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2009-10 season preview: To the brink and back again, or: The Mill City Miracle

August 18, 2009

The story of Lowell hockey is not entirely unlike the story of Lowell itself.

Lowell, Massachusetts was, at its height, the industrial center of America, and arguably the world. When anyone, anywhere in the civilized world, said “Lowell,” that name meant something. It meant industriousness. It meant a city that had risen, shaking off the suburban beginnings it owed to once being a part of Chelmsford and Billerica, into a giant of civil and industrial ingenuity after which the whole of the textile world lusted. The city’s seat, at the confluence of the Concord and Merrimack rivers, almost singlehandedly, saw to the rise of the American factory town simply through hard work (and just a little bit of industrial espionage, but who’s counting?), and a plan. The canals, dug by hand, came in five stages and, by the end, totaled 5.8 miles in length and powered a relatively small number of mills, which produced nearly 263 million feet of cloth per year at the city’s industrial height.

But with the turn of the 20th century came incremental decline because of both the rise of the South’s industrial backbone as facilitated by the use of steam power and the lack of a unionized workforce providing the captains of industry that once called Lowell home with considerably cheaper labor. By the mid-1920s, the city’s factories sat as low, unused, hulking eyesores along the banks of the lower Merrimack, the powerful turbines largely silent, and the canals, which had once rushed so much water and capital and opportunity into the city, were stagnant. This downfall continued largely unabated for parts of five decades. But Paul Tsongas, a United States congressman who was born and raised in the city, and maintained a home there until his death in 1997, helped to create the Lowell National Historical Park in the mid 1970s, which brought in federal money to preserve and buoy the city and keep it on life support until An Wang brought Wang Laboratories to the city’s outskirts and tech professionals flooded the outlying areas, if not the city itself. But when Wang and Co. declared bankruptcy  in the early ’90s, the city stumbled backwards again, regaining the dangerous, depressed mantle it had earned in decades prior, and culminating with the award-winning and excellent, if not civically embarrassing HBO documentary “High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell” (directed, incidentally, by a man who went on to teach a few English courses at Lowell and who imparted to us more than a little bit about the craft writing).

And then in the mid- to late-1990s, something wonderful happened: the city of Lowell seemed to get a new lease on life. It got minor league baseball and hockey teams around the same time (the Spinners’ first season was 1996, and the Lock Monsters’ 1998). It got brand new facilities to house these teams, with both LeLacheur Park and the Tsongas Arena being completed in 1998. And Lowell, a city long considered as a desolate wasteland, was very much back.

Lowell hockey, at least in the 1970s, was synonymous with Division 2 hockey excellence under the guidance of Bill Riley, who took over the team in 1969, after its first two years of existence. He turned a team that was just 4-9-0 in the 1968-69 season to one that went 11-6-0 with wins against teams that, the previous year, had pummeled the Chiefs. So effective was Reilly that, just nine seasons into his reign, Lowell was unequivocally the best team in the NCAA at the Division 2 level. It won all three of its national titles in a four-year span (and even in the year it failed to win, advanced to the Final Four). From 1976-77 until 1982-83, Lowell never hit double-digits in losses, and went 161-39-2 (an obscene winning percentage of .802).

But with the 1983-84 season came Lowell’s move to Division 1 and, while it had positively trounced a number of Division 1 teams the year prior on the way to a 29-2 record (not including a 3-0-1 exhibition record against three future Hockey East opponents, beating UNH 7-3 and 6-4, and BC 10-0, and drawing Northeastern 5-5), Lowell began to stumble, playing sub-.500 hockey for three seasons. Apart from a pair of 20-plus win seasons in the late ’80s, Lowell’s first foray into Division 1 was a disaster. When Riley was, unfairly or not, forced out the door in 1991, Bruce Crowder came in and, much like Wang Laboratories, gave an almost instant spark to the area. After a trying first season, Crowder and his boys rattled off three 20-plus win seasons in four years and made the NCAA tournament twice, in 1994 and 1996. But then Crowder, like Wang, left for a doomed stint behind the bench at Northeastern, chasing greener hues in both pasture and wallet, and was replaced by current Maine head coach and fanbase punching bag, Tim Whitehead, whose five seasons at Lowell featured just one above .500. This era, which stretched unfortunately into the Blaise MacDonald years, was uglier than any three HBO documentaries.

