STORRS, Conn. -- With the long wait for entry into Hockey East over and his team having recorded a few signature victories that captured the state's attention, UConn coach Mike Cavanaugh is enjoying his program's newfound relevance. In crowded public settings, he senses the public's growing interest and enthusiasm.
"I was at the football game [Dec. 6] and I saw a lot of people who were so excited about the hockey program and where it's at," Cavanaugh said. "I started laughing to myself and thought, wait 'til we start winning some games."
The Huskies have played 17 games and won just four. So, to be clear, Cavanaugh isn't spending free time in a celebratory dance while Brass Bonanza blasts through the speakers in his office at Freitas Ice Forum. This is, as a Cavanaugh likes to say, a results business and UConn, with goal-scoring having been a real struggle, has gained an immediate appreciation for the difficulty of competing in an elite college hockey conference as the new kid on the block.
There also have been four ties, including one at Boston University, now the top-ranked team in the nation, and four one-goal losses. Only three games have been decided by more than two goals. It's important to remember that UConn, a team with nine freshmen, is awarding just 10 scholarships this season, eight shy of the Hockey East maximum. The Huskies, previously of Atlantic Hockey, are for now at a disadvantage in talent and experience just about every time they take the ice and have been competitive nonetheless. UConn's conference record is 2-4-1.
So with all that considered, some top recruits on board for the future, the scholarship allotment reaching 14 next season (and 18 the season after), and supplemental facts such as UConn leading Hockey East in attendance at an average of 6,188 a game, more than the Huskies' 3-8-4 record must be taken into account when gauging the progress of a team and program. Cavanaugh loves the effort and attitude players have shown. He also thinks the Huskies are better than a three-win team. Yet he sleeps well at night with the confidence that he's gotten just about all he can out of his team, in just about every game.
As for the new fan base's exuberance ... Well, it reminds Cavanaugh of stepping into the classroom of Bowdoin professor Christian Potholm, who taught a daunting, upper-level government course.
"There were geniuses in that class," Cavanaugh said. "I was captain of the football team and captain of the hockey team, and probably rightfully stereotyped as the dumb jock. ... Half the class is on one side and half is on the other and you have an issue and you present arguments. The professor posed the question, 'What song from the Beach Boys would be apropos if you're going to be part of a company?' Everybody went blank. I just said, 'Be true to your school.' He said, 'That's exactly right.'"
After each class, Potholm critiqued performances and left his written remarks in students' mailboxes.
"He'd grade everybody," Cavanaugh said. "He would rip on you. He'd write, '[a student] clearly went to the party last night and wasn't prepared,' or something along those lines. On mine, after the first [class], it was, 'Had a very good performance. Not as dumb as reputation precedes him.' That's how I kind of feel about [the public's perception of] our team. It's like, 'Jeez, they're not as bad as we thought they were going to be.'"
The second half of the season "is when the men's league starts," Cavanaugh said. Time will tell how the Huskies ultimately stack up against very low expectations -- they were picked to finish last in the 12-team Hockey East -- but the entire project, which began with an announcement two years ago that the university would invest the time and money for the team to make the leap, has produced encouraging signs on and off the ice in this early stage of the evolution.
UConn had 90 season ticket holders last season, when games were played at Freitas, the small, cold building on Jim Calhoun Way in Storrs. This season, there are 2,500 season ticket holders for games at the XL Center. (Two official home games will be played at Webster Bank Arena -- Jan. 6 vs. Colorado College and Jan. 18 vs. Notre Dame.)
The program was able to spend about a year marketing the opener against Boston College. Will UConn continue to draw well as the novelty wears off?
"I certainly hope so, and anticipate that happening," said Doug Gnodtke, UConn's senior associate athletic director. "The BCs or BUs coming to town, brand names, that certainly piques interest. But that 2,500 gives us a good baseline. ... The experience has been awesome. We don't have that connection where fans know who the players are yet, but it takes time. Even Geno [Auriemma] commented how it took 10 years to sell out a women's game and they finally had that 'aha' moment against Tennessee [in 1995] where people could see where the program was going. We've been spoiled."
Six UConn players will exhaust their eligibility after this season -- forward Ryan Tyson (captain), forward Trevor Gerling (team-high five goals), Jacob Poe (a top defenseman), backup goalie Tom Comunale, forward Cody Sharib and forward Brad Smith.
Seven recruits have committed, with six scheduled to join the program next season.
A state-of-the-art on-campus facility is being planned -- and its construction is required by Hockey East membership, actually -- but the location, plans, fundraising goals and costs won't be finalized until after a campus master plan is revealed. A draft that was submitted to the board of trustees was released in November and included a 4,500-seat arena at the corner of Routes 275 and 195.
"We have architecture firms on call," Gnodtke said. "Long term, we need a facility. The XL Center is a great home and will continue to be. But we have to give Coach a facility on campus that he can recruit to."
Cavanaugh has also been vocal about the need for a facility. But that is not dominating his thoughts during the break.
"We're not a fancy hockey team," he said. "We're not a team that will tic-tac-toe you and score backdoor goals and pass the puck into the net. There's such a small margin in winning and losing. It could be as simple as if you blew your faceoff assignment and that resulted in a goal, that can be the difference. Or taking an unnecessary penalty that results in a goal. You've seen how many one-goal games we've played. The guys feel like they can compete. We have to tighten up in some areas that can help us win."