September 25, 2013

Hockey East teams embracing 'new beginning'

By Joshua Kummins

Kevin Roy enters his sophomore season with lofty expectations after leading the Huskies with 34 points as a freshman. 

BOSTON -- The excitement of a new college hockey season filled the air of TD Garden on Tuesday morning, as Hockey East kicked off its 30th anniversary campaign with annual Media Day festivities.

Because of the 30-season milestone, the league will be recognizing a bit of history as the season moves along, putting a focus on head coaches past and present that have made Hockey East among the best in the nation.

This season also marks a new era in the conference with new head coaches at Maine (Red Gendron) and Boston University (David Quinn), as well as the arrival of an 11th member school, the famed University of Notre Dame.

"We've been waiting for this for a while now," Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon, a Harvard grad and veteran of the New England coaching ranks, said about the addition of the Irish. " It's a great school to add to our great mix."

Sneddon and the Catamounts will be the first Hockey East outlet to host Notre Dame in a pair of conference games. The Irish will be visiting Burlington to open the month of November.

The change does not stop with Hockey East, though.

The league will immediately be tested with a slate of games against the newly formed Big Ten, dubbed "The Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge," which will take place with 13 games across mid-October.

With the collegiate athletics scene changing so much to start this season, the league's members - new and old - see the competition as an opportunity to create an important relationship to help grow the game.

"The college hockey landscape is going through a major change this season and each conference needs to look beyond its familiar boundaries," league commissioner Joe Bertagna (Arlington, Mass.) said. "We hope to develop this concept to allow all of our programs to participate in this competition in future years."

Of course, it is also a time of the year when each and every team is undefeated and expectations are high. Some of those expectations and "prognostications" were unveiled as part of the event.

Defending league champion and NCAA Frozen Four participant UMass Lowell, as well as perennial power Boston College, topped both ranking of the league's coaches and the fourth-annual Hockey East Writers & Broadcasters Association Media Poll.

BC finished last season in a disappointing fashion, falling to Union in the first round of the NCAA East Regional in Providence, R.I. New captain Patrick Brown is, of course, excited to open the new season and put last year's bitter end in rear view.

"You feel that once and you never want to feel it again," Brown said of last season's disappointing closing, a year after hoisting the national championship trophy. "Everyone is really champing at the bit to get at that first game, but we're going to take it one step at a time. Our goal is always the same - we want to win trophies."

With the departure of goaltender Parker Milner and talented skaters like last year's captain Pat Mullane (Wallingford, Conn.) and defenseman Patrick Wey, the Eagles will look to a plethora of rookies to fill key voids.

Rookie netminder Thatcher Demko and blueliner Scott Savage are a pair of highly touted Californians from the National Team Development Program, while local fans will be excited to see former Malden Catholic star Ryan Fitzgerald (North Reading, Mass.) and Nobles alum Chris Calnan (Norwell, Mass.) open their collegiate careers.  

The media picked the River Hawks to win the league title solely for the second year in a row, thanks to 384 points and 26 of a possible 37 first-place votes.

Despite earning seven first-place tallies from the coaches, UML finished in a tie with the Eagles for the top spot with 104 points. From there, the rankings went as follows: Providence, New Hampshire, Boston University, Notre Dame, Merrimack, Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Northeastern.

Last season was a magical one for the 'Hawks, claiming the program's first Hockey East title and advancing to the Frozen Four for the first time in Division 1. Head coach Norm Bazin  is well known in college hockey circles as not being a fan of polls, but he and his team see the benefits of such lofty prognostications from outside sources.

"It's nice to get the university recognized on a national scale," captain Josh Holmstrom said. "It's a new year, new chemistry with five new guys coming in. Everyone's ready."

Things went well a season ago, so the River Hawks are now looking to make sure that theme continues. Holmstrom sees a new beginning in the season and feels that things should not be any different that in the past.

"Only one team has a target on their backs, and that's probably Yale, the defending (national) champions," he stated. "There's 58 other teams that are working hard… and want to get there."

After small steps of improvement last season, including a Beanpot first-round upset, Northeastern head coach Jim Madigan is looking forward to what a new year brings.

"I think we're all looking forward to a new beginning," Madigan said. "We have a lot of young freshmen and sophomores who have a lot of enthusiasm on campus. ... When you don't make the playoffs two years in a row, I think that sends a message that we weren't good enough. The only way we're going to get back is if we work harder."

Kevin Roy enters his second year after a stellar rookie campaign in which he led the Huskies in points with 17 goals and 34 points, while senior Cody Ferriero (Essex, Mass.) finished off the past season with points in 12 of his final 19 contests.   

One of the team's 11 newcomers - the school's most since 2005 - who will play an immediate role is defenseman Matt Benning. He enters the season as a 19-year-old freshman and is expected to play right off the bat, contributing "quality minutes."

"(Our four sophomore defensemen) have grown, they've developed from last year," Madigan added. "I'm excited from them coming back … and infusing Matt Benning, I like our blend of defensemen there."

The media also selected a preseason All-Hockey East Team, with Boston College third-year forward Johnny Gaudreau as the lone unanimous choice.

Merrimack senior Mike Collins (Boston, Mass.), UML senior Joseph Pendenza (Wilmington, Mass.) and Gaudreau made up the media's all-Hockey East forward line. BC sophomore Michael Matheson and UNH junior Trevor van Reimsdyk make up the defensive unit with Providence's Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine) between the pipes after earning Rookie of the Year honors last season.  

Finally, Hockey East honored Dan Parkhurst as its 22nd annual Joe Concannon Media Award winner to conclude the event. Parkhurst, a lifelong Granite State native, calls Wildcat hockey on radio and television and will also work select games for NBC Sports Network this year.

Twitter: @JoshuaKummins