Brown the Latest ECAC Insurgent
by Jason Klump/CHN Reporter
The ECAC head coaching fraternity has seen the introduction of many new faces, seven to be exact, over the last seven years. Harvard's Ted Donato was the only one not immediately tasked with lifting his program out of what had been, or was becoming, sustained mediocrity or worse. The other six have achieved success in reaching this goal, but have done so on slightly different timetables.
Nate Leaman needed five years at Union to turn the Dutchmen into a program with a consistent winning record, and two more to make them a national contender. Seth Appert now seems to be on a similar track across the Hudson at RPI.
George Roll took two years less time to resurrect Clarkson back to the top of the league following their more abbreviated fall from grace that came on the heels of Mark Morris' unexpected departure and the recruiting disaster that it caused. Guy Gadowsky likewise needed only three seasons before he led Princeton to more victories than it ever had before in over 100 years as a program.
More recently, Keith Allain turned Yale, arguably the ECAC's most historically unsuccessful charter member, into a streaking juggernaut after just two seasons getting his feet wet.
Now, in Providence, the success is coming at an unprecedented rate for Brown's Brendan Whittet, who needed less than one full campaign to transform a languishing Bears' squad back into the team they were when he last led them to the NCAAs, as a junior defenseman in 1993.
It started last season, in his first year as coach, when the 11th-seeded Bears took road series at 6th-seeded RPI and then top-seeded Yale before finishing third in Albany.
Now, Brown just strung together quite the four-game unbeaten streak on the road. On the heels of their first Central New York sweep over Colgate and Cornell since that 1992-93 season two weekends ago, the Bears put up back-to-back ties against a pair of top-five Hockey East opponents, New Hampshire on Tuesday and Boston University on Saturday, in unfriendly buildings.
Whittet's response was ready when asked if the expectations for his team had changed over the course of those nine days.
"Our goals [have not changed]," he said. "Our goals have always been our goals since the beginning of last year. Our goal is to win a championship and be an elite-level program in the country."
So, he can be serious and dream big. And why not? Given what the program's mentality was when he took over, it was a good idea to throw modesty out the window, because it wasn't working.
Yet Whittet is also an unassuming guy with a good sense of humor. When asked if his team had been making an effort to shoot high on diminutive UNH goalie Matt DiGirolamo, he quipped, "If we tell our guys to aim high, I'm telling you it will go 20 feet over the net. We don't have that luxury. Our goal is to just get it on the net."
And Whittet is doing it on offense largely with the players left to him by former coach Roger Grillo, who resigned amid the turmoil of lost recruits and players leaving the team after the 2008-09 season, to take a job with USA Hockey. The team had scored only 60 goals in 33 games, and averaged under seven wins over the previous four campaigns.
There is only one sophomore on Brown's top two lines, which get the majority of the ice time, and each of the five freshmen forwards who has seen regular action has yet to pot a goal. Moreover, Jack Maclellan and Harry Zolnierczyk, the two upperclassmen who led the team in scoring last year and are doing so again this year, combined for only three goals in Grillo's last year and were 12th and 16th on the team in scoring as a freshman and sophomore respectively.
They were not a ready-made duo of phenoms like Allain got handed to him by predecessor Tim Taylor in Sean Backman and Mark Arcobello, yet they are all of a sudden the catalysts that have Brown scoring 3.62 goals per game. That is third-best in the ECAC behind the consensus top two offenses, Yale and Union, and eighth overall in Division I.
So where did this come from? Maclellan and Zolnierczyk had a combined three goals and 11 points until Whittet came to town last year and they exploded for 28 goals and 67 points in 2009-10.
"They are good players," said Whittet. "It's the mentality that's different. What we want is a program that no matter who we're playing, in what building, on what night, at any time, we're going to play with Brown pride. When I played at Brown, we were a team that was in the NCAAs, we were a team that played in front of packed houses at Meehan, we were a team that didn't back down from anyone. You want them to take on the identity of underdog almost. That's what we preach to them. I want them to be champions ... because they are going to work hard enough to try and earn that opportunity."
Maclellan is just happy he showed up in Rhode Island at the right time.
"When I was a freshman, it was a pretty disappointing season that we had and that was kind of the end of the line for Roger," he said. "And I guess he had been on his way out for a few years before I got here. I was just kind of lucky to be part of this rejuvination of the program with Brendan and the other coaches. It's been a great experience for me and I think last year we made strides at the end of the year, but this year we have the potential to be a contender all throughout the season."
Whittet is, however, beginning to pull in game-ready recruits of his own, particularly in his area of expertise for over a decade under his former coach Bob Gaudet at Dartmouth: defense. He has had three freshmen defensemen in the lineup in each game over the four-game unbeaten streak.
One of those freshman blueliners in particular has made a big impact in one aspect of Brown's game: the power play. Last season, Brown was successful in only 24 of 183 attempts with the extra man (13.1 percent). And now? Enter Dennis Robertson.
Maybe he was the best kept secret among league newcomers, but Robertson brought quite a point shot with him from the BCHL and he has already netted four, all on the power play, to lead the Bears to the nation's third-best success rate, 29.4 percent (10-for-34).