But the arrival of MacDonald as Lowell’s coach prior to the 2000-2001 season has been a largely positive experience despite some rather subpar seasons, and this is where the narrative splits somewhat. Because where the government in charge of seeing to the city’s well-being to one extent or another was remarkably supportive, the body governing the Lowell hockey team — ultimately, the University of Massachusetts itself — has done nothing but stand in the way of the program. It has given Lowell’s “sister school,” UMass Amherst, considerably more in the way of funding and support (though how much or little this has actually helped the Minuteman hockey program is open, obviously, for debate) and twice tried to eliminate the Lowell hockey program entirely.

The second of these occasions is where the narratives converge again, or at least we hope so. News that the team was, for the second time in a decade, close to being shut down by the UMass Board of Trustees (and for this reason, you will never hear us refer to Lowell as “UMass Lowell”) broke to the general public in early March of 2007, just a day before the team was to take on Vermont in a series in Burlington that saw the ‘Hawks holding onto only the slightest possibility that they would make the Hockey East tournament. Privately, those in the know have acknowledged that these rumblings cropped up months earlier but were held out of the news until the Lowell Sun decided it would be a hell of a nice thing to drop on the program, its players and fans, just two days prior to the end of the season.

Frankly, it was shameless opportunism on the part of Board of Trustees president Stephen Tocco, whose name, despicably, is on our diplomas forever. He saw his long-hunted prey weakened by heavy graduation losses and near-crippled by a poor record befitting its freshman-laden roster, and that was when he decided to strike. But those brave River Hawks, in a wonderful weekend that would symbolize the team’s resiliency and resolve over the next several years, beat the 15th-ranked Catamounts 2-1 on Friday and drew them 3-3 the following night. At the time, freshman center Chris Auger noted that Lowell was the best non-playoff team in the country (it should be noted, though, that the only other real competition for this title was Merrimack, which, with only three wins, had just about the worst season in the history of Hockey East) and then made a much bolder prediction: that Lowell would compete for home ice the following season.

The Lowell program survived that summer for a number of reasons, and entered 2007-08 as favorites to once again miss the playoffs, finishing ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll, well behind No. 8 Providence. But it’s funny how close to being right Auger was. Lowell finished seventh in the league (an ignoble position, sure) but was, until disastrous late-season weekends against Vermont and Maine, indeed a competitor for a top-four finish. In the playoffs that year, Lowell put a serious scare into No. 13 Boston University in the Hockey East quarterfinals, ultimately falling in three games but leading by two goals in each one. Good things, clearly, were happening.

Then last season, Lowell began to solidify its spot as one of the truly fearsome teams in Hockey East. Apart from a dreadful December and poor results in its six regular-season games against BU and Northeastern, Lowell would have positively stampeded into the NCAA tournament. It took all six points from Maine. It took five from BC. It took three from Vermont in Burlington (a feat no other team accomplished). And all of that portended Lowell’s magical run to the Hockey East final, its first appearance in the league’s final game since 1994, in which it sauntered past Vermont in Burlington (yes, again) in two games and edged Northeastern in overtime behind an improbable late comeback engineered by Scott Campbell, who scored an extra-attacker goal, and Auger, who netted the winner. The brave ‘Hawks, forever counted out and looked down upon, fell to the juggernaut BU Terriers, who were always our favorites to win the treble of league, cup and national title, just 1-0 behind some shady officiating by the Hockey East replay crew. It was a tragic, unfitting end to an excellent season and a preview, we think, of this coming one.

But, you’re probably saying to yourselves right now, we’re now close to 1,600 words deep into this supposed season preview and last year’s topped 1,200 even without the history lesson. But our point is this: you have to know where you’ve been to be happy about where you’re headed. The lows this team has faced in the past, when compared to the highs that the future may hold.

