By Andrew R. Tripaldi, Globe Correspondent
Used with permission from the Boston Globe Online
LOWELL - Blaise MacDonald knows a good opportunity when he sees one. And he usually makes the most of it.
After building the Niagara men's ice hockey program from scratch in 1996 and leading it to the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2000, McDonald was hired as the coach at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell on April 6.
A Billerica native, MacDonald, who served as an assistant at UMass-Lowell from 1988 to 1990 under Billy Riley Jr., enthusiastically dove into his new job feet first, wanting to return home to his roots while trying to elevate the UMass-Lowell program to the upper echelon of Hockey East, the nation's hockey equivalent of the land of the giants.
''There are a number of reasons why I took this job,'' MacDonald said. ''It was a great opportunity for my mother [Eileen] to see her grandchildren. [Also] coaching in Hockey East is a tremendous privilege. I feel the conference has the best head coaches and assistant coaches in the country.''
Amassing a 91-58-17 record at Niagara over five seasons (1996-2001), MacDonald was not looking to leave. He knew it was going to take a special circumstance to pry him away.
''It was very difficult for me to leave Niagara, very bittersweet,'' MacDonald said. ''I had strong emotional ties up there. I had tremendous players. It was where my second son was born.''
However, after Tim Whitehead turned down a new contract from UMass-Lowell, athletic director Dana Skinner commenced a nationwide search to find a replacement. Skinner's search led him back to a familiar face.
''We had come to know a little bit about him, and we had some involvement with him [over the years],'' Skinner said. ''He brought a lot to the table. This is a crowded market with the minor league teams here and being close to Boston. But he understands the program. He's a Billerica guy and is going to try and bring more visibility to this program.''
MacDonald believes that UMass-Lowell can continue to attract strong talent and compete with the stronger Hockey East teams.
''We are playing in the best league in the country and we have one of the top facilities in the country,'' said MacDonald, referring to the Tsongas Arena, the home of the River Hawks. ''I tell the recruits that they will be a part of a niche here in Lowell. Hockey is very important to this community.''
MacDonald realizes that he has big shoes to fill, in reference to the strong lineage of UMass-Lowell coaches, including Riley, whom MacDonald grew up watching and observing, as well as Bruce Crowder, who is currently the coach at Northeastern University, and Whitehead.
But MacDonald says he relishes the scrutiny he will come under during the season, claiming he's at his best when under pressure.
Despite losing several key contributors, including defenseman Ron Hainsey, MacDonald said Whitehead left him with a strong nucleus to build on, citing the team's talent, grit, skill, and experience. MacDonald said his only concern is the lack of depth.
On defense, McDonald pointed to senior Chris Gustafson, whom he has referred to as one of the most underrated players in Hockey East, as critical in helping ease the loss of Hainsey, citing his no-frills but solid, efficient play every night.
MacDonald also has named senior Jimi St. John the starting goaltender over senior Cam McCormack, although he has said their respective performances during the season will dictate who plays down the stretch, and he has pointed to senior Dan Fontas and junior Ed McGrane to fill the void on offense created after UMass-Lowell lost three of its top five scorers from last season.
Gustafson said MacDonald has made a quick impression on the players.
''He has gained our respect by establishing a lot of rules, and he has said he will lay down the law if we mess around. We figured it took a special guy to take a team from nothing [at Niagara] to the NCAA tournament.''
MacDonald, who in addition to UMass-Lowell has served as an assistant coach at Dartmouth (1985-87), Princeton (1987-88), and Boston University (1990-96), cites legendary BU coach Jack Parker as his chief coaching influence.
''Some of us are blessed to be given great mentors,'' MacDonald said. ''Coach Parker went beyond the call of duty to help me be the best coach I can be.''
Following its 7-3 win over MacDonald's old team on Oct. 12, UMass-Lowell defeated the defending national champions, Boston College, 7-2, on Oct. 19.
''We clearly want to be one of the top teams in Hockey East this year and get into the NCAA tournament,'' MacDonald said. ''Making the NCAA tournament will give us a strong feeling of pride and a sense of accomplishment.''