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In Geno Auriemma, UConn men’s hockey has a big fan and advocate

The legendary women’s basketball coach fell in love with hockey in his college years and carried that with him to Storrs.

Courtesy of UConn Athletic Communications

When Geno Auriemma went off to college at West Chester University, some of his hometown friends headed up north to Canada for school. When their first semester finished up and everyone returned to Norristown, Pennsylvania for winter break, some of Auriemma’s friends came back with bizarre sticks and skates.

“We didn’t know what the hell (they were for),” Auriemma said. “We thought we were going someplace to beat people up or something.”

Auriemma hadn’t been introduced to hockey until that point in his life. But after that, he was hooked.

“I fell in love with it. I did,” he said. “You ain’t lived until you’ve had like 12 beers and then go to a hockey rink that you rented out at midnight and play hockey with a bunch of guys, knocking you on your butt. It’s like the greatest thing in the world.”

“We would play as often as we could. Watch every game that we could on television. I became a huge, huge fan of hockey.”

When Auriemma arrived at UConn in 1985, he quickly took to the Huskies’ hockey program, which was then still a Division III program that played at an outdoor rink covered by a large roof.

“I remember going to the old ice rink when Benny Kirtland was the coach and Bruce Marshall,” Auriemma said.

By the time current head coach Mike Cavanaugh arrived, the program looked a lot different. Not only had UConn built Freitas Ice Forum, but the program also moved up to Division I before the 1998 season.

Cavanaugh got the job as the school prepared to join Hockey East. When he was hired in the summer of 2013, then-athletic director Warde Manuel invited him to an event at the Glastonbury Hills Country Club as a way to informally meet other people in the athletic department before he officially started.

That day, Manuel introduced Cavanaugh to Auriemma and the two hit it off immediately.

“Now that relationship has grown over the last eight years and we’ve become pretty friendly and share a lot of different things and we’ll play some golf together,” Cavanaugh said before his team’s series with Merrimack.

While both men are gregarious and easy to talk to, it might’ve helped that Auriemma looked at the situation Cavanaugh was stepping into and saw parallels to the early days of his program. For much of Auriemma’s first decade at UConn, his teams played in front of sparse crowds either at the old Fieldhouse or in Gampel Pavilion and didn’t receive much media coverage — even after reaching the Final Four in 1991.

Then in 1995, the team’s popularity exploded as the Huskies beat No. 1 Tennessee at a sold-out Gampel Pavilion in January and won their first-ever national championship a few months later.

With UConn’s men’s hockey program, Auriemma sees a similar sleeping giant.

“When Cav took over — and he’ll tell you I’m not making this up — I said, ‘You guys start playing at the XL Center and you’re going to get 4,000, 5,000 people there every night and you guys start winning and because this is a hockey crazy state, you’re gonna do exactly what we did. And people are gonna fall in love with your team.”

The Huskies have actually enjoyed solid fan support through their first six years in Hockey East, including crowds of 8,211, 5,653, and 6,666 in their final three home games last season. They just haven’t drawn those numbers on a consistent basis in large part due to a lack of success.

That seems to be changing. This year, UConn is in the midst of its best season in program history and features the most talented roster ever assembled in Storrs with nine NHL Draft picks.

After his team dispatched Providence on Jan. 26, Auriemma made it down to Freitas Ice Forum to see the Huskies take on No. 1 Boston College. Geno joined the broadcast for a few minutes, where his excitement and enthusiasm for the game was palpable.

As someone who’s no stranger to being around the top team in the country, Auriemma walked away impressed with how UConn played despite the Huskies falling 4-2 on the day.

“If you watched them play, they’re playing the number one team in the nation and they’re going up and down with them like if you change jerseys you wouldn’t know who was who,” Auriemma said of Cavanaugh’s squad. “I wish more people could get into the building to see this team play. They’re skilled, they’re fast, they’re tough, resilient. I love, love, love it.”

This game also happened to be BC head coach Jerry York’s 1,100th career victory — just five days after Auriemma reached the same mark. As two giants in their respective sports, Cavanaugh made a point to introduce them after the game.

“I went over to congratulate Jerry after the game and I knew Geno was there and I just thought it would be a cool opportunity for the two of them to engage and meet,” Cavanaugh relayed. “I said (to York) ‘Hey Geno’s here, why don’t you come over and meet Geno.’”

Cavanaugh spent 18 years on York’s staff as an assistant at BC and is now in his eighth year at UConn. He knows both coaches well and sees plenty of similarities between them.

“They’re both different and the same in a lot of ways,” Cavanaugh said. “They’re both competitors but the thing about them that I really find interesting is they’re never bigger than the school. Both of them have 1100 wins and both are arguably the greatest coaches in their sport — college sport — of all time.

“If there’s a head coaches meeting, they’re there. They’re not too big for the head coaches' meeting. Geno doesn’t have to spend Saturday afternoon at Freitas Ice Rink watching my team play. But the athletic department’s important to him and Jerry’s the same way. If it’s not a COVID season, you’ll see him on an October night watching the field hockey team play. He’s all about Boston College and supporting all those athletes there. Jerry doesn’t miss head coaches' meetings. He shows up, he’s not too big for what some might deem below them — those guys don’t think that way.”

With just two weeks left in the regular season, Cavanaugh and his team are in search of the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance. They currently sit in fourth place in the standings, which would likely be good enough to clinch it for them. UConn is also expected to break ground on a long-awaited new on-campus arena this spring, which will finally give the program a facility on-par with its Hockey East counterparts.

Progress hasn’t always been linear for the Huskies but the arrow is undoubtedly pointing upwards for Cavanaugh’s program. Once fans eventually return, the program will have improved its on-ice product and the promise of new facilities bodes well for the future. The school and team leadership are making the right decisions and investments for progress, but it also helps to have the endorsement and support of a living legend in Auriemma.