Anyone who has listened to Massachusetts coach Greg Carvel over the last few years understands that the 2019 Spencer Penrose winner, given to the national coach of the year, has a plan.
When he came to the Amherst, Mass., campus five years ago, success didn’t play out right away, though no one should be surprised.
Five years later, though, and the ability to recruit the team he wanted, Carvel has put in place the personnel and the system he wants. The result is reaching back-to-back Frozen Fours for a program that previously had qualified for just a single NCAA tournament.
“I’m pretty sure anyone would be surprised [to be in two straight Frozen Fours] just given how tough our conference is and where the program stood when we got here,” said Carvel. “We’ve brought in some real high-level players but more importantly some high-level people.
“I just came here with a vision. I’m old enough and had enough experience at different levels of hockey to know how programs should be run. It’s not just about how good your players are. It’s about how strong your culture is and how committed your players are to playing the game the right way.”
Carvel says that his team, and most importantly his coaching staff that includes two of the nation’s top assistants in Ben Barr and Jared DeMichiel, has executed well on that plan.
Often overlooked, though, is the plan before the plan.
When Carvel was hired, athletic director Ryan Bamford, a young, up-and-coming administrator, was a fresh face on the UMass campus. He arrived in March of 2015 and then watched his hockey program skate to an uncompetitive 8-24-4 in the 2015-16 season, leading Bamford to terminate coach John Micheletto after four seasons.
Micheletto was hired in 2012 to replace long-time head coach Don ‘Toot’ Cahoon, who had guided the Minutemen for 12 seasons, including an appearance in the Hockey East title game and an NCAA regional final.
But replacing Cahoon was a nightmare for UMass.
Micheletto was not the first choice of then athletic director John McCutcheon. Multiple coaches were reported as turning down the job when offered including Quinnipiac’s Rand Pecknold, as well as Paul Pearl, now an associate head coach at Boston University. Mike Cavanaugh, then associated head coach at Boston College and now head coach at Connecticut, was also in the mix.
When Bamford began the search for a replacement, he took a very different approach.
Instead of using a large committee to select the next head coach, Bamford sought advice from many but made the decision himself.
“I felt like when I got to UMass in 2015, we’re in such a good league and Massachusetts is such a good hockey state, I’d watched what [UMass Lowell coach] Norm [Bazin] and Lowell had done, my vision was to try and build what they had been able to accomplish,” Bamford said.
“I said we need to get back to a competitive level.”
What Bamford learned in that process, as well as in one of his previous role at Yale where he helped bring in Keith Allain, who led the Bulldogs to the 2013 national title, was that as much as it takes a great coach who can recruit the best players who can win games with skill, it wasn’t all about what happens between the boards.
“All the off the ice stuff, I thought, was really important,” Bamford said. “The accountability, the team dynamics, brings the right young men into our program and into the university. [Greg Carvel] has exceeded anything I could’ve imagined in terms of that.”
When the head coaching opportunity came open position came open, it was one of the first two high-profile positions Bamford had to fill at UMass (women’s basketball was the other). He put significant energy into both, but also understood that the payoff of hockey could be quick.
“I think it my first year, I really dove in on hockey to say, ‘What has worked at other places, where do I think we fit and what’s our vision?’” said Bamford. “[The last question] was what is the investment. I don’t think there had ever been a real deep discussion about how we wanted to invest in hockey.
“I said, ‘We’re going to increase our coaching salaries, we’re going to increase our recruiting and travel budgets.”
Bamford made it clear the upgrade were coming and worked with Carvel to make multiple facility projects a priority, including what will be a $2 million investment this offseason to bring the UMass locker room and training facilities in hockey up to a standard that makes them competitive nationally.
Now, after just five short seasons, UMass could be on the precipice of a level of greatness few could’ve imagined such a short time ago. The Minutemen won the regular season Hockey East title in 2019, captured the postseason tournament this year with a 1-0 victory over sister school UMass Lowell last month.
And now, the Minutemen, arguably playing as great hockey as anyone in the Frozen Four field, stand two wins away from a national title. That gives Bamford and so many associated with the program, a sense of great pride.
“I feel so good for our kids and our coaches,” said Bamford. “I thought we had a legitimate shot last year prior to COVID. So to do it in a year where there’s not as much high-end talent, to do it in a year like this, I’m just so proud of our program, our kids.”