention of the accident is rare around the coach other than his frequent public proclamation that “every day is a good day.”

Similar to the Lowell hockey program, Bazin has persevered, challenging himself along the way to be better. After leaving Colorado College, Bazin took a coaching position at Hamilton. Bazin led the Division III program to a turnaround, earning NESCAC coach of the year honors in the seasons before he arrived at Lowell. (“I can’t think of another coach in hockey to be named coach of the year four years in a row,” Skinner quipped.)

Last year with Lowell, Bazin orchestrated the biggest single-season turnaround for a first-year coach (five wins in 2011 to 24 wins in 2012). This year, Bazin and his club have smashed just about every school record and picked up a lot of hardware along the way (Hockey East regular season and postseason titles along with the NCAA Northeast Regional crown).

When his players were asked what Bazin brings to the table that others have not, the answer was consistent: accountability.

“I think he came in and he believed in us from day one and he got us to believe in each other,” said junior assistant captain Josh Holmstrom, who followed the footsteps of his brother, Ben, in playing for UMass-Lowell. “He instilled some great work habits for everybody.”

“When coach came in, it was just accountability,” captain Riley Wetmore said. “There were always a few guys who were accountable but it wasn’t everyone.

“When you have the whole team being held accountable by the coach, it’s just a different culture. You can see it on the ice. Guys are having fun out there, but he makes us work hard too.”

Early this season, that hard work didn’t translate to victories. Lowell began 2-6-1 overall in a season in which the expectations for the program were high following last year’s run to the NCAA regional finals.

Despite graduating just four seniors, Bazin brought in a freshman class of nine. Breaking them in took time both for the players to develop as well as for Bazin to give his upperclassmen the chance to prove that they belong in the lineup.

Couple that with a difficult starting schedule (games with Denver, Boston College, New Hampshire and Maine), and early confidence may have waned in the team, but not in Bazin.

“It was the end of December, I think we were 4-7-1, and I came over to the building and saw Norm,” Skinner said. “I made a comment, ‘Probably not the start you wanted.’

“He looked at me and said, ‘We’re fine.’

“Of course, my response was, ‘Can you be fine a little bit faster?’ But he certainly had a good read on his team. He understood his personnel. He was trying to work some freshmen into the lineup. They’ve certainly had a special season.”

That special season will continue next Thursday in Pittsburgh when the River Hawks will face a Yale team that opened many people’s eyes with wins over Minnesota and North Dakota in the West Regional. A victory there would give Lowell its first shot at a national title.

That is something that, for almost everyone on the Lowell campus, particularly Skinner, is difficult to imagine.

“This is an event that strengthens the emotional attachment people have for this institution,” Skinner said. “The Garden was a great experience. Manchester was a great experience. You keep on winning and it just becomes special memories.”

Special memories … hardly the type that a program that was once on life support may have ever envisioned.