By Chaz Scoggins
It took a long time to break up the Old Boys Network, more familiarly known as Hockey East. Nearly 30 years, in fact.
And it took a school that the league initially didn't want as a member to do it.
When UMass Lowell beat Providence, 4-1, on Saturday night to win the Hockey East regular-season title, it was the first time one of the league's six perennial also-rans had ever finished in first place. Before then either Boston College, Boston University, New Hampshire, or Maine had accounted for all the regular-season championships in the league's first 28 years.
Not since UNH won its first title in 1997 had a first-time champ been crowned in Hockey East.
Most people don't remember it, but when Hockey East was formed in the spring of 1984, UMass Lowell -- then known as the University of Lowell -- was initially rejected when it applied for membership, as was Maine. Not until charter members Clarkson and St. Lawrence dropped out after having second thoughts, choosing to remain in the ECAC, were ULowell and Maine invited to join.
Even then it took a lot of behind-the-scenes political pressure to get the new league to issue its invitation to ULowell.
While the entire league rapidly became a force to contend with on the national stage, nearly always finishing the season with a winning record against schools from other conferences, breaking into the upper tier of Hockey East was a near-impossible task for Providence, Northeastern, ULowell, Merrimack, UMass Amherst and Vermont. More than three-fourths of the home ice berths for the league's tournament over the years were claimed by BC, BU, UNH and Maine.
When Hockey East celebrated its Silver Anniversary a few years ago and put out a video to chronicle its first 25 years, it looked more like a recruiting tool for the league's four superpowers. The other six members were barely acknowledged. It was like BC, BU, UNH and Maine were the New York Yankees and everyone else in the league was the St. Louis Browns.
There have been positive signs in the last few years that the Sub-Six were making inroads, earning home ice a little more often and making a few more appearances in the tournament semifinals and finals. But that UMass Lowell should be the first to break up the Old Boys Network comes as a major -- and pleasant -- surprise.
Twice during the early years of this century UMass Lowell's hockey program was on the brink of being eliminated by the politicos on Beacon Hill. Just two years ago the River Hawks finished dead last in Hockey East and won a meager five games.
Two years later, under vibrant new coach Norm Bazin, the River Hawks are Hockey East champs and the seventh-ranked team in the country. In the previous 28 years their best finishes had been second on four occasions, third once, and fourth three times.
"This is the fourth or fifth regular-season title I've won with different teams," said Bazin, who played for the River Hawks from 1990-94. "But when you can do that at your alma mater, when you do it at Lowell, it's special and takes on a whole different meaning.
"It's exciting because some of the guys suffered through some tough seasons. I'm most proud of those guys because they've been through so many hard times.
"It makes it easier to appreciate the good times."
Riley Wetmore, Josh Holmstrom, Derek Arnold, Chad Ruhwedel, Joseph Pendendza, Colin Wright, Shayne Thompson, Doug Carr, Malcolm Lyles and Derek McCoy all played for that last-place club and now call themselves champs.
That it was Providence the River Hawks had to beat to win the title is also significant. Two years ago the Friars finished just ahead of UMass Lowell in the standings and sat on the sidelines during the Hockey East Tournament. Under new coach Nate Leaman the Friars have risen just as fast as the River Hawks and went into the final game of the regular season tied with UML for first place.
Merrimack, a perennial last-place team until Mark Dennehy took over the program, has been a contender for the last three years and was in first place in Hockey East with three weeks to go. Six teams were separated by just five points in the final standings this season, and three of those teams were UMass Lowell, Providence and Merrimack.
The Old Boys Network, accustomed to having things its own way year after year, decade after decade, may not be happy about the recent turn of events. But UMass Lowell's championship is a monumental step forward for the entire league.