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Since you asked: The firing, the hiring and the future

March 13, 2011

Everyone has heard by now that the Blaise MacDonald era at Lowell is over after 10 ultimately disappointing seasons.

Can’t say we’re surprised.

We are on record as saying we were willing to give MacDonald a pass this year, and that became a no-brainer when an important cog like Scott Campbell was lost for nearly the balance of the season early on. Make no mistake, this was a team plagued by injury and short on college experience, and for that, little to nothing could have been expected from the River Hawks this year. We figured MacDonald’s job was doubly safe because he had a year left on his contract after this season.

But obviously, five wins is the fewest in Division 1 history, and with the money the school poured into the building and program, even the above considerations were going to be rendered moot. Hell, the team even lost to Vermont. Clearly, the wheels were coming off, and something had to be done.

Ultimately, though, the problem with MacDonald’s tenure at Lowell is the same as the one we highlighted at the end of last season: for 10 years, this has been a program that ALMOST did incredible things. It was twice ranked third in the country before pissing down its leg in both seasons — though for disparate reasons — and failing to make the NCAA tournament (to be fair: it would have done so in 2001-02 had the national tournament been 16 teams instead of the ridiculous 12 that prevailed for far too long given the number of autobids for poor conferences with six teams). Three times it won 20 or more games and picked up 19 in another two campaigns, but made it to the league semifinals just twice.

When you think about it, getting screwed in the 2009 final is probably the team’s biggest accomplishment in 10 seasons. So yeah, that’s pretty much unacceptable for a team that used to make it to the TD Garden every year with almost alarming ease given the many handicaps it faced.

Now with all that being said, let’s just also take a moment to realize that MacDonald did do some very good things for this program, including having a large hand in saving it from elimination twice. That we have a team to support at all is in no small part his doing. Plus, let’s be honest: when he took over, Tim Whitehead had handed him a disaster. He turned it around immediately and put it in a position to go to the illusory “Next Level.” But he could never get it there himself, and now he’s gone.

And so here we are, looking at a program without a coach and with what may be a ticking time bomb awaiting whoever does take over. This will still be a remarkably young team next season and everything will be reset in terms of recruiting strategies and reputations around the continent. The new coach, whoever it is, will likely get a few years’ worth of slack from the higher-ups because he really is cleaning up after a disastrous season, but how much more, really, can we expect from this team next year? Unless the next Jerry York is sitting out there waiting by the phone, Lowell’s not about to become the team people like Dana Skinner and Marty Meehan seem to think it can be (which we’re still not quite sure of), at least not any time soon.

With that being said, there’s been surprisingly little in the way of details about who, exactly, is being considered to fill the now-vacant coaching position. We’ve only heard the vaguely descriptive term “national search,” which is to be expected, but tells us absolutely nothing.

History shows that coaches who have considerable success at their programs are well-respected recruiters at other schools. The most notable example of this is Mark Dennehy, who has inexplicably turned Merrimack into what looks to be a strong program both now and in the future. Need evidence that guys like Dennehy are the way to go? Look at Amherst’s ability to pull high-quality players when he was there, and all the relative success that wrought (two NCAA bids their brainless fans still won’t shut up about), and the IMMEDIATE collapse in recruit quality as soon as he left (we’re fairly certain he recruited all three of Tom Pock, James Marcou and Jon Quick, the only two Amherst players worth mentioning in the program’s history but can’t be bothered to look that up).

From this pool of candidates, there are likely a number in Hockey East already, including Boston College’s Mike Cavanaugh, who, like MacDonald, grew up near Lowell (but nearer to Merrimack, given that he’s from North Andover). We’d bet good money that he at least gets a call once the Eagles’ season ends in another month or so. But beyond that, we have no guesses as to potential replacements from these ranks because frankly, there are too many to name at the moment. We’ve seen a lot of Lowell fans talk up guys like Norm Bazin and Div. 3 Wentworth head coach RJ Tolan for the job. And why? Well, they played at Lowell in their college days. As good a reason to sign someone as any, right?

Again, we’ll see what the future holds in this regard, but there’s been one name bandied about on legitimate college hockey news sites and on the more inane fan message boards that we feel we have to address.

Craig MacTavish.

You know who he is. Former Lowell Chief, winner of a national championship, one of the program’s best players ever and recent Craig MacTavish Night honoree. You might also know him as the one-time Boston Bruin, most famously an Edmonton Oiler, who won four Stanley Cups in his playing careerincluding as a rental for the ’94 Rangers. Or maybe you remember him as the Edmonton Oilers’ former head coach who, along with another former Lowell standout, Dwayne Roloson, inexplicably rampaged through the 2006 NHL Western Conference playoffs and lost a Stanley Cup to Carolina in seven games.

These days, he still scouts for the Oilers, still lives in Edmonton, and holds an analyst job for TSN (the Canadian equivalent of ESPN, if you weren’t clued in). Another thing he is: almost certainly not the next coach of the Lowell River Hawks.

