Team of the Week: Merrimack
by Mike McMahon/Staff Writer
NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – Excitement was at a fever pitch on Merrimack College’s campus at the start of the hockey season.
Fans, faculty, staff and students had high expectations for the Warriors this year, coming off a 2009-10 campaign where Merrimack made the Hockey East playoffs for the first time in six seasons and were returning rising stars like Stephane Da Costa and netminder Joe Cannata.
Things could only get better and expectations were high.
There's that word ... expectations.
Despite rolling off the tongue of those on campus, and plenty of media types wondering if the Warriors could live up to these lofty expectancies, the phrase was taboo in Merrimack's locker room.
“We don’t expect anything,” head coach Mark Dennehy said, “except to work hard everyday.”
No one expected this.
After a weekend sweep over New Hampshire, the Warriors skyrocketed to a fourth-place tie in the Pairwise and are this week’s Team of the Week.
The Warriors (19-5-4, 13-5-3 HEA) are alone in third place in Hockey East and just three points behind Boston College and the Wildcats for the conference lead.
“I’m not sure anyone believes in us as much as the guys in that locker room.” Dennehy said.
For most, seeing is believing.
The Warriors were relegated to the Hockey East cellar for years. Heading into last season, the program had 38 total wins in the previous five years combined. In the last two seasons they have 35, with six games still remaining this regular season. Dennehy came in to replace Chris Serino, and many were confident he could build Merrimack's program into something at least competitive. But there were still many building years.
During that time, the hopes fell on Merrimack’s youth; a hefty injection of underclass talent was recruited by Dennehy, former associate coach Darren Yopyk and current assists Phil Roy and Glenn Stewart.
Now those youngsters have grown up.
“We have a veteran team,” said goaltender Joe Cannata. “We know we have a good team and guys know what they have to do for us to win.”
And winning is a quality the Warriors looked for in recruiting.
Cannata won a state championship (Massachusetts) before committing to Merrimack in 2006 and going on to win the Five Nations tournament with Team USA the following season.
Karl Stollery, Jesse Todd and Chris Barton all won an AJHL Championship with the Camrose Kodiaks and competed in the RBC Cup, the Canadian Jr. A national championship.
Mike Collins and Kyle Bigos each won the RBC Cup with the Vernon Vipers in 2009, with Bigos being named tournament MVP.
“We have wanted to recruit good players, but also good people who come from winning programs,” Dennehy said.
Part of the philosophy was eliminating the old culture.
“The culture is the hardest thing to change,” Dennehy said.
But that's just what he has been able to do.
In previous years, panic would have set in when Da Costa fell to the ice on Friday at the Whittemore Center with an apparent knee injury.
But for these Warriors, it was just another hurdle.
The next night, they beat the same Wildcats, 3-2, in overtime.
“One of our mantras is ‘don’t make excuses’ and ‘don’t let others make them for you,’” Dennehy said. “You want to know how good the players in our locker room are? Ask Stephane Da Costa. He knows how good his teammates are.”
He added, “We’re finding ways to win.”
But it's not the only thing that has changed.
The leadership both in the administration and in the athletic department are new as well.
Dr. Christopher Hopey, the school's president, and Glenn Hofmann, the schools director of athletics have the entire athletic complex looking new. To an alum, even just a few years removed from the campus, you might not recognize the place.
Not just the little things — a fresh coat of paint or some new signage — but the big things that sat stagnant for years is finally seeing a facelift.
Lawler Arena, which has housed the hockey team since the 1970s, still looked stuck in the previous century when Hofmann and Hopey took their posts. The ice bed was 20 years due for a replacement. The roof leaked like a sieve. When you walked in, it was as if you stepped into a time machine and warped 40 years into the past.
As brilliant new arenas were being built around the country, somehow Lawler Arena got left behind.
In a relatively short amount of time — just over a year to be exact — the rink has gone from a joke by comparison to a sparkling refreshed facility.
The original wooden bleachers, without a doubt the biggest eyesore of the old barn, has been replaced with new chairback seats. Empty space behind the net has been turned into a student section, and it's a good thing.
The Warriors have averaged over 600 students per game.
That might not sound like a lot, but for a school whose enrollment is just over 2,000, it represents over 40 percent of the student body.
By comparison, it would equal about 12,000 students attending a BU game at Agganis Arena, which is twice the capacity of the building.
One of the reasons the student attendance remains strong is that more often than not, the Warriors take care of business at home.
In the last two years combined, the Warriors are 22-5-2 at Lawler Arena. The often empty building with no atmosphere has suddenly become a packed house — the Warriors have sold out six of 13 home dates this season — and one of the toughest places to play in the country.
None of that would be possibly without support from the top down.
When Hofmann held an open meeting with alumni and supporters last season detailing his plans for renovation, people were shocked. Used to an administration full of secrets, support from hockey alumni dwindled and trust was at an all-time low.
But here was this new guy putting his budget on a slideshow presentation for everyone to see.
At last weekend's alumni game a record turnout of over 50 alumni returned to campus to play as well as attend the Saturday game with New Hampshire.
It was just a sign of things to come.
With first place well within reach – the Warriors need to make up three points in six games against Boston College and UNH – the Warriors hold tie breakers with the two teams ahead of them in the standings by virtue of winning the season series. The Warriors are in the top-4 themselves, but against the three teams that join them they hold a 5-2-2 record.
“The belief has always been there,” Cannata said. “Every weekend we expect to win both games. We just focus on game-by-game and not look too far ahead.”
The change in culture has been the genesis of some new vocabulary at Lawler Arena.
Never before did the Warriors have to worry about such things as the “Pairwise,” “Rankings,” or the “NCAA Tournament.”
“If I said (the NCAA’s) wasn’t in the back of our mind I’d be lying,” said freshmen defenseman Jordan Heywood, who potted the OT winner against the Wildcats. “But if you look too far ahead then it catches up to you and you slip and lose a big game and plummet. Our goal has been a Hockey East championship on we’re focused on winning games to get us there. If we compete for that and win our games the we’ll be in good shape for the NCAA Tournament.”
Almost a surefire lock for the NCAA Tournament at this point, the Warriors better cancel their spring break plans. The season is about to get a little longer, though I doubt you'll find anyone in their locker room that minds.