December 9, 2009

UConn still skating in shadows

by Allen Lessels

Matt Pedemonti (photo: UConn)

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team, ranked No. 2 in all the land and in search of another national championship, smacked Providence College around for a 94-61 win on a late January afternoon last season. As usual, a crowd of 10,167 packed Gampel Pavilion for the game.

An hour or so later, across campus, the UConn men’s hockey team took on Atlantic Hockey rival Holy Cross in the Mark Edward Freitas Ice Forum. In front of 962 fans, less than a 10th the number of people who had just finished cheering on the hoops team, the Huskies dropped a 4-1 decision.

That’s long been the norm for Husky hockey in Storrs, where basketball is king -- and queen -- and football is fast-rising since it has moved up to the as-big-as-it-gets Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Husky hockey? It continues to compete for crowds and attention on a campus with perhaps as high a sports profile as any in the country.

And that’s fine with Matt Pedemonti, a Connecticut kid turned Husky hockey player, and teammate Steve Bergin. Fine too, with coach Bruce Marshall and others in Husky Hockey Nation, including the program’s most storied alumni, brothers Todd and Bryan Krygier.

The pluses of being part of UConn’s rabid sports community outweigh any negatives that may come from living under the radar, they said.

“At times, it kind of gets hard,” said Pedemonti, a junior forward from Enfield, Conn. “Football and the basketball teams and even soccer get a lot of focus. But even if we get overlooked at times, we get good crowds and have a good fan base. The better we play, the more crowds we attract. It’s kind of on us.”

That’s how the Krygiers, both of whom are coaching high school teams in Michigan these days, see it.

“It would be easy to say, ‘Why not us?’” said Todd Krygier, who played nine seasons in the NHL after leaving UConn. “I really don’t think that’s the makeup of the kids there. They don’t feel cheated a bit. That’s not the way they think. There are what, 64 teams in the country? They are one of 1,200 kids who have the opportunity to play Division 1 college hockey. It’s a huge opportunity.”

The Krygiers were back at Storrs in September for a celebration of 50 years of UConn hockey and the program was treated royally, Todd said

“It was fantastic, what the administration put on,” he said. “You would have thought that we were the most important program, that we were the basketball program.”

Basketball was just starting to take off when the Krygiers -- younger brother Mike also was a standout -- were on campus from 1984-1993 and the hockey team was competing in the ECAC’s Division 3.

Even then, UConn’s overall profile was high.

“Everyone wants to beat you, just because you’re the UConn Huskies,” Bryan Krygier said. “Bowdoin or Babson wanted to beat the big university.”

That was a good thing, he said.

“We always had to make sure we were ready to play every game, every single night,” Bryan said. “Or else we’d get killed.”

The UConn name helps in various areas.

“It’s a great recruiting tool,” said Marshall, who was a Husky himself and is in his 22nd year as head coach. “You can walk into anybody’s home in the country and they know who UConn is. Where it might hurt is, we haven’t had the success other teams here have had. There are reasons why that is, and we have hurdles, but we never cry poor.”

One of the obvious hurdles is that UConn men’s team does not offer athletic scholarships, unlike some teams in its league and most of the schools in Division 1. The Huskies were 9-26-2 overall last year, and haven’t finished at .500 or better in Atlantic Hockey play since 2006-07.

“We’re not going to make excuses,” Marshall said. “We think we can win our league and we don’t focus on the negative. We don’t spend one minute on that.”

Marshall prefers to accent the positives, like the Freitas Forum, which opened in 1998-99. When the Krygiers and Marshall played for the Huskies – the coach graduated in 1985 -- they were still in the open air UConn Ice Rink.

“That was cold, I’ll tell you that,” Marshall said. “With these winter days now, sometimes I don’t know how we did it. We had our own little culture. It was home.”

The Huskies joined Division 1 with the move to the new arena.

And there’s no reason they can’t make a move and grow attendance and their stature on campus and in the hockey world -- some day even with scholarships -- the Huskies feel.

“You can look at it as frustrating, but you have to pay your dues,” said Bergin, a junior defenseman from Groton, Mass. “It will take something from both sides -- us coming together and winning more, and the athletic department giving more.”

He has no doubt, Bergin said, that the Huskies can get there. Others, like Todd Krygier, agree.

“I think this is an excellent time for the program,” he said. “Obviously, I’d like to see it bigger. I’d like to see them as part of Hockey East some day. That’s not a criticism, just looking into the future.

“What’s the next step? When you quit working and having a vision, that’s where a program flounders. I think Bruce is thrilled about where he’s gotten with the program and I know he wants to get more out if it.”

Allen Lessels can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.