Last year featured a marvelous end that really only signified a beginning. This is the journey we’ve awaited since the disappointment of the 2006, and the summer of uncertainty that followed. This is the season we’ve looked toward after the somewhat troubling defeat at Agganis Arena. This is the season we’ve eagerly anticipated since mid-March. This is the season for which Lowell sits, we’re sure we don’t need to tell you, poised to stand astride Hockey East like a colossus.

There is, frankly, nothing that should stand in the River Hawks’ way. Every team in Hockey East has suffered heavy losses to graduation or the allure of professional hockey. Have a gander at the reigning national champions. They had the best forward (Colin Wilson) and defenseman (Hobey winner Matt Gilroy) in the country and both are gone. They also lost probably their third-best defenseman (Brian Strait), and three more of its top five scorers (Chris Higgins, Brandon Yip and Jason Lawrence). In all, BU loses 92 of its ridiculous 177 goals from last season, a little over two per game(!). We don’t care how good Nick Bonino, Zach Cohen and the rest are, that’s an impossible amount to make up. (Plus, just wait for Kieran Millan to go all John Muse this season. That’ll be a ball to watch.)

Then there’s Hockey East’s other representative in the Frozen Four, Vermont (wait that can’t be right). The Catamounts lose the only reason they scored any goals at all last year: Viktor Stalberg. Also gone is Peter Lenes. Vermont loses more than 39 of its 121 goals (about 32 percent) just in those two, and 51 total.

Northeastern may not lose a lot of goals (45 of 121, a little more than a third), but it loses the only reason that it competed with BU for the league crown until the last day of the season or gained entrance to the NCAA tournament at all, and the only thing that made it better than Lowell last year: Hobey finalist Brad Thiessen, whose basic goaltending stats were an absurd 2.12/.931 and who played literally every minute of Northeastern’s games last season, except when he was relieved for an extra attacker for just 5:44.

UNH, which UNH’ed its way out of the NCAA tournament nice and early, saw James van Riemsdyk, the extremely promising young forward, jump to the team that drafted him No. 2 overall, Philadelphia, and taking his 17-23-40 in 36 games with him. He was, shockingly, the only point-a-game player in Durham last season. Also lost are a handful of seniors whose contributions, combined with JVR’s, total 40 of UNH’s 116.

And after those four teams, all of whom finished ahead of Lowell, who’s left to compete? BC, which loses 51 of 112 goals (112, incidentally, is the same number as Lowell), and is without Muse for the first month plus of the season thanks to hip surgery and who has given way to another goalie for just 7:56 of his two-year career at the Heights? Please. UMass Amherst, which will have to do without 37 of its 112 goals, and, if we’re being honest, isn’t that good to begin with? You’re having a laugh.

All the doubters have left is one of Maine (losing 16 of 86 and continuing to be dreadful), Providence (seeing off 21 of 77) and Merrimack (14 of 72). They might all improve and shine relative to the current expectations upon them (which is to say, low), and they’d still be a candle under Lowell’s sun. It doesn’t even out.

And now we’re up over 2,200 words and still, the only two Lowell players we’ve mentioned are Auger and Campbell, and those came in passing. So let’s have a look, finally, at the best team in Hockey East, shall we?

Lowell’s offense? We think it’ll be all set. The losses of Mark Roebothan, Mike Potacco and Nick Monroe will hurt defensively, but with just 18 goals between them (16.1 percent), making up that offense shouldn’t be that difficult for several reasons. First and foremost, Lowell tends to make hay on the power play, averaging a goal a game over last season’s 38 and finishing with the second-best power play in Hockey East (after BU, naturally). Total power play goals lost to graduation: zero. This is not to discount the losses of any of these three guys, and certainly being without them will be a detriment to the PK if nothing else. But if the question we’re asking offensively is “Will Lowell score more goals than it did last year,” then the answer is yes.

