Youngblood: After 54 years, UConn ready to join college hockey’s elite

Captain Ryan Tyson and the UConn Huskies are joining Hockey East — the most prestigious conference in men's college hockey — and they're ready to shock the world.

Stephen Slade

STORRS, Conn. –

Imagine this scenario: You’re a midlevel manager at a nice-looking firm downtown. Been there a few years and you do good work, but it’s not like you’re on the fast track to senior management and an office with windows. You don’t win awards, but you get along well enough with your coworkers. This coexistence — this balance — works for all parties.

Then, one day, the CEO calls you into his office. Even though you’ve had brief conversations on occasion, this is unexpected. The offer: You’re being promoted to vice president! You’re alongside the big boys now. This is great because you now have a seat at the executives’ table, a chance to show that you are just as competent and skilled as the top tier. But you might also start to feel overwhelmed. You’ll be going head-to-head at every meeting, and they all have so much more experience and expertise, a pedigree that you can’t possibly equal. How do you not succumb to the inevitable self-doubt? Can I really do this?

Welcome to the exciting and uncertain reality facing the University of Connecticut’s men’s hockey team. A solid yet middling team in Division I hockey since 1998, the Huskies have never made the NCAA D-I tournament, have won only a single conference championship and have never played in front of a crowd size exceeding four digits. Nonetheless, UConn enters this season as the 12th and newest member of Hockey East, arguably the toughest and most competitive conference in Division I hockey. The existing member schools — Boston College, Boston University, Providence, Northeastern, Maine, New Hampshire, UMass at both Amherst and Lowell, Merrimack, Vermont, and Notre Dame  are stocked with NHL draft picks from top to bottom and pose a legit annual threat to win the NCAA title, which one of them has done in four of the past seven years.

And then there’s UConn, which will play its home games this season at Hartford’s XL Center (the one-time home of the dearly departed Hartford Whalers) and travel around the country taking on the finest teams in college hockey. Last season, as part of the Atlantic Hockey Association, UConn filled its schedule with opponents like Robert Morris, Sacred Heart, Mercyhurst, Canisius and Holy Cross. In something of a scheduling dry run, UConn actually went 2-1 against the three Hockey East foes it played. But this year will prove much more strenuous and challenging with few easy plays between this weekend, when UConn opens up against nonconference Penn State (an upstart program of its own), and the playoffs in early March. 

There could be many bad losses along the way. That doesn’t come as a shock to people in Storrs but, honestly, that’s secondary to UConn’s approach. This season is, in the minds of those in charge, about building a program for the future and about standing as equals among the other elite sports programs on campus. Men’s and women’s basketball, football, soccer, field hockey — these are the teams people commonly associate with UConn.

But in Division I NCAA hockey, which as an inspiring history of unlikely victors and surprise champions — last year’s national title winner was Union College (enrollment: 2,200) of Schenectady, N.Y. — UConn has a chance to shock some people, to earn a legit shot at winning it all in less time than you might think and, just maybe, force college sports fans to expand their notion of the sweeping breadth of UConn sports. 

In doing so, these Huskies — led by a second-year coach who was a top assistant at a now-rival Hockey East school for nearly two decades and a senior captain from rural Pennsylvania who has scored a grand total of eight goals in 87 collegiate games — can give other growing programs a blueprint for how to reach the mountaintop once you’ve nudged your way onto an elite climbing crew.

Because even if you’re bringing up the rear, as UConn likely will this year — both the media and coaches confidently predict the Huskies will finish dead last — the view from on high can still be pretty damn good.

In May 2013, after 18 years and four national championships as the top assistant under coach Jerry York at Boston College, Mike Cavanaugh was preparing to fly to Florida with his family to accept the Terry Flanagan Award, given out every year by the American Hockey Coaches Association to an assistant for his "career body of work." Little could anyone know that Cavanaugh’s distinguished — and, now, award-winning — career as an assistant was effectively over.

A few days before his flight, Cavanaugh received a call from Warde Manuel, UConn’s director of athletics. Bruce Marshall, UConn’s hockey coach of 25 years, had stepped down after a nasty divorce led to a medical leave of absence related to alcohol and, eventually, rehab. The school had already announced a year earlier that it would be moving to Hockey East for the 2014-15 season, and Manuel needed someone new to lead the hockey team out from under this situation and to the next level. A 54-year run, from the program’s inception in 1960, had finally come to this.

Any chance he could come in for an interview?

Cavanaugh was flattered to receive the call — he had never gotten a formal offer to become a head coach before — but there were two complicating factors. One was that former University of Denver coach George Gwozdecky, who had won two national championships in 19 seasons and was something of a inspiration to Cavanaugh, was also under consideration for the job. The second was that Manuel wanted Cavanaugh to come in for an interview when he was supposed to be touring the Magic Kingdom with his wife, son, and daughter.