When he talks championships, Whittet is not just talking conference championships either. He wants a national championship. And he wants it to come now, not later, so he has adopted a strategy to give his team their chance at working its way there.
"We want to play against the best teams in the country," he said. "For us, we look at it as an opportunity to gain points in the NCAA Pairwise. People will think we're crazy, but that's our goal. We want to be in the NCAA Tournament. If other programs can have that as a goal, that's ours."
Brown has not only played three of its four non-conference games so far against top five teams in Yale, UNH, and BU — it still has Hockey East rival Providence, and then the Shillelagh Tournament in Illinois at New Year's, where it has a rematch with BU in the opener before facing either Notre Dame or Minnesota State.
"If you can't get up for games like this, you're not much of a hockey player," said Maclellan. "This is just a huge opportunity for our program to get ourselves on the map and start generating respect. I think it's getting there and teams are starting to take us more seriously and if they don't, I think we take advantage of it. Moving forward I think teams are going to have to start respecting us a lot more, otherwise they're gonna lose."
With all the positive affirmation going on in the home locker room at Meehan, one thing is not lost on the coach — the support in the community and on campus that had dwindled over the years.
"Jeez, a lot of people cover UNH," he said as he walked into a filled interview room at the Whittemore Center. "I know they're not covering us. ... Anyone want to come work for the Providence [Journal]?
"I just hope they embrace our team in this community again, because they deserve to be embraced. They work very hard and we're a team that I think is entertaining to watch. The game is over by nine. It's not like [students] are missing anything."
The Brown mentor acknowleged there can be downsides to putting together such a competitive non-conference schedule when it comes to generating home support, however. Six of the Bears' seven non-ECAC games are away from home.
"I don't want to play on the road every single year," he said. "But unfortunately a lot of these big time programs, they have to fill their barns, they don't go on the road. So what are you gonna do? You're in a quandary. I want to play the best teams, you know? I'd love for them to come into Meehan some year, but for now if we want to play these teams, we're probably going to be on the road."
Attendance at Meehan aside, the matchups Friday and Saturday will be drawing a lot of attention. The schedule does not get any easier for the Bears as they close out the fall semester ECAC slate by welcoming two more nationally-ranked opponents, Union and RPI, to Providence. Throw the Bears' travel partner, Yale, into that mix and you have arguably the four hottest teams in the conference squaring off.
RPI coach Seth Appert, who was replaced by Whittet as the newest coach in the league and whose team will play a matinee in Providence on Saturday after taking on Yale the night before, obviously knows Brown is no pushover.
"Outside of beating us in the playoffs last year, I'm very happy for him," Appert said. "I know Brendan very well from recruiting when we were both assistants. At the end of the day, he has so much pride in that program. He played there and he was successful there as a player and he has really brought that back. They just play so darn hard. I actually predicted them to win [against BU]. We kind of make some predictions in our league and look at team schedules as we're killing time as a coaching staff before our games. What we know is we're going to be playing one of the most talented teams in the country on Friday night and then Saturday there's going to be no relent because we'll be playing one of the toughest teams in the country. So it's kind of evolved over the years I've been here into a really difficult ECAC road trip."
Whittet is also the first one to admit that his team will have to work through growing pains. That was evident in the ties at UNH and BU, where Whittet made clear he would take the obvious positives, yet still was upset that his players did not close out the leads they had in each game.
In Durham, the Wildcats scored 11 seconds apart in the last two minutes of regulation to erase a 5-3 Brown lead. The tying goal was scored when Robertson miscommunicated with his defensive partner after grabbing the puck from the goalie behind the net and put it right on the tape of a UNH player with no one in the net.
"In my mind's eye, I remember the same things happening at Dartmouth," said Whittet. "When you've got young defensemen, sometimes things go south. They are not in these situations and when they are in them, sometimes it's new to them. And now it's not new anymore."
In Boston, Brown led 2-0 early and then 4-3 in the third, but the Terriers were not to be denied. Brown's problem there was its captain, Zolnierczyk, who not only got them into costly penalty trouble but was lost for half the game because of his own actions. First, in the second, he took exception to a cross-checking penalty called against him to put the Bears down two men and drew himself a 10-minute misconduct.
Apparently still frustrated after he was released, he allegedly intentionally initiated a ruthless knee-to-knee hit on BU's Adam Clendenning and was given a game disqualification. Thus, he even further hurt his team by being suspended for their game Friday night against Union.
"He's an intense kid," said Whittet "It's unfortunate, but as I tell Harry, I want him to play aggressive hockey. He just has to understand that there are certain things you can and can't do on the ice.
Asked if he justified the captaincy of Zolnierczyk, who has a history of similar unsportsmanlike play, based on him being a rough and tumble guy in the mold of the successful Brown teams he played for, Whittet responded that "Harry is an ideal leader because Harry is our best hockey player. He plays the game very hard and he's a guy that buys into what we're trying to do and disseminates our message within our team very well. That's why Harry is the captain."
Then he laughed, "As far as me being rough and tumble, I don't know about that."