Witt shoots to make hockey fun again at New Hampshire

Vilma Vaattovaara (UNH - 35) - The visiting University of New Hampshire Wildcats defeated the Boston College Eagles 3-1 on Wednesday, October 16, 2013, at Kelley Rink in Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Melissa Wade)
Vilma Vaattovaara (UNH – 35) – will be important for UNH’s chances against the rest of Hockey East. (Melissa Wade)

Long before there was Hockey East, the WCHA, the CHA, or the NCAA sanctioning a women’s tournament, there was New Hampshire. No program has enjoyed more success over its history, which dates back to 1977-78; the Wildcats have won 735 games with a .724 winning percentage. Only Providence with 670 wins comes close to that victory total, which includes the championship game of the first national tournament in 1998.

When the women’s Hockey East began competition in the autumn of 2002, UNH quickly rose to the top, claiming six straight regular-season crowns, a run that began in the league’s second year. The last four of those were combined with conference tournament titles that brought NCAA tournament berths; the Wildcats were an at-large participant in 2010, and they reached Frozen Fours in 2006 and 2008.

A lot of success. Lately? Not so much. The program fell out of the NCAA picture with its first losing season ever in 2010-11 and followed it up with three more. Last year, the Wildcats failed to reach double digits in wins for the first time and endured adversity off the ice as well, when long-time coach Brian McCloskey was terminated due to an incident involving a player on the team’s bench during a game.

Former Yale coach Hilary Witt was hired as UNH’s new coach in April, and finds herself in charge of the sport’s most storied program at its lowest point.

“It’s unprecedented for the program, so it’s a little bit shocking, I think, for some of the supporters,” Witt said. “But I think the challenge to get it back on track is the most exciting part of this job.”

If the fan base is accustomed to on-ice success, the team Witt inherits is not; nobody on the roster has experienced a winning season at New Hampshire.

“Since she’s come, our culture on our team has changed dramatically,” said co-captain Hannah Armstrong. “She comes in with drills for things that during a game didn’t look good or didn’t work out right. We do that specifically in practice. She’s definitely a teacher and a motivator. We all like her very much.”

Witt doesn’t just want her players to like her, she wants them to like being college hockey players.

“I think our job as coaches is to make sure these athletes have the best college experience that they can have,” she said. “It’s about them; it’s not about us as coaches. In my eyes, my job is to make sure that we put them in the best positions to succeed, both on the ice and off the ice, and make sure we prepare them for whatever they’re going to do when they leave UNH. I care about them; I care about their future. I certainly want to win, and we’re going to do the best we can to do that as well.”

Witt celebrated her first win with New Hampshire on Friday at RIT, 1-0. That underscores one of the problems facing the current edition of the Wildcats. They don’t score much, only seven goals total in the first five games. It isn’t just a recent issue, because 34 games last season resulted in only 72 goals, and the two players on that roster to crack 20 points have graduated.

“I think one of the reasons why we don’t score a lot in the women’s game is because we don’t shoot enough,” Witt said. “We’ve passed up too many grade A scoring chances by passing instead of shooting. We want to put pucks on net. We want to go to the net hard for rebounds, be physical, play tough, and be difficult to play against, and that’s how you’re going to create goals.”

While she wants her team putting pucks on net, she also wants the players to be aware that it isn’t the overall objective.

“I think the first thing that we noticed that was different with her was that coaches would always get mad at us when we would miss the net,” Armstrong said. “It was like you had to do 10 pushups if you missed the net, and she’s like, ‘Well, no. If you take a shot and you’re trying to score, I don’t care if you miss the net.’ Aiming at the net most of the time will put the puck in the goalie’s stomach, because we’re just trying to hit the net. But she is like, ‘No, I want you to shoot to score.’ I think like in practice having that mindset that we’re not going to get in trouble for missing the net, we’re kind of changing the way that we’re now shooting, and hopefully, we’re going to put some more pucks in the net, for sure.”

That mentality extends beyond shooting.

“People aren’t afraid to make a mistake or just to give something different, be more creative,” Armstrong said. “She’s like, ‘Just think [that] having fun is your number one thing.’ She’s like she’ll never get mad at us for making a mistake, but she’ll get mad at us for not working hard or being lazy. So it’s a lot different than what a lot of us are used to. I think a lot of us are adjusting, but we’re liking the adjustments that she’s made.”

