The Battle Within
Lowell's Success Marked By Internal Competition
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
A year ago, Massachusetts-Lowell coach Norm Bazin told everyone about this kid from Commerce, Mich., named Connor Hellebuyck. The rangy goaltender, drafted by the Winnipeg Jets, was going to play, Bazin said. Even with Doug Carr coming off a marvelous season a sophomore in backstopping Lowell's unexpected run to the NCAA Tournament in 2011-12.
Bazin never said Carr or Hellebuyck was the starter. He never doubted Carr's ability to replicate his sophomore success as a junior. He simply doesn't care to name starters. He wanted the pair to compete. Awarding players their roles breeds complacency. At a program like Lowell, especially under Bazin, there just isn't room for that.
Carr struggled early in the season. Hellebuyck stepped in late November and never looked back. In 23 starts as a freshman, Hellebuyck stopped more than 95 percent of the shots he faced, held opponents to fewer than two goals per game and led UML to Hockey East Regular-Season and Tournament Championships. He added in six shutouts along the way.
With the 2013-14 season days away, it makes sense to assume Hellebuyck is the unquestioned No. 1 for Bazin's club.
"Doug led us to the NCAA Tournament my first year. Connor took the ball and ran with it in the second half of last year," Bazin said. "He was a big reason we made the national tournament and the Frozen Four last year. It was great, but it starts over. I told both of them, if they're going to have a chance to play at the next level, they're going to face this exact scenario. They're going to compete with one or two people just as good as them. So they better get used to it. That's what it takes to earn those minutes."
Sure, Hellebuyck will get every chance to reclaim the job, and there's every reason to believe he will. But playing time isn't a guaranteed commodity at Lowell. Hellebuyck and the rest of his teammates impressed their coach throughout the 2012-13 season. That's behind him now, though. Whichever players give the River Hawks the chance to win this year will be on the ice.
His players understand this as well. Whether it's Hellebuyck and Carr battling for starts in goal or skaters fighting for that precious few minutes on the power play, Bazin will play the players that give them the best chance to win this year. Last year, even with all its glory, be damned.
This philosophy, among other things, is a substantial driver in the turnaround Bazin led at his alma mater. Motivation is more important than comfort. Winning the next game is more important than winning the last game. A pair of championships and a spot in the Frozen Four was thrilling for UMass-Lowell, as was taking home the top spot in both the Hockey East Media and Coaches polls. None of that matters, now, though. It's symbolic of success, just like the banners that will hang in the Tsongas Center on Friday night when UML opens its newest season against Sacred Heart. Bazin will take a look up at some point before the game starts. That'll probably be the last time he does all season.
"I'm excited, and I'm cautiously optimistic about this whole thing," Bazin said. "I put very little stock in predictions and last year. I'm excited that people are considering us in the upper echelon of Hockey East because, if you're in the upper echelon of Hockey East, you're one of the better teams in the country.
"We're excited that people consider us in that light. We just want the games to start to see how it all plays out."
A dogged pursuit of improvement and success drives Bazin. He instills these same principles in his players. It's the reason people expect Lowell to win this season. If any of the returning players from last year's club don't perform, they'll see less time. Someone else will be waiting to take that time, and they'll be ready to perform when they get the call. The addition of Notre Dame to Hockey East means a more intense league schedule and more difficult non-conference slate. Starting the season with significant early-season games against quality non-conference opponents is important to start constructing the resume that will get UML into a favorable spot come tournament time. But it's also designed to show his players the level they'll need to play at to replicate last season's run.
"If they don't know how hard it's going to be, they're going to find out right away," Bazin said. "We start off with a very challenging non-conference schedule. We've got Quinnipiac. We've got UMass, and Michigan and Michigan State out there, so, if our guys aren't ready to compete and don't no how hard it's going to be, they're going to find out very quickly."