During the summer of 2012, UConn announced the men's hockey program would be moving to Hockey East after the 2013-14 season. The final two years in Atlantic Hockey and the first few years in Hockey East were supposed to be a trying, yet intriguing time to be part of the program.
The class the Huskies brought in in the fall of 2012 has been through a lot, starting with the Hockey East news.
But the craziness picked up five games into the 2012-13 season, when Bruce Marshall, the Huskies' only coach as a Division I program, stepped down for personal reasons. At 0-4-1, UConn turned to Dave Berard, who was taking on a head coaching role for the first time.
Berard and the team's freshmen were thrown into the fire quickly. The Huskies relied heavily on first-year players Shawn Pauly, Patrick Kirtland, Kyle Huson and Joey Ferriss. In December, Berard had to make a goaltender change, benching Garrett Bartus—UConn's all-time wins leader—in place of Matt Grogan.
With the combination of Berard's coaching, Grogan's play in net and the Huskies' freshmen, UConn was one of the top-five winningest teams in the nation after New Years.
On the final day of the regular season, Ferriss scored a remarkable game-winning goal against Sacred Heart at Webster Bank Arena. That goal – that win – secured a top-four finish for the Huskies in Atlantic Hockey, after they were picked to finish 10th in the preseason.
Then Mike Cavanaugh came in as head coach for the 2013-14 season, and the rise began. The Huskies exceeded expectations in their final year in Atlantic Hockey under Cavanaugh and in UConn's first season in Hockey East, it showed it would be quickly competitive, beating the likes of Boston College, Vermont, Quinnipiac, Union and UMass Lowell as part of an exciting season.
Through two coaching changes, a conference switch and some surprising seasons, I have been around for all of it the past three years. On Friday, UConn begins its second season in Hockey East, four seniors begin their final season and I start my fourth season covering the team. I look at the program and hardly recognize it. What was once a forgotten, middle-of-the-road Atlantic Hockey program is now a Hockey East program on the rise, heading toward national prominence faster than anyone expected.
The only things I recognize from my first year on the beat to now are four faces – the faces of Kirtland, Pauly, Ferriss and Huson. From opposite sides of the glass, from opposite sides of the voice recorder, we have been around the UConn men's hockey program at this interesting transitional period of its history.
"It’s been a great change," Huson said Sept. 29 at UConn men's hockey media day. "It’s been an exciting time, the last few years. To see the program, where they wanted to go, and to see it get to that level and even exceed it so far, has been a great time and a great time to be a part of UConn hockey."
UConn's four-man senior class shares some important characteristics – chiefly tenacity, strength and fearlessness. They came to UConn at a curious time in the program's history and have been through some challenging moments.
They have weathered every storm. All four have been important contributors to UConn's success the last three seasons. For the Huskies to be successful, they will have to continue producing. Now, they do so as the team's leaders.
"I've been fortunate enough to coach them for two years now. This will be my third year with them," Cavanaugh said. "They know exactly the type of program we want to establish here at UConn, and they do a fine job of acclimating our freshmen into the team."
They still have one season left, but the Huskies' seniors have already cemented their place in UConn history. Through the highs and lows of the last three years, Pauly, Kirtland, Huson and Ferriss have helped steer the Huskies in the direction they are heading, which is one toward national prominence.
UConn's current state is one I could have never imagined when the seniors showed up as freshmen. I could have never imagined it at the end of that first season, when I walked into Berard's temporary office at Webster Bank Arena and—with the biggest smile on his face—he talked for 15 minutes straight about what the 2012-13 season meant for UConn. Even in September 2013, when my friend Scott Carroll and I walked into Cavanaugh's office for our first interview with the new coach, I still could not expect UConn's stock to be rising so quickly.
"It's definitely a change, for sure," Pauly said, looking back on his first three years. "I did not expect it when we came here. I'd say it's lightyears from where I thought it would be. I didn't imagine it would be this far. ... It's really cool to be a part of it."