March 24, 2011 PRINT Bookmark and Share

For UNH Seniors, One Last Shot

by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter

Phil DeSimone

Phil DeSimone

It would make sense if New Hampshire forward Phil DeSimone had a lot on his mind entering this weekend’s Northeast Regional.

Confronted with a game against top-seeded Miami, DeSimone and the other UNH seniors also face the end of their collegiate careers. For most seniors around the country, falling to a club like Miami to end their careers would not be a source of shame or unmet expectations.

However, DeSimone and his teammates understand that their fan base and university have been in this situation before. A strong regular season, regularly beating up on teams by a three- or four-goal margin before a tough February gives way to an unremarkable run in the Hockey East Tournament. From there, UNH receives an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament before flaming out altogether.

So, yes, DeSimone has a lot to think about right now. On the record, he’s thinking about Miami and doing all he can to lift UNH into the regional final.

“Right now, we’re focused on Miami, and not really worrying about what happens between Notre Dame and Merrimack,” he said. “We can worry about that all we want, but if we don’t play well against Miami then it won’t matter.”

When he has a second to himself, though, his mind wanders a little.

“I’d be lying to you if I said we weren’t [thinking about our legacy.] It’s kind of been UNH’s M.O. that we always have good players that come here, and we win a lot of games in the regular season, but we never show up in the playoffs,” DeSimone said. “The last few years have been the same. Last year, we won a big tournament game then lost the second game. I think we missed a huge opportunity.”

The Wildcats lost to RIT in the East Regional final in Albany, N.Y., last season, after steamrolling Cornell in their NCAA opener. To be fair to the Tigers, they reached a level in late-March 2010 that warranted a trip to the Frozen Four in Detroit, knocking off both Denver and UNH before Wisconsin dispatched them from the tournament in the national semifinal. For UNH, though, the loss to RIT extended its trophy drought to seven full seasons. Not since winning the Hockey East Tournament in 2003 have the Wildcats ended a season with any form of hardware. In fact, since winning that trophy, UNH is 21-26-4 in March and a combined 134-45-31 in every other month.

DeSimone, Paul Thompson and the remaining elder skatesmen in Durham understand the gravity of this weekend’s game with Miami. They understand how difficult the RedHawks can be, as well. UNH and Miami split a pair in Oxford, Ohio, to open the season, with both sides winning a 6-3 decision. If the challenges ended there, it would be difficult enough. Saturday’s game also potentially represents their last chance to become more than just a great class UNH coach Dick Umile brought to Durham. With two wins in Manchester this weekend, DeSimone and his teammates move closer to cementing the reputation of their coach. Despite 21 years with just a single losing season — 18 with at least 20 victories — Umile constantly finds himself responding to calls for his job, as a result of his club’s futility in March.

“I don’t think we take it personal, but we’re taking it upon ourselves to change it. I think some of the younger guys are too, and I think it’s given us some motivation,” DeSimone said. “The biggest thing is doing it for coach Umile. We’ve only had to hear it for four years, and he’s had to hear for 21 years now. We want to make a run, not only for us, but for him as well. He’s one of the best coaches college hockey has ever seen, and he deserves a national championship as much as any other coach in the country.”

Drawing solely on his experience and relationship with Umile, DeSimone counts his coach among the premier influences in his development. Hearing the cries for Umile’s job from UNH fans and alumni gets frustrating, and the task of shutting them all up falls on DeSimone and the 19 other UNH players in uniform this Saturday. Even as this contingent grows with every early exit, very few have amassed a more extensive tradition of winning at a single program. Aside from his 20-win seasons, Saturday will mark UNH’s 17th NCAA Tournament appearance under Umile.

“[Umile has] been around hockey and college hockey forever,” DeSimone said. “He really cares about his players on and off the ice. I think he brings the attitude that when you get here, no matter how hard he recruited you, that you have to earn his respect. Once you do, you learn to love him like a father. He gains his players’ respect in an old-fashioned way, but the way he does it has worked for him for so many years that you really start to appreciate it as you grow here.”

As the host institution for the regional, UNH doesn’t face much of a ride to get to Manchester.

The trip back to Durham, though, is still up in the air.

It will come on Saturday or Sunday night with or without a ticket to St. Paul. The game with Miami is the focus right now. But, in the back of their minds, DeSimone and his teammates know it’s that ticket to St. Paul that will transform this weekend from another failure in the NCAA Tournament to the first step in vindicating their coach and their program. 

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