UMass-Lowell's Success All Part of Former Coach's Plan
by Scott McLaughlin/Senior Writer
PITTSBURGH It isn't a stretch to call Norm Bazin a savior of the Massachusetts-Lowell hockey program. He took over a team that had won just five games in 2010-11, and immediately took it to the NCAA tournament. This season, the River Hawks won the Hockey East regular-season title for the first time, won the Hockey East tournament title for the first time, and reached the Frozen Four for the first time.
Before Bazin, it was Marty Meehan who saved the program. When he took over as university chancellor in 2007, the team was on the verge of getting cut by the UMass Board of Trustees, so the program at the state's flagship school in Amherst could be featured. Meehan not only prevented that, but he led the effort to make the River Hawks stronger than ever.
But long before Meehan and Bazin, Lowell had its first, and most important, savior. When Bill Riley became coach at what was then known as Lowell Tech in 1969, the team was in its third year in Division II, and it was fighting just to become relevant at that level.
The improvement didn't come right away — there were still some double-digit losses those first couple years — but eventually Riley got the team trending in the right direction. Then it got a boost when the school merged with Lowell State to become the University of Lowell in 1975, followed by the hiring of new president John Duff in 1976.
"We lost a couple games by some pretty large scores, and a couple schools dropped us from the schedule," Riley said. "Slowly but surely, we brought more players in. After eight years, we started to do well, and then we brought in a new president. You're only as good as the guy at the top. He allowed us to give scholarships, and within two years we were national champs."
Led by future NHLer Craig MacTavish, Lowell won that first national title in 1979. Then it won two more in 1981 and 1982. In 1983, Lowell jumped to Division I. A year after that, it joined the newly formed Hockey East. Along the way, Riley earned a reputation for some of his crazy antics, such as having a live turkey tied to the net when rival Merrimack took the ice for warmups one night in 1978.
Riley resigned in 1991 amidst an NCAA investigation into improper benefits that resulted in the program being placed on probation for two years. Although his coaching tenure came to a messy end, Riley's legacy remained.
"For Billy, it's now how it ended," Bazin said. "It's what he did over so many years and how the program continues to go."
Bazin was recruited by Riley and played for him as a freshman during that 1990-91 season. Bazin said it was easy to see why guys wanted to play for Riley.
"He was a real colorful character," Bazin said. "He had a lot of personality. He was a great motivator. He's fun to be around, and you wanted to play for him."
Even though Bazin only played for Riley for one year, the two kept in touch after Riley stepped down. When Bazin turned to coaching in 1996, just two years after graduating, he took lessons he had learned from Riley with him, such as the importance of getting to know your players and genuinely caring about them.
Those lessons helped carry Bazin to Colorado College, where he helped the Tigers reach six NCAA tournaments as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator. In 2008, he took over at Division III Hamilton, where he was named the New England Small Conference Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in both 2010 and 2011.
Now Bazin is back in Lowell, leading the program that Riley built just about from scratch. And although Riley's coaching career ended 22 years ago, he's still a prominent member of the Lowell hockey community. Riley currently serves as an advisor to the program and its alumni ambassador.
"He's a great person to have around," Bazin said. "He enjoys the game, he has tremendous respect for the game, and he cares deeply about our program. It's a testament to him that he's still involved in the game and still has great respect for it."