The most successful season in UConn Hockey history came during the most trying year the program had ever faced. Fresh off the announcement that their program would join Hockey East in two years; the Huskies faced elevated expectations under a widening spotlight. Since the 2008-2009 season, the Huskies had never retained the same coaching staff, until David Berard and Rich McKenna returned for the start of the 2012-13 campaign. With a full offseason to work with, Berard and McKenna set about bringing in their first incoming class. "I spoke the majority of the time with Coach Berard," freshman defenseman Chris Bond said. "He talked about the changing culture. They were trying to bring in kids who would mold into that culture. The family and winning aspects were what I was looking for; I loved the school right away."
The Huskies were trending upwards, as evidenced by the recently departed Cole Schneider, who had signed at the end of the year with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. "They used Cole to show the direction of the program," standout freshman Kyle Huson recalled. "They wanted impact guys who could build for the future. It was very attractive to be able to come in and play as a freshman."
Schneider was one of ten Huskies who would not return to the team for the start of the 2012-13 season; their spots replaced by the ten man freshman class. The Huskies were set to continue their improvement, but success would not come easily to start.
Things started differently for UConn, even before the team set foot on the ice. Each member arrived in early July, a month before they had normally arrived in years past, one of the changes imposed by the coaching staff. The extra time was beneficial to both freshman as well as veterans, including senior Captain Sean Ambrosie. "We got to know everyone, get a feel for each other," Ambrosie said. "We gelled earlier and I think that helped us out later on."
The early start was beneficial for the incoming freshman as well. "It was huge to get here. A lot of us hadn’t taken classes in 2-3 years," Kyle Huson said. "To get in the weight room, on the same workout routine and build team chemistry was huge."
After a tumultuous offseason, Ambrosie felt much more comfortable in his second year as team captain, helped in part by the addition of Alex Gerke to the captaincy role. "We tried to set a good example, put the time and work in. We tried to have some fun when we weren’t in school too," Ambrosie said.
The UConn season got off to a rocky start, as the Huskies went winless through their first five games, the only bright spot a being a tie against #8 Union in their home opener. After a 3-0 defeat on November 2nd at Niagara University, the Huskies had a team meeting with the coaching staff to figure out the direction the team was headed. "I think the first meeting we had was because we weren’t being responsible off the ice individually. We weren’t doing what we had to do to win hockey games," Ambrosie recalls.
With a young team, the UConn staff was tasked with helping a number of rookies adjust to the college level. One of those was Skyler Smutek, a sophomore defenseman who had not been allowed to play the previous season due to an eligibility issue. "It was like re-learning how to play the position again," Smutek said. "I had to compete and battle in the defensive zone. My only real goal was to get into the lineup; so it was unreal to be a part of the ride this season."
Smutek was one of the eleven first year players to get ice time this season, a testament to the youth that was a driving force to the Huskies this season.
The adversity facing the UConn team would only increase after that point. After returning home from Niagara Head Coach Bruce Marshall would announce that he was taking an indefinite medical leave of absence, with Coach Berard to assume his responsibilities. Despite losing Marshall, the head coach at UConn for the past 25 years, Ambrosie felt the transition was smooth. "Coach Berard’s role didn’t change at all. When he was the assistant, he ran most of the systems and practice. The team bought into him and he did a tremendous job keeping us focused," Ambrosie said.
A re-evaluation of the team’s strengths took place that about that same time. "We sat in the locker room and evaluated who we were as a team," sophomore forward Brad Smith said. "We had speed as a team and wanted to incorporate that into our game."
With Berard in control behind the bench, the Huskies won four of their next five games, including a road game against future Hockey East opponent Merrimack, as well as the program’s first sweep over the defending conference champion Air Force Falcons. "After the Niagara series, we could have just gone down, but we fought," Ambrosie, who scored the game winning goal against Merrimack, said. "I think that was one of the nicest goals of my career. It was a great win, the best feeling of my career to that point. It was Coach Berard’s first win, so it was emotional; our class had been trying to do that for three years."
The Huskies started rolling, playing good hockey heading into the Christmas break. "Our first five games were disappointing, but we could feel ourselves coming on heading into Christmas," Ambrosie said.
Brant Harris was a key that was finding his form around Christmas. After finishing second on the team in scoring the previous season and attending development camp with the Washington Capitals, Harris started his junior season snake bitten. "I had to just keep plugging away. I was playing well, so I just had to keep going," Harris said of his start.
