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Opinion: UMass Hockey Is Cool Stuff

By George O’Brien

For the past several years now, UMass Amherst athletics have been, well … under fire.

And the discussion has centered around two sports — the two sports most people focus on when they think of big-time college athletics, football and basketball.

The basketball team in Amherst has been mostly irrelevant since the Marcus Camby-led team that went to the national championship game a quarter-century ago. The football team … well, it’s been worse than irrelevant, if that’s possible. It’s been relevant for all the wrong reasons — atrocious records, historically poor defense, and endless talk that the school made a terribly wrong decision when it decided to move up to the big time and start playing with Alabama, Clemson, and Notre Dame in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

With the UMass hockey team’s decisive 5-0 win over St. Cloud State in Pittsburgh on Saturday night, the school has a national championship to boast, and something else to talk about. Finally. This was a huge win for the team and the school and one that could redirect the discussion about athletics at the state’s flagship university.

How, exactly, we’re not sure. It could change ideas about just what this university is, a football or basketball school (the debate has raged for years). Maybe, just maybe, it’s a hockey school. It may change the debate about just how important those two ‘big’ sports are, really, when it comes to a school’s identity, or even its finances.

But we hope it changes the discussion when it comes to just what can happen if people are determined, patient, and the pieces finally fall into place. Remember, UMass dropped hockey — not once, but twice — over the past 80 years. When this writer was covering the team for the UMass Collegian in the late ’70s, it didn’t even have its own arena; home games were played at Amherst College’s Orr Rink.

When a rink was finally built and hockey was restored in 1993, a slow rebuilding process commenced that brought the team to some success, including a trip to the nationals in 2007. The final piece to the puzzle was the hiring of former St. Lawrence coach Greg Carvel, who has recruited players that have bought UMass to two straight national championships. They knocked on the door in 2019, and on Saturday night, they stormed through it.

This team looks like it could be a powerhouse for a long, long time, although, certainly, nothing can be taken for granted.

There might be those thinking, ‘why can’t this be the football or basketball team?’ But that’s not the right way to think. First, it doesn’t have to one of those two sports; a school can build an identity in other ways when it comes to athletics. Second, if this team has done anything, it’s shown that it can happen with those sports. It might take time — it might take decades — but it can happen.

So this was a hard-earned victory to be celebrated — on many, many levels.

George O’Brien is editor and associate publisher of BusinessWest.

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