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Callan Sheridan | | April 16, 2019

UMass is growing a hockey culture — and a new tradition of winning

UMass isn't just happy to be here

Forget your shoe, Cinderella. Go grab those skates.

To be fair, calling UMass the cinderella team from this season would be a little amiss. From the get-go Massachusetts was on a mission, winning 12 of the team’s first 13 games and earning a program-first No. 1 rank in polls by the start of December. The Minutemen saw a few tough losses to ranked opponents, but otherwise rolled through the season on its way to a 30-9-0 record.

FROZEN FOUR 2019: Preview, schedule

Looking at the more general recent history of college hockey, though? Yep, it’s been a fairytale.

You would never guess looking at the team who battled Denver to a 4-3 overtime win in Thursday’s Frozen Four semifinal — that just two seasons ago — the Minutemen faced a 5-29-2 season. That was head coach Greg Carvel’s first season at the helm, and one he hasn’t forgotten, despite this season’s success.

“That five-win season is still pretty fresh, the pain from that season sunk in,” Carvel said. “The glory of this season hasn’t sunk in yet.”

It might, soon though. Massachusetts faces defending champion Minnesota Duluth on Saturday night in the national title game, and a win here would be the crowning achievement for the program turnaround. More than that, it will help show that UMass is a winning program, and isn’t going anywhere. 

“I think the thing we’re going to be stressing tomorrow is 'we’re not done yet,'” said sophomore defenseman Cale Makar on Friday. “It’s going to be a thing on our team of not getting complacent. When teams get complacent, they start to die.”

GAMETIME: Live updates from the Frozen Four

Certainly from Carvel’s end there’s no complacency in building his roster. His team is sophomore and freshmen-heavy, and it’s clear the former NHL coach has initiated a successful recruiting process. Just take a look at Massachusetts' sophomore class, the highest scoring offense entering the Frozen Four with 194 points. It features the likes of John Leonard and Mitchell Chaffee, two forwards who have each scored nearly 70 points in their college careers so far. Then there’s goaltender Matt Murray, who backstopped the Minutemen for 27 games this season, making 612 saves for a .919 save percentage. 

Don't forget the freshmen, like Bobby Trivigno and Marc Del Gaizo. Both 25-plus point scorers on the season and both goal-scorers in Thursday’s semifinal win (Del Gaizo notched the game-winner). And freshman netminder Filip Lindberg, who has traded starting spots with Murray this postseason, guiding the Minutemen to three NCAA tournament wins so far. 

Finally, sophomore defenseman Cale Makar is a guidepost for the program, leading the team with 49 points (16g, 33a). He was the first round, 4th overall draft pick for the Colorado Avalanche in the 2017 NHL draft, and was just named the winner of the 2019 Hobey Baker Memorial Award. 

So the future of Massachusetts hockey looks pretty good. 

Carvel and players would be hard-pressed to forget the community of support that has surrounded the team this season.

“Obviously you have to assert yourself as a good team at the beginning of the season, when you start winning games people come to watch,” Makar said. “It was very cool to see the transition in terms of not just students but normal fans as well.”

ALMOST CHAMPIONS: You have to meet these players from the Frozen Four

For Carvel, growing that community for the team and for the school is one of the highlights of this season.

“I'm proud of what we're doing for the university. It's a big state school. To be able to work up the energy and the support that we have on campus, in town.

“When I got to UMass, it was definitely missing. From day one, all I've ever said is I want to bring pride to the program, to the alumni, all the guys that wore the jersey before, and for these kids.”

With a team this young and talented — and a community hungry for more — this is one Cinderella story that might become a saga.

“That's part of building the program,” Carvel said. “Hopefully we'll be back here again. This won't be the only time. Someday hopefully we can say, ‘Think back to Buffalo, what we did there.'”

Callan Sheridan is a graduate of Saint Peter's University and has produced content for The Press Enterprise, the American Junior Golf Association and the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Follow her on twitter at @calsh_13.

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