Column: The state of UConn hockey
The state of UConn hockey is strong.
UConn makes its way to Providence Tuesday night for its last non-conference game of the season; but more importantly it is a preview of a Hockey East matchup next season. The Huskies will make the leap into hockey's elite showcase this summer.
The announcement of this move in 2012 has allowed UConn to start building. This season, the Huskies are 14-9-4, thanks in part to the contributions of some talented freshmen, freshmen recruited with an eye on the elite level of Hockey East, not Atlantic Hockey.
In fact, one of these freshmen has already made UConn history. Defenseman Ryan Segalla was selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the first UConn player ever taken. Segalla's name being called was no accident, as he, as well as Finland native Joona Kunnas, have had an immediate impact on UConn's defense, which has been difficult to beat this year.
The Huskies will continue loading up with the freshman class that will join UConn next season. Although the program is unable to discuss recruits at this time, the Huskies have reportedly landed commitments from two teammates - defenseman Johnny Austin and forward Spencer Naas from Benilde-St. Margaret's in Minnesota. Both were preseason candidates for the coveted Mr. Hockey award in Minnesota, awarded to the state's top high school player, and Naas is a finalist for the award now.
At the start of the 2012-13 season, the program was in a state of flux. After an 0-5-1 start, coach Bruce Marshall stepped aside to deal with personal matters. Assistant coach David Berard stepped in and after some struggles got UConn to the AHA semifinals.
That paved the way to this season and the beginning of a new era. Last spring, Warde Manuel named the man to lead the Huskies into the future as Mike Cavanaugh, the longtime assistant head coach at Boston College under legendary coach Jerry York.
Before coaching a game for the Huskies, it was clear that Cavanaugh had the credentials to be a program shaper at UConn. Like Jim Calhoun and Ray Reid before him, Cavanaugh brings a history of success: four national championships, Hockey East titles and countless NHL players that he helped to develop after recruiting them to Boston College.
Cavanaugh has had early success at UConn. The Huskies are in position to make a run through the AHA tournament and potentially clinch a berth in the NCAA tournament as a result. He knows the game inside and out, and that is made obvious in every postgame interview. On Berard we used to say, "Say to him, 'So you played hockey today,' and he will talk for 15 minutes, breaking down every moment." Cavanaugh's answers may not be 15 minutes long, but they are vivid. Listening to him respond to questions is like watching an analyst on a postgame show.
Before backing out as a candidate for coach last spring, former Denver coach George Gwozdecky, one of the all-time winningest coaches in college hockey, said that UConn would be hanging banners within five years.
Some called him crazy, but the pieces are all there for UConn to become a successful program in Hockey East quickly after it joins next season. When I started covering UConn back in 2012, I did not think it looked like a Hockey East-bound program. But going into Tuesday's game on the road against the 12th-ranked team in the nation, I think a soon-to-be former Atlantic Hockey program has a chance to make a statement in Rhode Island.
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