Earlier this week, I had a chance to speak with UConn Head Coach Mike Cavanaugh as we approach UConn's first season as members of Hockey East.
Matt Stypulkoski: Obviously you've got one season under your belt at UConn now. It was a chaotic year considering the transition and all the things that have happened, but how have you settled in to the program and into campus, and has your family settled into Connecticut by now?
Mike Cavanaugh: Yeah I think we have. You are right, it was a bit chaotic and it always is when you're selling a house, buying a house, moving your family. A friend of mine told me, who moved, that it takes about 18 months. I think he's right. I think right about now we're starting to hit our stride and get to feel very comfortable as a family here in Connecticut.
Me personally, I felt comfortable right away. The athletic department and the school welcomed me and made the transition very easy for me professionally, on a work level.
Now that you're only two days away from the start of the season, I'm sure you're starting to get a little bit excited. Looking forward to the season?
Oh, that goes without saying. I think all of our kids are excited. There's been so much hype about us upgrading the program and moving into Hockey East that when we hit the ice Friday night I think our kids will be raring to go and looking forward to the opportunity to play against Penn State.
I know you guys have obviously been practicing for a few weeks and you had an exhibition a few days ago. How does everything look so far, how does the team look on the ice?
It's been great. We have terrific senior leadership with Ryan Tyson, Trevor Gerling. Pat Kirtland, a junior, is also one of our captains. But our other seniors, Jacob Poe, Cody Sharib, Tommy Comunale, Brad Smith, they've done an excellent job of letting the newcomers - and we have one transfer student and 10 freshman - they really understand the type of team we're trying to build here at the University of Connecticut and they've done a great job of relaying that message to our younger guys.
Before I get into a little bit of the bigger picture stuff, I wanted to talk about Friday night and this weekend. Obviously, you guys are going over to Penn State. What are some of the challenges they present to you guys in the opening series. Just talk a little bit about the keys to that match-up for you guys.
Well, Matt, I don't know a whole lot about their club except for the fact that I know Guy Gadowsky has been a very successful coach wherever he's gone. He won at Alaska-Fairbanks, he won at Princeton and I know he's building a great program out there at Penn State. They've got a beautiful arena, they finished the season fairly strong last year - they knocked off Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, they lost in the semifinals in a hard-fought game to Wisconsin 2-1. From what I've heard, they're a very big and physical team so I think we'll have our hands full on Friday night.
When I first saw that match-up to open the season I kind of chuckled. It seemed like an interesting bit of symmetry. UConn's program has been around for a while, but first year in Hockey East, so it's kind of the transition to big-time hockey. Meanwhile, Penn State, they just started up last year and are just trying to get things going. They're a new program. Is it kind of nice to get off on that kind of foot? It's kind of an interesting match-up to start the year.
Yeah I think both programs are very similar in some aspects. They were a club program and I think they've had two years of recruiting underneath their belts. Last year was their first year in the Big Ten. I think the year before they played a hybrid schedule of some Divison III teams and some Division I games. And then last year was their first year of Big Ten hockey and a full complement of NCAA Division I Games.
We've been playing in the Atlantic Hockey league, so we've always played a Division I schedule. That said, this is our first year of playing a Hockey East schedule and we're complementing our non-league schedule with teams like Penn State, so it's certainly an upgrade to the schedule we've played in the past.
Speaking of Hockey East, one of the things I wanted to get from you so that some of our readers that might not have followed college hockey in the past that our trying to get into it now that UConn is in Hockey East - can you explain a little bit to people like that, what is the transition from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East like? How much of an upgrade competitively is it?
MC: The one thing I certainly want to make clear is the Atlantic Hockey league is a good hockey conference. They've had teams that have gone to the Frozen Four, they've had teams that have won NCAA Tournament games and I think that on any given night an Atlantic Hockey league team can beat any other team in the country.
I think probably the difference is the depth of Hockey East. Hockey East had five teams that went to the national tournament last year. Notre Dame finished eighth in the league. When they're an eighth-placed team, every single night our biggest challenge that we'll face this year, moving from Atlantic Hockey to Hockey East, is that every night you're facing an opponent that is potentially an NCAA team. And that becomes a grind for your team. They really have to stay in the moment and not get overwhelmed by the schedule and just play the very best we can on a nightly basis.
With that in mind, what are your expectations of the team this season and have you talked to the team or at least your captains to kind of set some goals for the first year in the league? And what might those be?
My expectations never change. I expect to win our next game. And I expect us to come out and play hard. I expect to play mentally mistake-free. I expect us to play with respect. So those are the expectations that never change and on a nightly basis if you can compete hard, play without mental mistakes, if you respect the game, you're going to win a lot of games. So I try not to look at the schedule and set goals for March. I'm trying to just set goals for this Friday night. ‘Hey, this is how we want to play this Friday night.'