Let’s start with the anecdotal evidence: he seems perfectly content to not be a coach these days. He was an NHL head coach for eight years, after being an assistant for three. Now granted, Edmonton’s not exactly the French Riviera, and a scout’s life is lived more in airport bars and cold rinks in the middle of nowhere than it is at home with his family. But let’s just look at the FIRST search result for “Craig MacTavish [redacted] Lowell,” from a story out of Springfield, Mass., earlier this season.

Does he miss coaching?

“Not really,” he said like someone who need a break from it. “I suppose I could get back into it if I wanted to.”

Now obviously this may be a writer reading too much into things, but Dick Baker’s been covering sports longer than most of us have been alive, so our first instinct is to trust his.

Even ignoring that, what would make MacTavish want to come coach at Lowell? NHL coaches, particularly those who make Stanley Cup Finals, are well-compensated for their work. Lots of estimates have it in the $900,000 or $1 million range, though teams don’t typically release that kind of information. By way of comparison, MacDonald was a public employee, so we know he made a little over $177,000 (and somehow wasn’t on 40 hours a week!). Don Cahoon, who inexplicably still has a job at the laughable “Flagship Program,” makes about $220,000, which seems like a hell of a waste of taxpayer money. Guys like Dick Umile (the top-paid state employee in New Hampshire!), Tim Whitehead or other state university coaches with considerably more success than either MacDonald or Cahoon have put together, likely make considerably more than that.

It is, therefore, rather difficult to imagine that MacTavish, with his near-decade of NHL head coaching experience, would take that type of downgrade in prestige (to say nothing of salary) to be Lowell’s new bench boss. This is a guy who was considered one of the 30 best hockey coaches on the planet as recently as two years ago, and we have to wonder why anyone with a rational thought in their head would think he’d take a job that, as far as most people in the state university system are concerned, is lower than Cahoon’s, and would pay commensurately. What indignity!

But let’s imagine, for one crazy, stupid moment, that he does take the job. What does he have to gain from doing so?

Suppose he’s an immediate success — and he probably would be, given his pedigree and what is likely a substantial rolodex of brilliant hockey minds, all of whom must be clamoring to make as much as $50,000 a year as college assistants — and gets Lowell to 20 wins within the next two seasons. Maybe squeezes into an NCAA tournament. He looks like a genius. He starts getting calls from NHL teams, promising big money and a far, far better lifestyle. He’s gone in, what, three or four years? He has very little to prove as a coach, given that he was only fired because the coach is the first guy to get the ax when an NHL team sucks. Can’t fire the players, and general managers don’t fire themselves. That Edmonton crashed to the worst record in the NHL in his immediate absence and will likely do so again this season at least stands as proof that he was a hell of a coach holding together what would have otherwise been an abject disaster.

And, though this is less likely, if he’s not an immediate success — because the team still isn’t ready to compete, and recruiting has dragged after the crushing disappointment of the last two seasons —  then he looks all the worse, and that phone (at what we’ll assume would be a very nice home in North Chelmsford or something), doesn’t ring. Then what?

For a guy like MacTavish, this job, if he takes it, and he won’t, is typically a stepping stone. But he’s already got the league-wide cred to interview for any head coaching gig that opens up, and we just can’t imagine a world in which he’d consider, for lack of a better term, slumming it both at a competitive and monetary level.

That having been said, we’d love for it to be him, and for us to be wr.. wrrrrrr… wroooo.. less than correct. He possesses an excellent hockey mind, obviously. He’s also a hell of a nice guy, honest, accountable and likable. His name has cachet that would juice recruiting of both players and assistants, as he’d certainly be the most famous coach in Hockey East if not college hockey, the second he took the job.

Whoever it is, we’re excited for the future, as should you all be. Though with our luck, it’ll probably be Tim Army.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. jrobes01 permalink
    March 13, 2011 11:44 pm

    Please please please come back next season. The worst days are (hopefully) behind this program.

  2. rivercluck2006 permalink
    March 14, 2011 12:51 am

    Agree that MacTavish will not be the next coach of the River Hawks. Also, most people would have given MacDonald at least the final year of the contract. Unfortunately, it was an inpatient, image-conscious chancellor who decided it was time for a change.

  3. Umlweatherman permalink
    March 23, 2011 3:57 pm

    Good write up, I second jrobes.. please continue this next season.

  4. bob permalink
    April 3, 2011 3:51 am

    “Look at Amherst’s ability to pull high-quality players when he was there, and all the relative success that wrought (two NCAA bids their brainless fans still won’t shut up about), and the IMMEDIATE collapse in recruit quality as soon as he left (we’re fairly certain he recruited all three of Tom Pock, James Marcou and Jon Quick, the only two Amherst players worth mentioning in the program’s history but can’t be bothered to look that up).”

    Amherst only had one NCAA appearance.

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