MacDonald Happy for Former Lowell Players
by Mike McMahon/Senior Writer
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What do Riley Wetmore, Derek Arnold, Josh Holmstrom, Scott Wilson, Joseph Pendenza and Chad Ruhwedel, just to name a few, all have in common?
Yes, they all just won a Hockey East championship with Massachusetts-Lowell last weekend and they’ll be the top seed in this weekend’s NCAA Northeast Regional.
They were also recruited, each and every one of them, by former Lowell head coach Blaise MacDonald, who left the program after their rookie season and is now the head coach at Colby College in Maine.
That year, the River Hawks finished with just five wins rolling a roster a roster that included 20 underclassmen and 14 freshmen.
MacDonald then resigned, reportedly amid pressure from athletic director Dana Skinner, and the River Hawks went on to the NCAA tournament the next season and now are considered one of the favorites to win a national title just two years later.
Taking nothing away from the job Norm Bazin has done behind the Lowell bench, the River Hawks have reached unprecedented heights largely due to MacDonald’s recruiting efforts. But that shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s no stranger to assembling championship teams, having played an integral role in putting together Boston University’s 1995 national championship team when he served as the recruiting coordinator and associate head coach under Jack Parker.
“I’m elated to see their success and I’m not surprised either,” MacDonald said. “I always felt that the players we were able to recruit, especially guys like Wetmore, Pendenza, Scott Wilson, Doug Carr and Chad Ruhwedel, I knew that they would be very good Hockey East players. Norm has done an excellent job taking those guys and blending in a goalie (Connor Hellebuyck) who has played extremely well and also some really good defensemen.”
MacDonald may have been away from the Lowell bench the last two seasons but he hasn’t been away from the Lowell program.
Growing up in Billerica, he’s always been a fan. This season, on weekends where he had free time in Colby’s schedule, he’d return home to Westford, Mass. and if his sons’ hockey schedule allowed, he’d take his boys – Cameron, Joseph and Jacob – down to the Tsongas Center to catch a game. He even made the trip to Providence earlier this month to watch the River Hawks capture the Hockey East regular-season crown.
“I grew up around the corner,” he said, “I’ve always had an affinity for the area and that team. I grew up watching them. I’m also a hockey junkie and I enjoy going to games. I’ve also really enjoyed watching the success of these players.”
Success hasn’t always been easy for Lowell hockey. MacDonald guided the River Hawks to the Hockey East title game in 2009, just two years after there was speculation that the program may have been eliminated altogether due to concerns from Board of Trustees Chair Stephen Tocco. As a matter of fact, that was the second time there was a groundswell among people in charge to potentially rid the university of its hockey program.
A lack of instituitional support, especially as public as Lowell's was at the time, does not make for an easy recruiting landscape.
This was also at a time that the university did not own the Tsongas Center, they were simply a tenant to the city of Lowell.
Despite that, MacDonald and his staff – in particular former assistant coach Kenny Rausch – were able to assemble a team that finished third in the conference and was one goal away from a league championship.
On the heels of that title game, the River Hawks saw a large class graduate and an equally large roster of rookies the year after to fill the void.
Regardless of Lowell’s struggles during the 2010-11 season, it didn’t take an expert to realize that the youthful group had plenty of talent. One Hockey East coach went as far as to tell me, in the context of a conversation, that Lowell’s freshman class that season would win a league title before their careers were over.
Boy, does he look smart now.
“The challenging part for (this junior class) when they were freshmen, and I’ll never forget this, we opened up at Maine on Oct. 8 and we had Derek Arnold playing the point on the power play. Doug Carr playing his first game. So many others, too, and we relied on those guys to play enormous roles and it wasn’t fair to them, but it was the circumstances we were presented because of our class imbalance.”
MacDonald continued, “That being said, I knew it would serve them well. It was on-the-job training. We were saying, ‘hey guys, let’s take the floaties off and we’re jumping right in.’ I think that ultimately served the program well, watching how well they’ve performed this season.”