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March 14, 2007 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Lowell Hopes Buoyed by New Chancellor

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

The selection of U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan as the new chancellor of Massachusetts-Lowell, announced today, is being greeted with optimism by those hoping to save the school's hockey program.

Two weeks ago, the program's future was thrown into doubt when the UMass Board of Trustees — chaired by Stephen Tocco — announced it was considering eliminating the program or moving it out of Hockey East. A task force was created to investigate issues such as funding concerns, and whether the RiverHawks can be competitive in Hockey East. The task force is set to report back in June.

Meanwhile, Meehan, a graduate of UMass-Lowell, and a supporter of the hockey program, came to campus last week and addressed the situation. He acknowledged the challenges, yet laid out a positive vision, and Lowell athletic director Dana Skinner said he came away with a good feeling.

"I'm optimistic more now than I have been in the last six to seven years, because people are starting to realize we need to go beyond the status quo," Skinner said.

"I give credit to the chairman for extending the task force so the chancellor would have an opportunity to participate in the process. That's a needed component. You can't compete in Hockey East without support at the highest level. So that's a helpful sign. And the congressman's vision for the program is promising."

Among the concerns of the Trustees is lack of income, which stems from lack of attendance. But that often stems from lack of good dates for home games, because Lowell is the only team in the league that does not own its building — it shares city-owned Tsongas Arena with many other interests.

"This isn't to disparage the city, because they're trying to make it work for a whole bunch of interests, but (Meehan) indicated that he thought he could garner the support it needed so that the university could retain its good dates," Skinner said.

"(Meehan) understands what some of the (trustees') concerns are. He recognizes that there are some aspects that need attention. But he was pretty passionate that these can be addressed."

The Trustees, led by Tocco, have set forth a plan to create "branding excellence" in the Massachusetts state university system. This has raised concerns that the flagship campus in Amherst would be given favorable treatment at the expense of the satellite campuses.

But Skinner said that the attention put on the program could wind up being a positive in the long run.

"I haven't been as fearful of this process as others have," Skinner said. "At the end of the day, the trustees have their own decision to make. I'm not sure how that plays out for us yet, but people are starting to take attention now that haven't paid attention in the past. And you can't compete successfully in Hockey East without support from a whole bunch of levels."

In 2001, Tocco was the Board of Higher Education chairman when he spearheaded a process that also jeopardized the future of the program, until then-governor Paul Cellucci intervened. Cellucci, an ardent hockey fan and the new U.S. Ambassador to Canada at the time, urged then-UMass president William Bulger and Tocco to back away from their plans.

So the current situation is not so much new, but an extension of ideas that have been in the works for years, and have lingered.

"This is a different process this time," Skinner said. "This is a whole bunch of people looking at our scenario. The chairman made an important statement to everybody. I didn't get a chance to talk to (chairman Tocco) last time we went through this. I spoke to him at length this time.

"There are pieces you can't argue with — like branding excellence. And he wants the entire system to define a path to excellence. And when you look at some of the challenges — the scheduling, the funding, spectator issues ... we're a commuter campus; there's 2200 students who go home on weekends — so when you look at some of those built-in challenges, they are asking the question: 'How do you define excellence?' So he said every option should be examined except the status quo. So I don't take issue with his perspective."

While the scrutiny may help in the long run, there's no question it hurts recruiting, at least for now.

"This having gone public is never helpful," Skinner said. "But we have to come out of this in a way ... to come out of it stronger. And I'm not sure how that happens yet because there's no way to pull that back. But we have to work through it. And if we come out of this with a good, strong definition of excellence and a clear path to excellence, everybody will benefit."

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