Bazin The Right Man for the Job
by Michael King/CHN Reporter
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Nearly two decades ago, a Massachusetts-Lowell senior forward named Norm Bazin helped lead his team to the NCAA tournament. One university employee took note of the unique and mature qualities of this young man playing college hockey.
"I've known him since he was an 18-year-old freshman, when I was working in the athletic department," UMass-Lowell athletic director Dana Skinner said. "He was a special student-athlete, with great leadership qualities and impressive values."
Skinner may have had a sense then that the former 20-goal-scorer possessed the rare makeup to be a successful coach. But none could have predicted he would excel so quickly at the highest level.
"I would like to say that everything that's happening right now is not a surprise. But at this level, it is — for it to happen in two years," Skinner said.
Having transformed a program which won five games two seasons ago into the winners of both the Hockey East regular-season and tournament championships, Bazin has already proven Skinner's 20-year-old assessment of his abilities to be correct.
He will look to continue reinforcing the brilliance of the coaching hire as the River Hawks face WCHA tournament champion Wisconsin in the NCAA's Manchester Regional opener on Friday at 4:30 p.m.
Though many people have helped to build River Hawk hockey, including propelling its movement to Division I in 1983, the program's brightest moments — not coincidentally — have come with Bazin's involvement.
But the success he enjoyed as a player proved fleeting for the program. After an NCAA appearance two years after Bazin's graduation, the River Hawks did not return until he became coach. The school periodically finished in the top half of the conference and occasionally flirted with a Hockey East tournament run. But the D-I era teams, especially those between Bazin's player and coach stints at Lowell, remain largely undistinguished.
"I couldn't help but think watching UMass-Lowell on the other side of the ice," said the formerly most-tenured coach in college hockey, Jack Parker, who retired as the leader of BU's program after 40 years." When I first started coaching, my friend Billy Riley was the coach at Lowell Tech. BU hockey was something special before I got there, but UMass-Lowell has come a long way since then."
Once the River Hawks joined Hockey East and the legendary Riley retired, Bruce Crowder and Tim Whitehead participated in the program building before moving on to more-highly sought jobs in Hockey East. Lowell then made strides under Blaise MacDonald, who coached the River Hawks for 10 years.
Amid that, however, the program was nearly discontinued, and was in limbo for a almost a year, until being rescued by a combination of forces. That setback didn't help, of course, but there was more to it. Brought on by aggressive recruiting successes and failures, MacDonald created a situation of unequal scholarship allotment through the four class years. This created boom-bust cycles where the program would spend two or three years developing a large group of young players, then enjoy less than two seasons reaping the benefits.
The 2009 run to the Hockey East championship game was a high-point for the Lowell faithful, but two seasons later the River Hawks were a 25-loss hockey team.
The administration knew the program needed improved stability. With the resources in place to build a consistent winner, including the Tsongas Arena near campus, which many consider among the conference's top buildings, MacDonald and the school parted ways.
The search for a replacement moved quickly with Skinner and many others in the UMass-Lowell community already aware what Bazin could bring to the position.
One who was not yet convinced — chancellor Marty Meehan — initially maintained the integrity of the interview process. But all it required was one meeting for Meehan to know he'd found the right person to build the school's hockey program.
"I knew everyone loved (Bazin) going in. He was a very popular player. He had a lot support from the beginning," the chancellor said. "I want excellence in everything we do. I was kind of tough in the interview. I wanted him to tell me how you could do this — he was fabulous. He won it through that interview."
With the victory of earning his first Division I head coaching position, Bazin began the task of winning over the players in the locker room. He was aware that MacDonald had left behind some talent. However, it's unclear if he realized that a Hockey East champion was sitting in the locker at Tsongas Center, waiting to be unlocked with the right blend of coaching and teaching.
Bazin rapidly taught the team how to efficiently execute puck-possession hockey, while sustaining emphasis on defensive discipline from all five skaters. The team adapted quickly and completed the second largest turnaround in NCAA history in 2011-12. The team finished second in conference and reached the NCAA quarterfinals.