There have been plenty of adjustments to make under Witt’s direction.

“She’s actually changed every single thing that we’ve ever done here,” Armstrong said. “I’m a fifth-year senior, so I’ve been here for four years. I think especially for the seniors and juniors that have had systems for such a long time, it was a big change that we had to make. We’re still doing our old habits in the game and she keeps reminding us that we need to change to the new system. She’s come in and changed everything. Absolutely everything.”

For a team that wasn’t rewarded with a lot of success with the previous approach, change is welcome.

“This year, we’re kind of having the mindset of we’re going to make teams not want to play us,” Armstrong said. “We’re going to be the hardest working, the toughest, the fastest, and that’s where practices have changed from kind of a slower pace that we were used to, to a high pace, doing a lot of different skating drills, getting together at the end of practice doing a lot of battle drills, like making us tougher as a group, and hopefully, that helps our team in what we have to offer.”

On Sunday, the Wildcats play a Hockey East game against No. 4 Boston College, a squad they once dominated and still manage to surprise once a season in the lean years.

“We always play well or have a good game with BC, so I think a lot of us are excited to play them,” Armstrong said. “Hopefully, we’ll come in a little bit more prepared and put some points up on the board.”

The Eagles boast one of the top three offenses in the country, so UNH’s defensive effort will be just as key. The Wildcats have done well in that regard so far, holding opponents to an average of 1.80 goals per game, albeit opponents that are less prolific scorers than those skating for BC. Any discussion of defense starts with goaltending, and inconsistency at that position has contributed to UNH’s decline.

“Vilma Vaattovaara has really stuck out and proved herself so far, so we’re going to stick with her right now and let her keep doing what she’s doing,” Witt said. “She’s played fantastic, and we’re fortunate for that.”

The junior has responded to the steady work with a strong .945 save percentage. If Vaattovaara continues to give her team steady minutes, and the skaters help her out while hitting the net at the other end of the ice on occasion, what is possible in the first year of Witt’s tenure?

“I think anything is possible in any league you’re in in any given year, but for us right now, we want to get better every single day,” Witt said. “That’s our goal. I think one of the things that we tend to do as coaches and even players do it as well is you try to think about what can we have, what could we be, instead of just enjoying the process and getting better every day and seeing what it’ll be at the end of the season instead of worrying about it during the beginning of the season. We’re definitely going to take it one day at a time, really enjoy this process, really enjoy each other. It’s a great bunch of kids. I couldn’t be happier with the team we have right now and their commitment level and just their character. It’s just a great group.”

The long-term future of a college coach balances in large part on her ability to attract recruits to her institution, and New Hampshire has a lot to offer beyond tradition.

“I think the academics speaks for itself,” Witt said. “We’ve had a lot of kids be very successful through academics here, very successful careers, and I think that’s the most important thing. Of course, the campus is absolutely gorgeous. I think the thing that really sticks out about UNH is the people. It’s a really close-knit community, where people care about hockey, they care about each other, they care about UNH athletics, and they care about UNH as a whole. I think that makes it really unique in a lot of ways, where you have the support of the community for a women’s sport.”

A consideration when creating a team to play in the Whittemore Center is the wider, Olympic-sized rink.

“No question, we want to be a skating team, and that’s my style regardless, whether we’re on the sheet that we have here, or if we’re on an NHL-size rink all the time, we want to skate, we want to protect the puck, get pucks to the net,” Witt said. “We also want to be confident with the puck, share the puck, and use the width of the ice as well. We don’t want to just go up and down. We want to be able to spread it out and really possess the puck. That’s something that we should be able to do here with our ice surface, and we’re looking forward to getting there.”

Along the way, she wants the Wildcats to remember that hockey is a game, and the verb most often used with it is play.

“It’s not worth it if it’s not fun,” Witt said. “To be honest, I get to coach hockey for a living. What’s better than that? For these kids, they don’t get to go to the NHL. Hopefully, someday we’ll have that, but they don’t right now. I want them to compete, I want them to know that they can do more than what they think they can. I want them to have fun in this community, and I want them to represent UNH the best they can. If we do all those things, we’ll be successful. If you have a great, positive culture, you can win games, and that’s what we’re looking to do.”