"Ward said he’ll fly me back from the convention to interview, but I said, ‘I can’t do that. I’m getting this award, My family’s coming down, and we’re going to Disney World,’" Cavanaugh said when we met in his office in early September. It was quiet inside Freitas Ice Forum, the quaint arena located on the southern periphery of the Storrs campus. Practices hadn’t even yet started, and barely a soul walked the hallways.

A meeting between Cavanugh and Manuel was hastily set for before the Florida trip. "I was kind of like, if it happens, it happens," Cavanaugh said. "If it doesn’t, oh well."

A few days later, after accepting the award and now on to hobnob with Mickey and Goofy, Cavanaugh’s phone rang. It was Manuel, calling to offer him the job.

"I was somewhat surprised because they had George Gwozdecky out there, who I have the utmost respect for," he told me. "In some ways, I think that would’ve been a very easy hire. Maybe you win the press conference with that. But I’ve always been indebted to and appreciated the fact that Warde chose me to be the next coach here because I’m not sure I was the easiest decision for him." (Don’t cry for Gwozdecky, who is now an assistant with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.)

Head coach Mike Cavanaugh spent 18 years at Boston College as an assistant – and won four national titles – before finally getting the chance to lead his own program.

It’s not a false modesty with Cavanaugh. His rise through the college coaching ranks has been a steady and measured climb, one marked more by patience than sheer virtuosity, and there’s a steely confidence that comes across even his most even-keeled mannerisms. Cavanaugh didn’t play at a D-I school; he graduated from D-III Bowdoin, where he was captain his senior year, in 1990. A couple of years later, Cavanaugh wanted to get into coaching and decided his best bet was to write a letter to every coach asking if they would consider bringing him on as some kind of graduate assistant, but only two replied. One was Gwozdecky, who was supportive but had already hired someone else at Miami of Ohio.

The other one to write back was then-Bowling Green head coach York, who led this small-town Ohio program to a national championship in 1984. 

"When you’re new to a profession, you’re just trying to learn as much as you can," Cavanaugh said. "I’m trying to observe and learn, not trying to impose my will on the program."

As he bided his time and learned from one of the best in the country, Cavanaugh earned his master’s degree in sports management from the school.

After a year at Bowling Green, Cavanaugh moved on to Dartmouth as an assistant coach. Two years later, he got a call from York, who’d left for Boston College and had finished up a miserable first season (11-22-2). The Eagles, once a promising NCAA powerhouse, had finished eighth out of nine Hockey East teams and lost the postseason play-in game against No. 9 seed UMass-Amherst. So York called on his old assistant to join him in Chestnut Hill.

Thanks to Cavanaugh’s keen recruiting sense, including the foresight to mine for talent in the historically underscouted upstate New York region, BC needed only two more seasons to flush out the remnants of the old guard and start seeing the payoff of having brought in its own players. In 1997-98, BC went from 15 wins to 28 and was national champion runner-up at the then-FleetCenter in Boston, in front of more than 17,000 fans. It was practically a home game for BC; the arena is also home to the semis and finals of the Hockey East Tournament as well as the prestigious four-team Beanpot Tournament held every February.

During his 18 years at BC, Cavanaugh helped build one of the great runs college hockey had seen: 457 wins, nine Hockey East tournament titles, 10 Frozen Fours and eight national championship games. The decision to leave wasn’t that difficult — I get the sense that Cavanaugh was eager for the chance to prove himself as a head coach somewhere — but he knows he owes everything to this one man.

"I grew up a BC fan," he told me. "I was in high school during the Doug Flutie years. I always had an affection for them. When Jerry hired me there, I really believed, ‘We’re gonna win a national title here. We’re going to turn this program around.’ BC had had six straight losing seasons, but all the infrastructure was there to be successful."

Cavanaugh still talks with York once a week or so. In fact, they were going to go golfing the day after I met with him. He described York as a "father figure." Hearing Cavanaugh speak of York with such reverence wasn’t shocking given their history, but I wanted to get a sense of what will define him as a coach, what he gleaned from his years as such a successful and visible second-in-command.

I asked Cavanaugh about the four national title teams he coached at BC and what made those teams, in my assessment, "special."

"You know, I don’t think it’s fair to say that those teams were different than the teams that lost. The team in ’98 was a great team, and when you’re talking about guys like Marty Reasoner and Brendan Buckley and Mike Mottau. When you’re an eyelash away, like Jamie O’Leary hits a crossbar in overtime and it comes down and lands on the goal line, right? So, if it’s one inch the other way and we win it, is that team different? I would say that one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned — I was fortunate to coach in eight national championship games, OK?"

