March 30, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

So Tough, Only So Big

The Loss Hurts, But Lowell Has Set a Lasting Foundation

by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer

 (photo: Rich Gagnon)

(photo: Rich Gagnon)

WORCESTER, Mass. — Arenas are only so big.

Doug Carr, a senior goaltender for Massachusetts-Lowell, stands with his family. He's distraught. His career ended less than hour ago.

"It's tough," he says.

About 20 feet to his right are smiles. Boston College players, the winners of Sunday's Northeast Regional final, stand with their families just the same.

"See you in Philadelphia," a mother shouts to another, hugging her son donning the hat he just won, a memento for winning a pair of games and extending his season.

They make the team that won and the team that lost leave through the same doors.

Arenas are only so big.

Carr and his fellow UMass-Lowell teammates can hear their excited counterparts exchanging congratulations and well wishes.

"We'll probably head down on Wednesday," a BC family member says, already planning a couple days in the City of Brotherly Love to watch the Eagles chase a sixth national championship.

Carr and his teammates won't be in Philadelphia. They'll head back to Lowell Sunday night. They'll think about the final few minutes of Sunday's game. The heads will hang for a couple days. They'll clean out their lockers. Some will sign professional contracts before the week ends. They'll head back to class.

Certain parts of their time at UMass-Lowell are fleeting. Names on lockers and jersey numbers will change as new young men arrive in Lowell.

Their legacy, though, that part is more permanent. The accomplishments of Carr and his assorted teammates will last. Banners hang in that building because of them — a couple Hockey East Tournament championships, a regular-season title, a trip to the Frozen Four in 2013. Those things get remembered.

Like Carr said, it's tough right now.

Three years ago, it was tougher. Lowell won five games. It didn't qualify for the Hockey East Tournament. By now, the story is well known. Norm Bazin arrived after a few years building a powerhouse at Division III Hamilton hoping to save his alma mater.

"Coming back after our freshman year was obviously tough," senior captain Josh Holmstrom said.

"There (were) a lot of smart guys in there, like coach said, very resilient and just a great group of guys in there to be part of."

The turnaround came faster than anyone expected. Five wins became 24, followed by 28 and 26. Playoff absences became lengthy runs through March and, last season, into early April. People expected Lowell to win games, to compete for championships. They did all of that.

"It's come a long way," Bazin said. "I think the culture of the program is in good shape. I feel the guys are holding each other accountable. They (are) certainly a bunch that wants to continue to get better, and I feel the senior class has really helped that get along. It's a very tight-knit group, and I think we have a lot of building blocks to work from. We feel very good about our program moving forward."

Carr wasn't the centerpiece of UML's success this season or last like he was in 2011-12. He started the process. No one forgets things like that.

Looking ahead to next season, Lowell is set to return 20 players to their roster. Sophomore defenseman Christian Folin is expected to sign a professional contract in the next couple days. A few of UML's more talented underclassmen may follow, but the foundation cemented some time ago.

UMass-Lowell will be back. Bazin's model works. There are stories every year of coaches and teams finding success where no one else could see it. Sustaining that success isn't quite as easy these teams often find. Bazin's built a program capable of overcoming that challenge.

"The River Hawks, they've figured it out pretty well," BC coach Jerry York said. "They went to the Frozen Four last year. They were back-to-back (Hockey East) Tournament champions. … Lowell's had a lot of success. The university's very happy with it. It is hard to come back. We all lose a lot of good players."

The system, built with equal parts talent and desire, works. The players believe in it. That buy-in breeds confidence and every new class of players understands it. They want it because they see its rewards. Trophies and the all-important chance to play hockey at the next level. Those things weren't a certainty before.

They aren't exactly guaranteed in these next few seasons. But they're not unlikely either. UMass-Lowell isn't going anywhere. Tournament runs won't come every season. A troubling year or two is inevitable. The culture Bazin and these seniors created changes people. It welcomes those that want to be champions and those willing to work for the privilege.

Following the game, Holmstrom wore the disappointment like a badge of honor. It hurts because they were close, because they were good enough, because they expected to win games and won three fewer than they wanted.

"We all need good players. You have to be active in recruiting to keep getting good players," York said. "The system you have doesn't really matter as long as they all buy into it and play well. Lowell's figured it out."

Holmstrom, Carr, their fellow seniors and the rest of their UMass-Lowell teammates and their families left the DCU Center Sunday night. The trip to Philadelphia they wanted so badly won't happen.

Just back to Lowell for now. Clean out their lockers, remember the ride. A few quick glances at the banners dangling above the rink they made their home will follow. They put those there.

Different players will wear those red, white and blue Lowell sweaters next season, even more new faces in the years to follow. Those groups may very well see each other at the Frozen Four. This group of Lowell seniors and the last couple classes to graduate after learning from Bazin will be watching. They'll clear out equipment and make room for those to follow for now.

Tsongas Center is just another arena. They're only so big.

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