For one thing, it’s a far-flung notion to assume that Kory Falite can’t recapture the quality goalscoring touch of his sophomore season, when he led Hockey East in goals. He dropped from 18 to 14, which doesn’t seem that precipitous, sure, but he just seemed disinterested on more than a few occasions. We certainly don’t expect to see that from him again this coming year, mainly because it’s his last shot at redemption and the goaltending and defense situations in Hockey East have, for the most part, worsened. Falite’s occasional linemate, Paul Worthington, is capable of stepping his everyday game up to postseason levels as well (0-3-3 in four games last year, 2-6-8 in seven career games).

Another factor is the emergence of Campbell, who scored 10 points in five games prior to the Hockey East title game and who has the singular, talismanic ability on the team to completely corral a game all by himself and make it his own like Hercules subduing the Nemean lion, first by physically beating it, then choking the life from it. If the Scott Campbell from the final five games of the season can play that way for even half the games this season (and the old saying goes you make your biggest leap as a player between sophomore and junior year), then he will certainly assure a Lowell victory most nights.

Beyond that, there’s more than enough reason to hope that David Vallorani builds on his marvelous freshman campaign and contribute something along the lines of 35 points. It’s only a 25 percent jump or so and, with the holes created by the absence of Potacco and Roebothan, he should get a more time at even strength to work his playmaking magic.

And finally, there’s at least one freshman forward for whom we’re very excited, young Robert Visca out or Orangeville in the OPJHL. Want obscene junior numbers? He’s got ’em. Despite not turning 18 until April (after the Hockey East season had been over for nearly a month), put up a line of 17-16-33 in 26 games last season, then 7-7-14 in 16 games in the playoffs. Or how about 28 goals in 49 games as a 16-year-old? By way of contrast, Vallorani’s goals per game in his final year in the OP, as an 18-year-old, is almost exactly the same. Our bet is this that kid’s a good one.

That doesn’t mention the players from whom we expect greater contribution, like Ben Holmstrom, Patrick Cey, Mike Budd, and Matty Ferreira. We also look forward to what is hopefully a full season from noted Vermont killer Mike Scheu.

And all this, by the way, goes without mentioning Lowell’s greatest asset: its defense. Oh yes, readers, the praise under which we’re going to bury this blue line corps will be, for lack of a better term, lewd. There’s nothing to be done.

Maury Edwards, ho hum. Junior All-American, Hockey East first-teamer, shot so heavy it’s got a gravitational pull, and No. 2 on the team in scoring last year. Nick Schaus, yawn. Hits like a runaway freight train, jumped up in the offense like he’s been doing it all his life, Lowell’s best overall player last year. Jeremy Dehner, whatever. Best one-on-one defenseman in Hockey East, great puck distributor, maybe Lowell’s most talented player. Ryan Blair, no big deal. Positionally sound, huge, hardnosed, scores timely goals. Barry Goers, dunno if you heard of him. Motors with the puck, best-kept defensive secret in the league, plays any role you give him expertly. Steve Capraro, don’t worry about it. Not a better no-offense defenseman in the league, good hard shot nonetheless, never out of position.

Yeah those six guys? They’re pretty good. And toss in Timmys Corcoran and Carr as cover for good measure, and freshman Colin Wright, a converted forward just to make sure everything’s cool. That’s not bad either, one supposes.

Altogether you’re looking at the deepest and best 1-7 defensemen in the league. No one else even carries their jocks. That especially includes Vermont’s defense*.  At least three players on Lowell’s D corps are game-changing, put-’em-on-the-top-pairing players on any team in the league. Jack Parker would kill to put Edwards on his No. 1 power play unit. Jerry York would sell the farm for Dehner. Don Cahoon would want Schaus around just so he doesn’t almost decapitate James Marcou again.