You mentioned earlier that you do have a young team - I think you said 10 freshmen and I think there are five sophomores as well. So I mean, more than half your roster is guys who are in their first two years still. Is that almost helpful for you in a way because these guys, they almost don't know what the old Atlantic Hockey was like. They're coming in with a fresh slate. They don't know the old ways and have to relearn things, they're just coming in and they're going to play.
Yeah, I've been fortunate enough to coach teams that have been very successful and a lot of times those teams have been loaded with freshman. I remember one year I think we had a team that played in the national championship game at BC and we had seven or eight freshmen on that team.
But that being said, the difference is, to answer your question, one thing that's going to be kind of new to all of us - normally, your upperclassmen know what it's like to play at Maine. They understand what that arena is like, so it's not new to them, it's not a new experience and they're not really ever intimidated by that fact. Not that a hockey player is ever intimidated, but it's an experience that they've had before and they know what to expect.
This year, we're all kind of in the same boat with the exception of myself and my staff - Mike Souza and Joe Pereira who both played in Hockey East. Not many of our guys know what the opposing buildings are like. They haven't played against these teams. So in some respect, it doesn't matter whether you're a senior or a freshmen on our team, we're all new to the league and they're all going to get to experience this together.
Obviously it's something of a trade-off, but can that naïveté play a little bit to your advantage at times?
I think so. What you don't know is better for you as a club. We're just going to go out there and we're going to experience it and we'll stay strong together. Over the course of time I think when you have experienced teams, it helps you to go into Agganis Arena, to go into Conte Forum, when you're going up to the Tsongas at Lowell, you know what to expect there. You know the pregame rituals and that stuff doesn't faze you. It's not anything new; you're not looking around as a starry-eyed freshman taking it all in.
I think over the course of time, it helps to have senior-laden and veteran teams - those are the teams that help you win championships. But this year, I think it's going to be a new experience for our entire team and it's going to be fun to watch them go through that together.
Speaking of the staff, there was a big addition this off-season in Andrew Raycroft, how did you find him and what has he meant as an addition to your staff?
Well he retired from playing just this past summer and I happened to run into his agent who is a friend of mine and I told him that our goalie coach left for a new job and he said that Andrew Raycroft may be interested in something like that. So I gave him a call, we met for coffee and I really liked his insight on a lot of things. He's been able to come down and work with our goalies during the week.
To have that type of NHL background and pedigree around your locker room is certainly something that our kids can learn from, I think they enjoy listening to his perspective on the college life and how it can benefit them and get them to the NHL- which most of our kids, that's their goal to play in the NHL someday. So he's certainly a key source that I think is very valuable to have for our club.
You touched on the buildings of the different Hockey East teams, you guys will be playing in the XL Center this season. People have been discussing the possibility of something being built on campus. Is that something that's important to you and people within the program?
I think it's a necessity and it was part of the agreement when we decided to upgrade to Hockey East that we would build and on-campus facility. I think it is essential for our players. Whether that be a top-notch training facility like the Men's and Women's Basketball team have and we all play out of a multi-sport facility that's one avenue we're looking at, another avenue is to build a standalone facility that's just hockey only. I know the school is having meetings on this and discussing it and is supposed to be presented this December, either way it is something that I believe is essential to our program.
I've been to a few Hockey East barns, one of the great things about college hockey is that you get that quaint, small atmosphere that holds in the noise, it'd be nice to replicate something like that at UConn wouldn't it?
Oh it'd be fantastic. I mean, Gampel Pavilion is a 10,000 seat arena which is probably small for a Division 1 basketball program and that place is electric on game night. Our soccer team averages 5,000 fans per game, so this is a rabid, rabid fan-base here in the State of Connecticut and we certainly are looking to tap into that and have them support us as well.
Coming from BC, you obviously had a few go-rounds in the Beanpot. There are a number of quality teams in Connecticut, is there any interest in an intra-state tournament?
I can only speak for the University of Connecticut, but I think it's a must for the state. I don't see why Sacred Heart, Yale, Quinnipiac and UConn would not put together a yearly tournament, whether it be at Christmas-time or Thanksgiving, where all four teams play and we try to galvanize the entire state of Connecticut behind college hockey. With Yale and Quinnipiac having success of late, and I think C.J. Marotollo does a great job at Sacred Heart, to me it is a no-brainer for hockey in the state of Connecticut. The University of Connecticut is 100% behind supporting an all-inclusive state tournament.
So, in conclusion, what would your best sales pitch for be for fans to try and get them in the seats at XL Center and follow along with college hockey as UConn makes its transition into Hockey East?
We're gonna be a team that plays a fast, exciting brand of hockey. We're gonna skate and compete on a nightly against the best competition in college hockey. Warde Manuel made the analogy that us going to Hockey East is like moving football into the SEC. For our fans to be able to see the likes of BC, BU, Notre Dame, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, playing right here in Connecticut and we're going to come out and competing with them, giving it our honest effort, I hope they can appreciate that.