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This Week in Disrespect: Coach’s corner

March 8, 2013

You would think that given that Lowell now has back-to-back 20-win seasons under its belt for the first time since Dwayne Roloson (now nearly retired from professional after a fairly successful 14-year NHL career) was on campus, that the disrespect for the River Hawks would at some point stop, or at least slow to a crawl. But as you should know all too well by now, that’s hardly ever how it works out.

That’s because even with Lowell playing the best hockey it has in nearly two decades, the insidious goblins in the college hockey media continue to work their particular brand of black magic in trying to turn public opinion against the River Hawks in any way possible. Of course, given how much success Norm Bazin has had in his first 70 games behind the bench at his alma mater (during which he has gone 45-22-3 for a .664 winning percentage), the ongoing claims against the greatness of both he and his team have grown increasingly ludicrous, to the point where they seem almost parodies of themselves. Almost.

While disrespect is everywhere, it takes another type of dis- to gin up the kind of anti-Bazin propaganda we’ve seen in the last few weeks: Cognitive dissonance. We’re speaking of course about the grotesque contortions through which various college hockey reporters have put themselves to begin drawing comparisons between Bazin and the coach against which he will tilt this weekend, Nate Leaman. No, we’re sadly not having a laugh.

We suppose the reason why these two are continually linked, against all odds and logic, is somewhat obvious. They both came into Hockey East together, along with Jim Madigan at Northeastern. At first, within the opening months of last season, there was a little bit of the success all were having, but Madigan slowly faded from that conversation because, a.) he’s not a good coach, and b.) his team is so bad that if actual huskies were struggling this much, they’d be euthanized. But Leaman and Bazin remained locked in each other’s death grips, at least in the minds of the conference’s dimmest observers, despite the fact that Bazin enjoyed a meteoric rise while Leaman plummeted into sub-mediocrity like the balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm. Then, once they met in the playoffs, all bets were truly off despite the fact that Lowell had just swept Providence in convincing fashion the previous weekend. Lowell lost that series 2-1 because, the old folktale goes, Leaman drew up the perfect plan to defeat Bazin. That game plan, involving half of Lowell’s players getting the flu, Riley Wetmore breaking his hand, and a centuries-old Druidic curse was executed nearly to perfection, because Leaman still needed three games to win that series. And even as Bazin went on to the NCAA tournament, and won a game there, while Leaman sat at home sadly choking down some dry bologna sandwiches and lamenting his team’s season-ending record of 14-20-4. Which, we’ll remind you, is below .500 by six games. Bazin’s just for comparison’s sake, was above it by 11. Same thing, really.

The comparisons continued into the offseason, as various outlets wondered whether Bazin and Leaman could continue the success they enjoyed in their first seasons. (Aside from a liberal definition of “success,” this leaves aside the fact that Leaman had been a coach at Union for eight seasons, and it wasn’t until his sixth there that he actually eclipsed 20 wins, something Bazin did immediately after coming from Div. 3.) Lowell was picked by Hockey East’s coaches to finish near the top of the league, as it did the previous season. Providence was picked to finish in the lower half of the middle of the pack, as it did the previous season. And this, perhaps, is where the current air of hysterical disrespect seems to have arisen.

What we’ve seen more and more in the last few weeks is that because Providence, like a festering sore, is hanging around the home ice conversation, Leaman is once again being brought up in the same breath as Bazin, this time for potential Hockey East and — we swear this is true — national coach of the year candidates. Perhaps the earliest rumblings of this came from the College Hockey News, where speculative year-end awards were doled out a few weeks ago. Leaman and Bazin were both mentioned as potential coaches of the year (behind Mark Dennehy, whose team has crumbled like that time-lapse video of a decomposing fox carcass and isn’t even the best coach within 15 square miles of his own campus). At the time this equivocation was made on Feb. 20, Leaman’s team was 11-10-7 overall, and 9-6-6 in Hockey East. Bazin’s was 16-9-2, and 10-8-2. Lowell made up Providence’s extra two league points thanks to its game in hand two days later.

But even as Lowell ripped off five consecutive wins, all against nationally-ranked opponents, three of them on the road, since the publication of that base and insulting piece, the comparisons inexplicably continued. The Boston Globe, a noted purveyor of Lowell-related disrespect in the past, heaped on the affronts, noting, “One of the best stories in the league this season is the continued growth of the Lowell and Providence programs. Both are led by second-year coaches: Norm Bazin at Lowell and Nate Leaman at Providence.”

It’s true that Providence has improved over last season. There seems relatively little chance it will finish the year as less than a .500 team (though if it gets swept by Lowell this weekend (they will) and then bow out to their playoff opponents in fewer than three games, that’s right where they’ll end up), but given that the Friars were six games under that level last season, the step forward is somewhat notable. However, when stacked up next to Bazin’s actual, real turnaround, it’s like comparing the water needed to fill your bathtub to the Atlantic Ocean. Now, again, we have to be fair here, though we do not like to do so. At the time of this disgusting article’s publication, Lowell was 19-9-2, and 13-8-2 in Hockey East. Still short of another 20-win season but within striking distance and certainly looking good to get there barring a total meltdown. The Friars, meanwhile, were 13-10-7 and 11-6-6. Two fewer wins in-league. Not that far apart. And sure Lowell had two games in hand at that point, and six more wins overall, and one fewer loss, and only a third of those ugly ties, but still, comparable stuff, right? Not really, but given that we are empathetic enough to understand that most people do not grasp even simple concepts related to the sport of hockey, we were almost willing to let this slide with a sneer, but without a second thought.

