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Coach Surmounts Injury and Team Beats Odds

Norm Bazin/C.J. Gunther for The New York Times
Norm Bazin, at center, has led UMass Lowell to an N.C.A.A. tournament berth in his first year as the team's coach.

NY Times
By Christopher Botta

While preparing his Massachusetts-Lowell team for its first-round game in the N.C.A.A. men’s hockey tournament Friday, Norm Bazin will not preach about seizing the moment or feeling lucky to be alive. Bazin has never used his personal story as motivation this season, his first with the River Hawks, who ended a 16-year drought by making the tournament. 

On the day before Thanksgiving in 2003, Bazin was traveling from Spokane, Wash., to Trail, British Columbia, on a recruiting trip for Colorado College when his rental car was hit by a drunken driver on U.S. Highway 329. Bazin’s aorta was severed and he sustained broken bones in his arms, legs, shoulders, ribs, pelvis and jaw. He needed 12 hours of surgery to save his life, spent eight days in a medically induced coma, and endured two months of treatment at a Spokane hospital to put his body back together. 

“I’m very fortunate to be alive,” said Bazin, 41, whose team will face Miami (Ohio) in Bridgeport, Conn. “I’m very fortunate to have this opportunity to coach. But around the hockey rink, I don’t talk about the accident. The young men on our team play for each other and to bring glory to our program and university. This has never been about me.” 

Riley Wetmore, the River Hawks’ captain, said he learned about Bazin’s accident only recently; someone told him it was mentioned on the news. 

“Until then, most of us didn’t have any idea what Coach had been through,” Wetmore said. 

Asked if the accident affected his coaching ability or his quality of life, Bazin said, “There’s nothing worth discussing.” 

He added, “I never have a bad day.” 

Bazin’s immediate impact on his alma mater — he played left wing for the River Hawks from 1990-94 — has been remarkable. The team won five games last season and 23 this season, an N.C.A.A. record for the biggest turnaround by a first-year head coach. Bazin was named Hockey East coach of the year. 

He has done more than win games. Seeking to upgrade the team’s training center, Bazin contacted fellow alumni and helped raise more than $250,000. Ground will be broken in three weeks on a new facility. The average attendance at River Hawks games this season exceeded 5,000, the largest in university history. 

“I would not have predicted this success so quickly,” said UMass-Lowell Athletic Director Dana Skinner, who hired Bazin. “We thought Norm was the best candidate, and he would restore enthusiasm among the players and re-engage the rest of the school in the hockey program. But this many wins and an N.C.A.A. tournament bid in his first year? Beyond our wildest expectations.” 

Men’s hockey is UMass-Lowell’s only Division I sport, and the program was in danger of folding as recently as four years ago, Skinner said. But Chancellor Marty Meehan fought to keep the program and started investing money in an attempt to become competitive with traditional powers in Hockey East like Boston College, Boston University and Maine. 

“Instead of scrapping it, I thought it was time to make hockey a priority,” Meehan said. “But we needed results soon.” 

The university purchased the 6,500-seat Tsongas Center, which was losing more than $1 million a year, and turned it into the home of UMass-Lowell hockey. This season, the university-run arena turned a profit. A new video scoreboard was purchased, at a cost of $1.3 million. 

“Norm turning around our program has done wonders for the arena venture and our school,” Meehan said. 

He credited the rejuvenated hockey team for the 25 percent increase in applications for enrollment. 

A large number of students, faculty and alumni are expected to make the relatively short trip to Bridgeport for the game Friday. At practices this week, Bazin said he asked his players for the usual intense pace, but kept the atmosphere light. 

“No one needs to harp on what a big game this is,” he said. “I know we want to extend our season as long as we can. But this is just another part of the journey for these young men, and I really want them to enjoy it.” 

Quietly and to himself, Bazin will spend a moment Friday, at the pinnacle of his young coaching career, thinking about the people who kept him alive. 

Bazin and his wife, Michelle, named their second child Coleston, after Dr. Daniel R. Coulston, Bazin’s critical care physician at Deaconess Medical Center in Spokane. 

“Dr. Coulston and the staff at the hospital are true heroes,” Bazin said. “Not just for what they did for me, but what they do every day.” 

Four years ago, Bazin and his wife visited the site of the crash. They also took a few detours to thank some of the people who saved his life. 

They visited Morgan Mehaffey, the state trooper whose work led to the conviction of the driver, Elizabeth A. Harkinson, who received a sentence of three months. (“Too little,” Bazin said.) They met with Ron Howerton, who witnessed the accident and called 911, all the while never leaving Bazin’s side. The Bazins waited until Coulston had a rare break in the hospital so they could sit down with him for a few minutes. 

“They are with me every day,” Bazin said.