Dennehy In For Long Haul
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. The question has been raised plenty of times by many different people: "Will Merrimack College ever be able to compete in Hockey East?"
The Warriors (3-15-2, 3-10-0 Hockey East) are halfway through their 18th season in one of the country's toughest hockey conferences, and success has been hard to come by.
Since Merrimack has joined Hockey East in 1989, they have not enjoyed a winning season.
"This has always been a situation where it wasn't a 'Flip this House', but more like an 'Extreme Makeover,'" said Merrimack second-year coach Mark Dennehy. "This is a major renovation so we have to be patient with it. We also have to make sure that we are moving ahead and making progress and not going backwards."
There has been rampant speculation about the state of the program and whether or not the program will stay in Hockey East, or move on to an easier schedule in a conference like Atlantic Hockey.
"Personally speaking, I think it would be a big mistake of the school's if they left Hockey East," Dennehy said. "Hockey East allows us to go national and broaden our brand has a school.
"I told recruits that I was hired here to coach a Hockey East team. There are some other schools that we are recruiting against that like to plant the seeds of us leaving Hockey East, but there is no precedent for it. We are different than every other school in this league, and I think that the diversity is something that Hockey East wants to hold on to."
Another hot topic has been the endless saga known as "Volpe 2001." Merrimack unveiled plans to have the new Volpe Athletic complex completed by 2001. Now, five years after the first puck drop was scheduled, fans and the team are still awaiting the new facility.
"All I really care about is that our team is comfortable, and I think that if you are around our locker room, then you know that it is comfortable for us," Dennehy said. "Secondly I want to make sure that we have a home ice advantage and I can honestly say that there are not a lot of teams that want to come here, I know that because I was on the other side.
"Sure we need some renovations and give it a face lift but that will happen over time. That isn't my job, though. My job is to put a team on the ice that the President and Board of Trustees will want to build a rink around."
As nice as the models for the new Volpe Center looks, Dennehy hopes that when it finally does come to fruition, it doesn't lose the old Volpe's mystique.
"As nice as I hope our rink down the road is, I hope that we never lose the flavor of a young kid being able to touch a college hockey player. Unfortunately, all of the new buildings have the guys go in a tunnel and out a tunnel and there is no connection with the players. You can't help but have a connection with the players at Lawler. That's what I remember growing up, that's why I wanted to play college hockey."
The facility issue has ignited opinions that Merrimack can not win top recruits with the current state of Volpe, something that Dennehy disagrees with.
"When I was at UMass, we had a $51 million twin rink facility, but there weren't many times that we would recruit against BC or BU and get the kid," Dennehy said. "So it's more than just the building.
"What we've needed to do is broaden our horizons in recruiting. Most local guys that are going to go to school around here are going to want to go somewhere else. That isn't so much about the rink but more so about the fact that we have been in Hockey East since 1989 and haven't had a winning season."
Being able to recruit out of Hockey East gives Merrimack something to sell to their potential recruits.
"Hockey East is a huge selling point for our program. We can walk into a family's home in Quebec, Alberta or Iowa, and while they might not know who Merrimack is, they know who Hockey East is."
While Merrimack does not have the luxury of awing recruits with a new sparkling arena, Dennehy and his staff can offer recruits the chance to play right away.
"Overall, it's about building a team and you need a certain level of skill, speed and grit," Dennehy said. "We are constantly evaluating that. Last year our recruiting was simply about getting better players. Some time next year we will probably get to the point where we can fine tune our recruiting and pinpoint needs. As we started, we simply just needed to get better players at every position."
The Warriors do not have the alumni support of a Boston College or Boston University. There are a number of reasons. Some feel disconnected with the program, while others are waiting for results.
"Every school I've been to has been the same;, there has been a core group of alumni that eat it, sleep it, and die for it," said Dennehy. "The other thing that goes with that is simple — when you win, the core doesn't get any bigger, but the people around the core explode. We need to make this a better situation athletically and win more games, and that will bring more of the alumni back."
It can be tough being the sole Division I team at a Division II school. The Warriors run the risk of being treated as if they were Division II instead of a Division I team in Hockey East.
"It's gotten better. I hope that the athletes on our team feel like we are treating them like Division I hockey players," Dennehy said. "I want them to feel that way. If we have to make sacrifices in other areas then we will.
"As far as recruiting and other things, we haven't missed a recruiting trip yet, we haven't gone to practice without pucks; well we haven't unless I've called for it," Dennehy joked.
"We've got what we need. It can always get better, we are not funded like some of the larger programs in this league, but we have enough to make this program better, and hopefully by doing that, we'll get more resources than we have now."