LOWELL -- UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan can easily recall when the university's ice-hockey team, a Division II powerhouse that had won three national titles but struggled to win consistently at the Division I level, was on its deathbed.
Twice in this century, enemies of UML's hockey team on Beacon Hill had come within a whisker of eliminating it in hopes of strengthening its Hockey East rival at the university system's flagship campus at Amherst, consequently leaving UML's program severely crippled.
"I remember attending a (UML) hockey game when I was in Congress, and, frankly, nobody was there," Meehan recalls. "I came away with the feeling that if you're going to have a Division I hockey team, then you've got to do everything you can to support it and make it work.
"When I had my interview with (UMass President) Jack Wilson for this job, he asked me about my attitude toward the hockey team. I said I think we can revive it, increase attendance and get people engaged."
Today a team that six short years ago was barely breathing after a school-record 20-game winless streak and then last year suffered through a five-win season, the worst in its 45-year varsity history, is the most popular sports team in Lowell, even outdrawing the hugely popular Lowell Spinners minor-league baseball team.
Heading into the first round of the Hockey East Tournament, a best-of-three series against Providence College that begins tomorrow at Tsongas Center, the River Hawks are the seventh-ranked team in the nation with a 22-10-1 record. The River Hawks' average home attendance this season was 5,110. The Spinners, who sold out every home game at nearby LeLacheur Park for 11 years from 1999-2010, averaged 4,645 fans last summer.
Longtime Athletic Director Dana Skinner attributes the turnaround to the arrival of Meehan, an alumnus and rabid sports fan, on campus.
"I think it got on the right track as soon as Marty Meehan came on board," Skinner says. "I was on the search committee when we were selecting a new chancellor, and it was pretty evident from the start he was going to set a high bar for everybody. Everybody's hope back then was that having top-down support for the hockey program was going to make a difference.
"He has set a high bar -- some people thought when he came in the bar was unrealistically high -- but it shows what can be accomplished when everybody is on the same page."
The hiring of another alumnus, Norm Bazin, as the hockey coach last spring turned the program around even faster than anyone dared imagine. Bazin, who quickly reversed the fortunes of another chronic loser at Division III Hamilton College in his first head coaching job, has led the River Hawks to 17 more wins than they had a year ago, matching the biggest turnaround by a first-year coach in NCAA Division I hockey history.
"I wanted the best hockey coach we could possibly get," Meehan says. "We've invested in this hockey program, and I don't want to hear why we can't win. I want to win."
A big part of that investment was acquiring the arena from the city after the professional Lowell Devils left two years ago. The university spent $5 million to renovate the facility and has transformed Tsongas Center into one of the finest college arenas in the nation.
"I think it's one of the best hockey venues in the country now," says Skinner. "There is so much going on, and given what the hockey team has done this season, there's a palpable excitement. It's a lot of fun going to a hockey game, and I hear that over and over again from people."
Under Meehan's direction, the university's marketing team, spearheaded by Peter Casey, Eric Allen and Scott Donnelly, has aggressively sold the team to the public and filled the seats. The team's season-ticket base is little more than a thousand, meaning 80 percent of the fans who showed up were students and walk-ups.
"What Norm did this year with the players on the ice has (complemented) what we do off the ice," Allen says, "and when you marry the two you see a legitimate (hot) ticket now."
The university smartly imitated many of the promotions the Spinners, one of the most creative and successful minor-league teams in the country, use to attract and entertain large crowds.
"We have the benefit here of being right next door to a Single-A baseball franchise, and I think most people would tell you that minor-league baseball franchises are as creative as anyone when it comes to marketing," Skinner explains. "We've had a chance to talk to their folks, and we've implemented a minor-league baseball mentality to our marketing.
"Guys like Eric Allen and Scott Donnelly have done a fabulous job of implementing a consistent marketing plan. And when you start winning some hockey games, that makes all the difference in the world."
Applications to UMass Lowell are up 20 percent. While it's impossible right now to tie the success of the hockey team to that jump -- the so-called "Flutie Factor" named after Doug Flutie, who quarterbacked Boston College to a Cotton Bowl victory a quarter of a century ago and applications to BC soared -- Meehan is fully cognizant of how important a strong athletic program can be to the image of a school.
"Athletics are a critical component to branding and attracting students and increasing the visibility of UMass Lowell," he says. "The academic side of the university understands full well how having a great hockey program can improve every facet of the institution, including attracting high-caliber students.
"When you are trying to attract and retain the best possible students, the fact is having a hockey team that does well and is well-known nationally, that's a big deal for any university. It helps the prestige of the university.
"It's one of the reasons I wanted that building," Meehan says of Tsongas Center, "because it brands excellence and excellence in everything we do."