"So, that means you won four but also lost four," I said.

You learn a lot from the losses. I tell our kids this all the time: Winning or losing a national championship doesn’t define you as a person, doesn’t define who you are as an individual. It’s not fair to say that this guy is a winner and this guy is a loser because he has a ring and he doesn’t.

"Yes, but you know what? You learn a lot from the losses. I tell our kids this all the time: Winning or losing a national championship doesn’t define you as a person, doesn’t define who you are as an individual. It’s not fair to say that this guy’s a winner and this guy is a loser because he has a ring and he doesn’t. There are guys who I coached that if a businessman called me right now and said, ‘What do you think of Mike Mottau?’ I’d say, Hire him tomorrow. Just because he didn’t win a national championship doesn’t define who he is as a person. And there are guys who won national titles at BC that I’d say, ‘Don’t go near ’em.’ I think too often — look, that’s the goal. I want to win a national title here, and that’s what we’re striving for. And if you keep getting there, if you keep knocking on the door, you’re going to win one. You’ve got to build a program that’s continually knocking on the door. And that is my goal here."

But what about the fact that UConn is so readily identified as a "basketball school"? How’s he going to make an impression if no one is paying attention?

"I’ve heard that a lot," he said. "I think it’s insulting to say that UConn’s a basketball school. The fans here want to support UConn. Someone asked me the other day, ‘Well, do you feel pressure because basketball is winning national titles, field hockey’s won national titles, soccer’s won national titles?’ And I said, ‘No, that’s why I took the job.’ I was at a school where we were competing for national titles every year. I wanted to go to a place that had the resources to get us back to that place where we compete every year."

But as a guy so used to winning — he forged a respectable 18-14-4 in his first season last year — Cavanaugh has to not only prepare his players for the possibility of losing a lot of games this season but also himself.

Or so I thought.

"I’m borrowing a line from Lou Holtz: ‘I don’t expect to win every game. I expect to win the next one,’ " he said. "Are we going to be picked last in the league? Yeah, probably. We have 10 scholarships. The rest of the league has 18, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. I think there’s a lot of heart, there’s a lot of courage, there’s a lot of good hockey players in that locker room that I’m going to be able to coach. And there’s no reason that we can’t beat Penn State on October 10. Are going to win the game? I don’t know. But there’s no reason we can’t win. And there’s no reason we can’t beat BC on November 5 in our home opener.

"In this sport, if we come together as a team, you can be very successful. And I’ve coached teams that didn’t come together as teams that had superior talent and you don’t win. So we’ll compete hard and we’ll come together as a team and there’s no reason that we can’t win the next game on our schedule every time. And that’s how we’re going to take it. I’m not looking at anything else."

Now, Cavanaugh is really getting into coach mode. We may as well be on skates ourselves some 200 feet away on the ice, running through drills again and again as he yells at me and fires off that staccato beep of a coach’s whistle.

"And four years from now, I hope that you’re here and it’s post-national championship — or whenever that might be — and I’m still going to tell you the same thing. There’s no reason we can’t win that first game on the schedule."

I personally guarantee Cavanaugh that when his UConn team wins a national title, I’ll come back to Storrs.

"I’m going to hold you to that one," he said. "This time, with a television crew."

Wherever UConn ends up this season, in the darkest depths of the conference basement or on an ultimately brighter path to the top half of the standings, Ryan Tyson will be the one who gets them there. He’s a confident 23-year-old, small and compact (5-foot-9 and 187 pounds), the way fast wingers are supposed to look, but Tyson hardly ever scores. He has more fingers than he does goals. Defense, which doesn’t look sexy on a box score, is his game.

Furthermore, Tyson comes from Harleysville, Pa., a forgotten town of fewer than 10,000 people that’s stuck halfway between Philadelphia and Allentown. He grew up worshipping Flyers center Rod Brind’Amour, but this is not from where D-I hockey captains traditionally hail, so I’m curious where Cavanaugh’s hopes and expectations lie with this seemingly unorthodox election by the players.

"When I came in here, I didn’t watch any game tape," he said. "I wanted to come in with a blank slate."

That was a blessing for Tyson, who was often a healthy scratch his sophomore year, a tumultuous season that started off with Bruce Marshall’s abrupt leave from the team after just a few weeks. An interim coach, a torn ligament in his knee, poor play after he rehabbed — it all piled up for Tyson during a rough year.

But Cavanaugh came in and wanted everyone to feel they had a chance under this new regime.

"Ryan came out from Day 1 and throughout the training camp, he was our most consistent player," he said. "He’s not a scorer, but he scored big goals for us last year. He scored against UMass and he scored against Providence, a top-10 team. He’s a kid that’s very diligent at both ends of the ice. Doesn’t take shifts off. He competes in the classroom. Socially, he’s done a good job off the ice. My job last year was to let the team know what my expectations are for leadership, and I think they made an excellent choice with Ryan."