And the goalies? Sure, they’re pretty good too. Even with TJ Massie‘s bad but largely negligible stats (he only played 79:44 of 2,317:14, or 3.5ish percent of the season), the Lowell goaltending line sparkles at 2.23/.916. Both numbers should improve this year simply because Carter Hutton, the technically sound yin to Nevin Hamilton‘s more unorthodox yang, can’t possibly get hurt and miss significant time in all four of his seasons at Lowell, can he? We certainly hope not, at least. But beyond that hope-and-a-prayer type thinking (the only time we’ll allow such a thing this season, as everything else is devoted to nothing but confidence that the team will go 45-0-0), we think both are in line to step up their games and get that team stat line down to about 2.10/.925, which would win Lowell an extra two or three games easy, the way we figure it. Hey, we called for 2.20/.920 last season and the goaltending troika was 0.03/.004 off, so it’s not like we’re given to asking for much.

But on the subject of not asking for too much, we come, at long last, to the expectations that we personally have for the River Hawks this year. In last year’s season preview we called for a team that would compete for an NCAA spot and home ice, win its quarterfinal series and possibly win at the Garden. Lowell dutifully delivered on all counts. And thus we don’t feel the team should feel aggrieved with what we’re asking this year. It’s simple really. You don’t have to do what BU did in 2008-09, but you at least have to come close. We’re talking winning the Hockey East double, that’s for sure. The regular season shouldn’t result in anything worse than a No. 1 seed, and similarly, the postseason deserves nothing less than Lowell’s first Hockey East title. And upon making the NCAAs, anything less than a life-threatening trip to Detroit would seem pretty disappointing, don’t you think? Hell, Vermont and Bemidji got to Washington last year, and the whole of college hockey will likely be appreciably worse this season.

This is, unequivocally, the most important season in the history of Lowell hockey. No team since the jump to Division 1 has had bigger aspirations, nor has one had the juice to actually fulfill them. Lowell needs to roll through this league like Zhukov through German-occupied Stalingrad. Lowell needs to prove it can bounce back from the terrible fate it nearly met three years ago. For once, Lowell needs to simply win for winning’s sake.

This is the season to do it.

That Lowell, the city, came back from the bottom of what seemed a hopeless pit of despair to become a little bit of a cultural centerpiece in the region is a wonderful story of urban rebirth through little more than tenacity, ingenuity and a few lucky breaks along the way. That Lowell, our beloved River Hawk hockey program to which we — and by “we,” we mean not just us, but all Lowell fans, players, coaches, staff, and supporters — have devoted so much of our time and energy and emotions and hard work, has climbed back from near-extinction, and not only survived but flourished, is a testament to the great things that the things that can save a city can save a hockey team too. Most would view both transformations as miraculous.

To an extent, that’s true. But like the city it calls home, this hockey program didn’t need miracles, it needed attention. When it finally got some, it flourished. And with tenacity, ingenuity and a bit of luck, the same qualities that saved the city, saying “Lowell” means something again, especially in Hockey East. After all, in just 27 months, the River Hawks went from the edge of oblivion to the cusp of greatness.

Go ‘Hawks go!

(Sources for this post include the Lowell National Parks Department website, Business Week, the Boston Globe, Hockey East Online, the Lowell hockey media guide, Wikipedia (only 4 percent less accurate than Encyclopædia Britannica!) and a couple other things we don’t remember.)

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Scott permalink
    August 18, 2009 10:23 am

    On a sultry summer morning, this has me ready for hockey season.

  2. RHHB permalink
    August 18, 2009 4:15 pm

    pretty sure “sultry” isn’t the word you wanted to use there.

  3. Monty permalink
    August 20, 2009 5:40 pm

    Great job with the preview. Just adds more excitement for the upcoming season.

  4. Steve DeSimone permalink
    September 5, 2009 3:45 am

    Great preview.

  5. Jason W permalink
    October 2, 2009 9:22 pm

    Good luck to the Hawks.

    Lot of expectations- something this team hasnt had to deal with. It will be interesting to see if they can live up to the expectations.

    And it will be a nice middle finger to the UMass admin for the crap they pulled not too long ago. Maybe if they win something they’ll give Lowell a read scoreboard.

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