Before the Christmas tournament, Harris had scored just one goal and one assist. From that point on, Harris scored 29 points in the final 24 games of the Huskies season, exploding to get the Huskies on track for a second half tear. The second half started strong again for Huskies, as they won their opening two games against Penn State before Bruce Marshall announced his resignation as Head Coach at UConn. Still, the Huskies didn’t blink and focusing on each game individually, even with an inter-state rivalry game against #4 ranked Quinnipiac in Hamden looming large. "It was extremely difficult not to look ahead to Quinnipiac, but the coaches kept us in the present," Ambrosie said.
Riding a national best 16 game unbeaten streak, the Bobcats got all they could handle from the Huskies before emerging with a 2-1 win. The Huskies came away disappointed but used their effort as a building block for their play moving forward. After taking three points from AIC, the Huskies were still searching to find the last piece of the puzzle to make a run. The Huskies came away from their next series with Rochester with a road split, but there was no satisfaction in that. The Huskies had a hostile week of practice before playing a home-and-home series against the Bentley Falcons.
Unfortunately for Bentley, they caught the Huskies at the wrong, as the Huskies beat them on the road before crushing them at home the following night 9-0. "I never thought I would be on the winning side of a game like that," Ambrosie said. "It was a statement game for us; that was when everyone got scared of us." The Huskies had come full circle from the beginning of their season and now believed they were capable of anything.
"There was no doubt from Christmas on about what we could do. We were consistent, we were rolling. Nobody could stop us," Kyle Huson said.
"It started from Coach Berard. He put it in our minds that we can win," Smith said. "Coach Berard did a good job of instilling that in us," Gerling said. "We weren’t the best or the deepest team but we trusted each other."
The UConn locker room was a family, perhaps nothing showed that better than when Chris Bond went down against Army February 22nd due to a vicious hit to his head. Bond suffered a broken and dislocated jaw and spent the night in the hospital with his father, UConn trainer Ed Blair and David Berard. "I don’t know how many other coaches would have done that. Ed and Coach Berard were there until 5 in the morning and they didn’t need to be there. They were there because of how much they care about the guys here, it left a big impression," Bond said.
"In all of my years of playing, this was the closest group of guys I’ve ever played with," Smith said of the family feeling.
The Huskies went 4-1-1 from the Bentley game to the end of the regular season, finishing fourth in Atlantic Hockey and securing the program’s first ever opening round bye. "We locked in on it. To get the first round bye was a very rewarding feeling. It was something to be proud of," Ambrosie said.
The Huskies would host Robert Morris and once again were not favored to win the series despite being the higher seed and at home. "Everyone stayed focused. Any guy would do anything to get a win, we had total confidence in ourselves," Ambrosie recollected.
The Huskies locked up the series in two games, sending them to Rochester for the second time in three years with a legitimate chance to win a conference championship. "It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had," Ambrosie said. The Huskies would meet Mercyhurst University in the semifinals, falling 4-1 and ending an incredible season. "There were a lot of hugs and handshakes, a lot of goodbyes," Ambrosie said.
"We got written off a lot of nights, but we proved people wrong," Gerling said of the Huskies season.
There remain unanswered questions as the Huskies look towards from the future. The University looks for a permanent coach as the team transitions into college hockey’s best conference. David Berard will be among the candidates and has the confidence of his players behind him. "As a hockey player you want to win every game. There are times where you don’t want to win for a coach, you want to just win for the guys in the room," Brad Smith said. "We know how much time and passion Coach Berard put in. He pushed us to play as hard as we could. We wanted to win for him, from top to bottom, we were all in."
Coach Berard said in an interview before the playoffs "If you show your players you care about them, you can push them to any limit."
The Huskies felt that commitment and reacted to it. "That sums it up," Ambrosie said of the quote. "We saw his passion and the time he put in. Everything he did was unbelievable. He spent nights at the rink putting work in. He would’ve done anything for us, we saw that and that’s why we put in so much."
With Berard behind the bench, the Huskies went 19-10-3, secured the program’s best non-conference record and led UConn to their best record in the Division 1 era. A culture change started when David Berard and Rich McKenna came to UConn, where complacency was replaced with hunger and a family was created. Through adversity and heart, UConn overcame to conceive their program’s most successful season ever and leave a bright path for the future.