UMass is just starting to climb the mountain

How did it happen? And how on earth did it happen so quickly?

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On March 31, 2016, Greg Carvel sat at a round table inside the UMass Club in Boston after a short program to introduce him to the Boston media. The recorders were off, and he asked the handful of media gathered around the round table, “what do we have here?”

When Carvel was at St. Lawrence, his team never played UMass. Not only that, he never went up against the school in any recruiting battles. He didn’t know a single player.

Five years later, Carvel stood on the ice at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh and raised a national championship.

How did it happen? And how on earth did it happen so quickly?

Culture.

Every coach talks about it but Carvel’s UMass team embodies the culture that the staff began to install in the first season. They’re big, they’re heavy, they play fast, and they’re incredibly hard to play against.

The Minutemen put on a forechecking clinic against St. Cloud State in the national championship game on Saturday night. Once the Minutemen jumped out to the lead, they settled into a 1-3-1 that the Huskies were never able to break through. They capitalized on early opportunities to take a 2-0 and then 3-0 lead and then smothered St. Cloud the rest of the game.

That only happens when you have players willing to buy into the program.

There was an obvious sting from the loss in the 2019 national championship game, but it’s more poetic that the Minutemen won this championship instead. There was so much attention on Makar in 2019 — and with good reason — that many in the media and fans speculated that the Minutemen would take a step back after losing a program-shifting player.

Two years later, this is a team that Carvel and his staff built. These are his players. They assembled these champions.

That’s how it worked. Carvel brought in a staff — Ben Barr and Jared DeMichiel — and they found players that would be willing to play the style that the program was going to demand. They found those players in recruiting — Bobby Trivigno, Oliver Chau, Jake Gaudet — and they found those players in the transfer portal — Carson Gicewicz — but every player was recruited for a reason.

You don’t hear stories about the UMass staff casting a wide net in recruiting. They hone in on the players that will work within their program, and they aggressively pursue those players.

That’s how it happened. Not only does Carvel demand discipline from his players, but his staff was disciplined in the way they built the roster. They never wavered from the plan. Even as they improved, and probably had access to flashier players than they had access to in the past, they didn’t set aside the core beliefs of the program just to add some skill.

So, how did it happen so quickly?

Well, there’s a lot that goes into that.

First and foremost, they recruited the right players. That goes back to the staff bringing in the right mix of guys to make it work. UMass rolled four lines the entire tournament. They were cerebral.

But the bigger picture reveals the impact of AD Ryan Bamford, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, and UMass President Marty Meehan.

Bamford made a coaching change in 2016 and hired Carvel. If that’s where it stopped, it wasn’t going to work. Carvel’s a great coach — clearly — and maybe he would have been able to pull UMass from last to the middle of the pack on his own. But without a complete institutional change in the way they approached hockey at UMass, nothing big was going to change.

We see that across the country. Presidents or athletic directors swoop in and make a coaching change, and then they disappear, leaving that new coach on an island by himself.

When a program is struggling, it’s often not only the coach that needs to change. A total overhaul is needed in the way the institution supports the program.

Whether it’s facility upgrades or upgrades to the recruiting budget, presidents and athletic directors need to look in the mirror and ask themselves what they could do to help.

That’s what Bamford did.

Carvel has spoken about the impact of the university on the program. I’m not sure if that existed before, at least not at the level that it does now.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that UMass Lowell had its best years while Meehan ran the university, and now UMass is enjoying its highest success with Meehan at the helm. Between Meehan and Subbaswamy, the leaders at the highest level of the university invest in the hockey program. That investment paid off.

So many schools don’t get that. Or, maybe, they don’t want to get it. They don’t want to look in the mirror and fix those institutional support issues. It’s easy to just blame the coach if things aren’t working.

Have you ever listened to Nate Leaman talk about the impact Father Shanley has had on the Providence program? Carvel talked similarly about his administration leading up to the Frozen Four. That stuff all matters.

That’s why the UMass rise happened so quickly. All the pieces fit. Bamford hired the right coach in 2016, that coach hired the right assistants and those assistants recruited the right players. Additionally, Bamford and the university administration didn’t just make a hire and walk away. The program had what it needed to succeed.

Carvel’s hire was just the first step in a huge investment into hockey. There’s a $3 million investment into facilities that’s still on the way.

That has to be the scary part for the rest of Hockey East. This is just the beginning for UMass.

They are just beginning to climb the mountain. On the ice, they have already reached the peak. But they're not stopping.