The 2016-17 edition of the River Hawks secured a Hockey East Championship. (Matt Dwyer/Connector)
As one of the best teams in college hockey for the last six seasons, the UMass Lowell River Hawks still seem to fly under the radar when it comes to national attention.
The team produces consistent success without top prospects or high draft picks. Hockey East championships have become the norm with coach Norm Bazin behind the bench.
Yet it seems not to matter to outside of Hockey East compared to storied programs like Boston College, North Dakota and others.
UMass Lowell does not have much history to its Division I era – one that started in 1984 after three Division II championships in four years preceding it – but the River Hawks have a present and a future that everyone involved in college hockey should be aware of.
In terms of recruiting, UMass Lowell hockey is not a program where top National Hockey League draft picks go to spend their college years. Just ask Chelmsford’s own Jack Eichel.
The second overall pick in the 2015 NHL draft who now plays professionally for the Buffalo Sabres, Eichel opted to play for the Boston University Terriers instead of choosing to play in his own backyard for the River Hawks. UMass Lowell was a winning team when he played for BU in the 2014-15 season before going pro, but the accolades were not there when he committed, years before he set foot on campus.
That has not stopped the River Hawks from finding and developing their own talent and even getting them to the pros. UMass Lowell’s roster has only carried as many as four NHL draftees in a single season during Bazin’s tenure (2016-17), but that has not stopped undrafted recruits from making a name for themselves and getting signed as free agents.
Players like Adam Chapie, A.J. White and Kevin Boyle have made their way through UMass Lowell to the professional ranks without being drafted, and that is a trend that should continue long after this season.
The Hockey East Association is arguably the best conference in college hockey (although pundits from the National Collegiate Hockey Conference would disagree), so winning the conference tournament is always an impressive feat. Try winning it three times in five years and making to the championship game in the other two.
Only Maine has a longer streak of appearing in the Hockey East title game from 1987-93, and UMass Lowell could put itself in prime position to tie that record in the coming years with their consistency.
Speaking of consistency, the River Hawks have been a model for success outside of Hockey East as well. UMass Lowell has been ranked in the USCHO or USA Hockey Magazine polls for 114 consecutive weeks since Jan. 7, 2013. The team has won 21 or more games in all six seasons with Bazin at the helm, and the River Hawks have qualified for the NCAA tournament in five of those six years.
This year, the River Hawks posted a 27-11-3 record, advancing to the NCAA Northeast Regional Final, one game short of their second Frozen Four appearance. While 10 teams in this year’s tournament have NCAA titles in their trophy cases, UMass Lowell’s quest for its first championship was denied by Notre Dame – a team UMass Lowell entered the Regional Final 9-2-2 against since 2013 when the Fighting Irish joined Hockey East – in a 3-2 overtime contest on March 26 in Manchester, N.H.
With the end of the season comes the departure of a 99-win senior class.
Evan Campbell, Michael Kapla, Dylan Zink and Joe Gambardella move on from UMass Lowell – the latter three for the pros – while junior standout C.J. Smith has also made the jump to the NHL, forgoing his final season of eligibility.
This may set the team back next year, as the River Hawks lose four of their top five scorers and should look for scoring from younger players to replicate the third-highest scoring offense in the country. Regardless, with the way the team has performed over the last six seasons, it is time to give the River Hawks the attention they deserve.