Then USCHO just about blew our heads off with rage. In an article published earlier this week, after Lowell cleaned out national opponents in five straight games and none of them were particularly close despite what the scoreboards all said, Jim Connolly, who to our knowledge is a Lowell alum and therefore should really know better than to be spewing filth that closes in on an Amherstian level of stupidity, broke down the national coach of the year candidates in Hockey East thusly:

Well, I’ll start out in my league, Hockey East, where I think there are a number of candidates.

Already wrong. There is one candidate.

Norm Bazin at [Lowell] could be a repeat COY in that league

And that’s who it is, though we’re uncomfortable with the qualifier “could.” Trying to look objective, it appears. Thanks Jim, good job on this piece. Wow, this is the kind of analysis which we have grown wholly unaccustomed to seeing because not only is it correct — a rarity in the college hockey media, particularly where Lowell is concerned — but it’s concise. We wouldn’t think that USCHO would approve of stopping a column after four paragraphs, but here we are, and… what’s that? There’s more? How could that be?

but I think you also have to look at Nate Leaman, who has turned around Providence in just two years,

We would like to remind you, once again, that that is twice the amount of time it took Bazin to turn Lowell around, and even that type of comparison doesn’t begin to do justice to Lowell’s far superior coach, given that Bazin had 24 wins in his first season behind the bench, and Leaman sits in 28 with nearly two full campaigns all wrapped up. Lowell had a dismal start, we can all agree, and still reached Leaman’s win total from 70 games in 48. But admittedly, that takes into account Lowell’s phenomenal first season under Bazin, for which he received shockingly little credit despite finishing second in Hockey East and the national media.

So okay, let’s talk about Leaman’s job to “turn around” Providence once again. They were picked to finish tied for sixth. Currently, they sit fourth. That’s up two spots from where they were projected by the league’s coaches. Not bad, but also not quite the turnaround Bazin engineered in not-winning National Coach of the Year last time out. You know, five wins to 24. No national tournament appearances since 1996 to one since 2012. Picked ninth to finishing second. That’s an actual turnaround. It happened. Look all of that up. And it wasn’t enough for Bazin to win national coach of the year, silly as that sounds. By comparison, Leaman took his own Friars from 14 wins to (currently) 14. No national tournament appearances since 1996 to still not going to make it unless they win the Hockey East tournament, which they won’t. Seventh to (currently) fourth. We would like to point out, due to the recent relative success of the Brown Bears, that his is not even the best turnaround in the state of Rhode Island, never mind Hockey East, never mind the nation. Dennehy would be a more credible candidate if you were picking someone who wasn’t supposed to be totally obvious; you know, if subterfuge were a criteria by which coach of the year was meant to be selected. Which we’re pretty sure it’s not.

But Connolly wasn’t done there, somehow.

and New Hampshire’s Dick Umile, who has a team that has played well despite entering the year with little expectations.

Oh it’s like you’re not even trying any more. We’re talking about a guy whose team just tied Amherst at home, right? Same guy? Okay, we get it. Funny joke. We cannot figure out exactly why exceeding meager expectations for should-be-a-powerhouse programs is enough to start ringing the bell for Umile, but it seems the weight of expectation is tremendous. Poor Bazin, carrying the near-Sisyphean weight of being picked to finish second in the league all the way to the top of the mountain, only to find himself standing alone there at the top with just one week to play in the season and a pretender like Leaman trying to knock him back down again. Remind us again which teams have clinched home ice already at this point.

Then things took a sharp left turn into Stupidville, thanks to a bizarre and poorly thought out column on that same website, by noted Lowell detractor Dave Hendrickson. While his premise that “it would be a good thing” for Lowell to win the league is both the understatement of the decade and undoubtedly a weak attempt to genuflect to the new overlords of Hockey East, Hendrickson, too, lists a number of candidates for the league’s coach of the year award. After rightly dismissing Dennehy and Jack Parker for reasons we don’t need to crystalize, he lists Jerry York (on the basis that he set the all-time coaching record, but ignoring the fact that he did so against Alabama-Huntsville, a non-conference team barely saved from banishment by the new, somehow-worse WCHA), Leaman again (what is with these people?), and Umile again (what, no Whitehead?), before arriving at Bazin. Now, to be fair, he mentions that Bazin seems like a frontrunner, along with York, which would be all well and good except for the fact that York’s team is under- rather than over performing the sizable expectations rightly laid out for a group that talented. If we’re going to start giving trophies for showing up, let’s get Parker back in the conversation; to his credit, he did manage to reduce the frequency of player arrests this season, and he didn’t even have to kick anyone off the team. Now that’s coaching!

In the end, it’s all silly, and wouldn’t be worth our time if we didn’t so love reveling in the mockery.

But if those are the depths to which Lowell’s many detractors have to stoop to debase Bazin, and undermine his credibility as the standalone frontrunner and only reasonable candidate for the league or national award, then so be it. It’s hard for the River Hawks to get too bogged down in those kinds of arguments, soaring as they are so high above the great unwashed, writhing mass of ordinariness, hoping to get a few scores to go their way this weekend. Theirs is the only choice for coach of the year, having not only overcome expectation, but adversity again, and come out the other side laughing, and shining brighter than all.

Leaman, meanwhile, has bobbed along contentedly at the same level he has since he took over at Providence College: Worse than Bazin.

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