What's a "Lowell"?
Billy Riley can still picture the snarky, hand-painted banner in the Michigan State University stands back in 1984. Despite winning three NCAA Division II national championships in a four-year span under Coach Riley, the UMass Lowell hockey program clearly wasn't getting much respect when it moved up to Div. I in 1983.
Today, of course, "Lowell" is a household name in college hockey. The River Hawks skated to a 27-11-3 record this season, one win shy of matching the program record for victories in a Div. I season. Coach Norm Bazin's club won its third Hockey East tournament championship (beating Boston College, 4-3, at TD Garden) and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in his six years at the helm.
Not a bad way to celebrate the program's 50th anniversary, eh? "It was such a festive year and the team had a great season," says Riley, the godfather of UML hockey, who coached for 22 seasons from 1969 to 1991. "It was one of those things where you never want the season to end, ya know?"
The season did end with a heartbreaking 3-2 overtime loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA Northeast Regional finals, denying the River Hawks their second-ever trip to the Frozen Four.
"We fell short at the end, but when you get a chance to sit back and think about the regular season and the playoff crowns, it's great," Bazin says.
To commemorate the golden anniversary of the program, which began under Coach Richard Morrison in 1967 on an outdoor rink where the North Campus parking garage now stands, the Athletics Department put together a season-long celebration. Fans could vote online for five different All-Era teams, which were recognized before home games throughout the season and featured on commemorative pint glasses.
"It was nice to see some of the names pop up that you haven't seen in a long time," says Bazin, who praised the marketing team's efforts. "I think it was highly beneficial from all standpoints—for the former players and alumni, and also for our current players to see what kind of legacy those kids left."
For former players like Craig Brown '00, a right winger from 1996-2000, the celebration was a chance to reconnect with old teammates at the Tsongas Center's Talon Club while watching with pride as the current River Hawks stormed to another Hockey East regular season title.
"It's really been an unprecedented run of success for the past six or seven years, and what's great is to have such success around that 50-year mark," says Brown, an accounting grad who is now a vice president with Fidelity Investments. He lives in Lowell and is a season-ticket holder, bringing his three young kids to as many home games as possible.
A self-described "penalty-kill guy who filled a role on the third or fourth line," Brown says the same work ethic and accountability that his coach, Tim Whitehead, instilled in the River Hawks have served him well in his business career.
"I think Lowell's always had that attitude where nothing is handed to you on a silver platter. You have to go out there and fight for it," he says. "At the same time, you keep your teammates first and keep them accountable. It's probably no different in the working world when you're running a team. People appreciate assertiveness and understanding what their roles and responsibilities are."
Bazin has seen the program from three different perspectives: as a player from 1990 to 1994, as an assistant coach under Whitehead from 1996 to 2000 and now as head coach.
"I've gotten to see a lot of great players come through and have met a lot of great people," says Bazin, who played for Riley as a freshman—creating a direct link to almost a half-century of hockey history at the university.
Bazin certainly has a fan in Riley, who in May received the 2017 Legend of College Hockey award from the Hobey Baker Memorial Award Foundation in St. Paul, Minn. It was the ultimate coaching honor for the man who won 363 games behind the bench and is a walking Wikipedia of UMass Lowell hockey history.