With many players returning and confidence perpetually growing, the River Hawks improved upon their league finish this year and are now two wins from the program's first Frozen Four.
The players victorious on the TD Garden ice last weekend attributed much of the achievement to Bazin's leadership.
"Coach always reminds us that if we work hard in practice and do all of the little things, then you'll be rewarded in the game," senior captain Riley Wetmore said. "He's always very calm when we come back to the bench. If we do something wrong, then he'll let you know. And the same thing if you do something well."
For junior Josh Holmstrom, Bazin's influence extends to motivating the team and instilling confidence in each player. The forward watched from the stands as brother Ben's team allowed only a single goal to BU in the 2009 HEA final. But it was enough to cost Lowell its first conference title.
"Coach has a great demeanor and he believed in us from day one," Holmstrom said. "He has taught us to believe in each other as well. He's very supportive and positive every day."
Even those responsible for the hiring decision observed quickly last year Bazin's process for bringing a championship to Lowell.
"Once you saw early on last year the momentum in the locker room once they won a few hockey games, the confidence grew with every game," Skinner said. "He teaches everyone to be balanced. Even when we started slowly at 4-7-1, I talked to Norm and said 'kind of a tough first semester.' He said, 'we're fine, we have a few freshmen in the lineup. They're figuring it out and we're fine."
Others take note of his ability to produce individuals with the ability to compete off the ice.
"He has outstanding character," Meehan said. "He's not just building great hockey teams, he's developing young men to be leaders. And I'm convinced that people who play for him will go on to do great things, whether it's in hockey, business, or anything."
As Bazin looks to continue adding to the program firsts achieved this year, the Manitoba native knows sustainability is the key to establishing a perpetual Hockey East contender.
Much of that future will be skating on the ice in Manchester this weekend. Though he can take much credit for developing every current player in his two years, the athletes recruited by Bazin have already become key pieces of this championship march.
Freshman A.J. White has served admirably in an energy role for the River Hawks all season. During the Hockey East playoffs, the Michigan native skated with veterans Holmstrom and Joseph Pendenza. He scored an important goal to turn the momentum against Providence in the Hockey East semifinal.
No newcomer, however, has given more to his team than goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. The freshman permanently took over the starting job in mid-February and never relinquished the job. Hellebuyck has won 12 of the last 13 games for the River Hawks, including earning the fourth shutout in the history of the Hockey East championship game last Saturday.
If Lowell is to advance in the NCAA tournament, Hellebuyck's play will largely dictate this fate. But this will be perhaps an even greater challenge than winning Hockey East. As the top seed in the Manchester regional, Lowell faces a difficult draw against a Wisconsin team that has played some of the nation's best hockey in the past several weeks. Since Dec. 1, the Badgers are 21-5-4, outdone only by Lowell's 22-4-1 mark in that time.
It's possible that the River Hawks could perfectly execute the type of hockey Bazin has been preaching since taking over in 2011 and still fall to the Badgers. If Lowell dispatches the WCHA champion, then it will face the winner of New Hampshire and Denver with the program's first Frozen Four appearance at stake.
Regardless of the outcome, 2012-13 will remain a historic season in Lowell. And with a coach at the helm with the knowledge, experience, and resources to sustain success, it's likely this history will become a regular event at the Tsongas Center.
After all, these achievements — which were once simple dreams for many, including current Lowell players — are now a reality.
"To be honest, no," junior forward Derek Arnold of Foxborough, Mass., said, when asked if he genuinely thought Lowell could achieve the Hockey East double when he joined the program. His team's achievement had not yet set-in, despite having scored the game-winning goal on Saturday night.
"Growing up in New England, it was BC and BU every year," Arnold said. "You didn't see Lowell here too many times. It’s amazing right now and a remarkable accomplishment by the group of guys in that locker room."