When Mike Cavanaugh left the comfortable confines of Boston College in 2013 to take over the head coaching position at Connecticut, he hoped to eventually lead that program to the same lofty heights he was leaving behind.
Namely, a team that was a constant force on the national stage.
At the time, Boston College had won three national championships over the previous six years, and was arguably the national power. Cavanaugh knew any success at UConn even approaching that would take time, but felt the pieces to the puzzle existed.
Over his five-plus seasons, UConn has shown steady, if unspectacular, progress.
This year could be a critical one in that move forward. The Huskies have opened well, and with a couple different bounces in overtime would be 6-2 with the only losses coming to No. 4 Providence and No. 13 Quinnipiac. The overtime bounces haven’t been as kind, instead producing a tie and a loss, but even at 4-3-1, UConn is off to a good start, especially considering how young the team is.
“We turned over a very big class and lost two guys that turned pro,” Cavanaugh says. “When you bring 12 guys in, everything is new. They have no idea what it’s like to play at Gutterson Arena, or against a Providence team, or against Boston College. They don’t know.
“It takes a while before they feel comfortable and get acclimated. So you’re going to have some ups and downs when you have that many new faces on your roster.”
There isn’t just quantity of freshmen, but also quality. Jáchym Kondelík leads the team with 10 points. Fellow Czech Tomáš Vomácka starred in the nets on Saturday. Ruslan Iskhakov hails all the way from Moscow (via Krasnaya Armiya Moskva).
“We have seven NHL draft picks,” Cavanaugh says. “That’s by far the most any UConn team has ever had. Not that that’s the only indicator of how strong your recruiting is, but it certainly says something when you’re recruiting that type of talent.”
Winning the recruiting battles is how powerhouses are built.
“People see that the university is making a strong commitment to the program,” Cavanaugh says. “We’re going to have $56 million dollars in upgrades to our facilities. That speaks volumes about how important the program is to our administration, our leadership, and the board of trustees.
“Potential recruits see that UConn is not just a basketball and football school. This is a school on par with Big 10 schools that want to be good in everything.”
People forget that when Jerry York first arrived at Boston College, its recruiting machine had fallen into disrepair. York’s first year resulted in an eighth-place finish in a nine-team league, and a loss to last-place Massachusetts in the tournament play-in game. So York, Cavanaugh, and the rest of the staff weren’t pointing to the standings in their recruiting pitches.
York’s famous question to Marty Reasoner, who was also being wooed by defending national champion Michigan, was, “Do you want to join a parade or lead one?”
“It’s always about selling people on your vision for the program and how you plan on making them become better hockey players, become better students, become better people,” Cavanaugh says. “It helps, certainly, when you have a school like BC that always had tradition and they always had great facilities. They just hadn’t won in a little while back then.
“But here, now, the athletic department in UConn has always had great tradition. It by far has the most national championships of any school in Hockey East as an athletic department. And now it’s making that commitment to the hockey program as well.”
So will this be the season that UConn emerges from the middle of the pack in Hockey East, where last year it finished in a tie for fifth place, one game under .500?
“You always want it to happen faster than it actually does,” Cavanaugh says. “The thing that we can point to as a program is that we’ve gotten better every year in Hockey East since we started. Last year, we were almost a home-ice [team]. The teams in Hockey East that are considered your powerhouse teams, they’re constantly in the home ice conversation.
“We’d eventually like to get there. Are we there yet? I’m not sure. We’ll find out. But that’s one of our goals. And then it’s getting to the Garden and competing for that Hockey East trophy.
“If you’re doing that, if you’re consistently fighting for home ice in the playoffs, you’re a top-four team. If you’re getting to the Garden, what comes next is the national tournament. Then you’re usually in contention for the national tournament.
“That’s where my goals were when I took the program, and nothing has changed.”