Now that Tyson is set to be his first Hockey East captain as head coach, does Cavanaugh have any expectations for him?

"I’d love to see his answer to that question," he told me. "I sent him a couple of articles over the summer. My style is, I want to send Ryan Tyson an article: ‘Ryan, I thought this was interesting.’ I want him to read it and I want him to take what he thinks is effective from it. If I jam it down his throat, it’s not his idea. I don’t know how effective that is, and that’s not how I coach. If I have to jam something down your throat, you haven’t been listening."

The on-campus Freitas Ice Forum, home to UConn hockey since 1998.

It’s clear, after meeting Tyson, that he’s been listening to his coach.

"He’s had how many guys go to the NHL?" said Tyson, as we sat across from each other in a room adjacent to the rink. "But he’s also had captains who weren’t the top scorers, who were a little different kind of players."

That’s the comp that Tyson (rightfully) sets for himself, and he’s looking forward to playing some tougher teams this year. He’s convinced, as shown by the Huskies’ play against top programs last season — including a win over top-10 Providence and a tie versus eventual national champion Union — that having a tougher slate of games is going to elevate their play.

"I can’t put a number on how many we’re going to win," he said, "but I know we’re going to give it our all, and for us seniors, this could be our last year of hockey. Ever."

He likes the way Cavanaugh is preparing this team for the expectations (or lack thereof) and has bought into the message: Go out, play hard, and fortune will find you.

"I definitely think there is no pressure on us this year at all," Tyson said. "In a way, that could be beneficial because we could be overlooked. We probably are going to be because teams are going to think, ‘Who’s this Atlantic [Hockey] team coming in thinking they can play with us?’ Having that lack of pressure is going to allow us to play freely and with confidence. In the end, it’s going to be a positive."

As Tyson walks away to get to a workout, I think back to what Cavanaugh told me about his approach to letting Tyson forge his own sense of what captain should do.

"I try not to influence him. I try to say, ‘This is what we have here. This is what’s been successful for me going forward. This is what I’ve seen be successful in other people. Think about it. Give me your thoughts,’ " he said. "I don’t want a yes-man. I don’t want my captain to ever be a yes-man. I tell my players, ‘There’s two types of players I never want to coach: One that never does what he’s told and one that always does what he’s told.’"

As I step out of the Freitas Ice Forum and start walking down Jim Calhoun Way — a main Storrs thoroughfare that cuts through the southern quadrant of the campus, which is home to many athletic facilities, and never lets you forget for whom this entire enterprise owes its appreciation — my mind goes to something Tyson pointed to inside the conference room where we spoke.

Tucked away in one corner was a packet of artist renderings for the new ice hockey arena the school hopes to build on campus some time in the next four-ish years. A stately building that’ll hold perhaps 5,000 or 6,000 fans, comparable to the other Hockey East homes, many of them either relatively new (BU’s Agganis Arena) or recently renovated (Merrimack’s Lawler Rink) or just downright intimidating as hell to enter (Maine’s Alfond Arena). Another sports destination on a campus that is already stocked with them.

The last thing I had asked Cavanaugh before we parted was — given the generally low expectations set by everyone outside of this campus — is what he would consider a successful season when the season finally (mercifully?) ends.

He paused for a few seconds before answering: "If we can sit down as a collective group — myself, the team, the coaches — and we feel we’ve put the building blocks in to building a program that’s going to compete for championships on a yearly basis, that will be a successful season."

Cavanaugh wasn’t done. "But I’m not going to pigeonhole this team," he clarified, "and I’m certainly not going to say, ‘We’re not playing in April.’ I believe that with goaltending, with the right team chemistry, with a hot power play, with good special teams, there’s no reason, in this sport, you can’t be successful in the playoffs. I watched RIT go to a Frozen Four in 2010. I truly believe our team is as good as RIT was that year."

I have no doubt he believes this. Tyson probably does, too, as well as his 25 teammates. And maybe that’s enough. Maybe UConn can pull off what RIT did in 2010, or even like Union last season and win it all. And then I think back to something else Cavanaugh told me, a phrase that UConn fans may come back to time and again during what could be a very educational debut season in Hockey East.

I’m not going to pigeonhole this team and I’m certainly not going to say, ‘We’re not playing in April.’ I believe that with goaltending, with the right team chemistry, with a hot power play, with good special teams, there’s no reason, in this sport, you can’t be successful in the playoffs.

You learn a lot from the losses.

You can follow Erik Malinowski, who thinks Slap Shot is the second-best sports movie ever put to film, on Twitter at @erikmal and email him at erik.malinowski@fox.com.