The interview process for the head coaching position at UConn has concluded. UConn interim head coach David Berard, Boston College assistant coach Mike Cavanaugh and former Denver University head coach George Gwozdecky went through the interview process. There have been no negotiations, no offer and no decision that has been made regarding the position. There will be no more interviews conducted.
The most successful season in UConn Hockey history came during the most trying year the program had ever faced. Fresh off the announcement that their program would join Hockey East in two years; the Huskies faced elevated expectations under a widening spotlight. Since the 2008-2009 season, the Huskies had never retained the same coaching staff, until David Berard and Rich McKenna returned for the start of the 2012-13 campaign. With a full offseason to work with, Berard and McKenna set about bringing in their first incoming class. “I spoke the majority of the time with Coach Berard,” freshman defenseman Chris Bond said. “He talked about the changing culture. They were trying to bring in kids who would mold into that culture. The family and winning aspects were what I was looking for; I loved the school right away.”
The Huskies were trending upwards, as evidenced by the recently departed Cole Schneider, who had signed at the end of the year with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. “They used Cole to show the direction of the program,” standout freshman Kyle Huson recalled. “They wanted impact guys who could build for the future. It was very attractive to be able to come in and play as a freshman.”
Schneider was one of ten Huskies who would not return to the team for the start of the 2012-13 season; their spots replaced by the ten man freshman class. The Huskies were set to continue their improvement, but success would not come easily to start.
Things started differently for UConn, even before the team set foot on the ice. Each member arrived in early July, a month before they had normally arrived in years past, one of the changes imposed by the coaching staff. The extra time was beneficial to both freshman as well as veterans, including senior Captain Sean Ambrosie. “We got to know everyone, get a feel for each other,” Ambrosie said. “We gelled earlier and I think that helped us out later on.”
The early start was beneficial for the incoming freshman as well. “It was huge to get here. A lot of us hadn’t taken classes in 2-3 years,” Kyle Huson said. “To get in the weight room, on the same workout routine and build team chemistry was huge.”
After a tumultuous offseason, Ambrosie felt much more comfortable in his second year as team captain, helped in part by the addition of Alex Gerke to the captaincy role. “We tried to set a good example, put the time and work in. We tried to have some fun when we weren’t in school too,” Ambrosie said.
High expectations were set by the returning Huskies as well as the coaching staff, targeting team success as well as individual growth. “We knew we would be a good team. We had a good class coming in, so expectations were high,” sophomore winger Trevor Gerling said. Gerling was one of the Huskies set to explode onto the scene, part of the seven returning Huskies who would record career high point totals this season. “I wanted to be more responsible in our defensive zone and contribute more offensively,” said Gerling, who scored the second-most goals on the team this year. “We improved in our defensive zone and it allowed us to spend more time in the offensive zone and on the forecheck.”
The UConn season got off to a rocky start, as the Huskies went winless through their first five games, the only bright spot a being a tie against #8 Union in their home opener. After a 3-0 defeat on November 2nd at Niagara University, the Huskies had a team meeting with the coaching staff to figure out the direction the team was headed. “I think the first meeting we had was because we weren’t being responsible off the ice individually. We weren’t doing what we had to do to win hockey games,” Ambrosie recalls.
With a young team, the UConn staff was tasked with helping a number of rookies adjust to the college level. One of those was Skyler Smutek, a sophomore defenseman who had not been allowed to play the previous season due to an eligibility issue. “It was like re-learning how to play the position again,” Smutek said. “I had to compete and battle in the defensive zone. My only real goal was to get into the lineup; so it was unreal to be a part of the ride this season.”
Smutek was one of the eleven first year players to get ice time this season, a testament to the youth that was a driving force to the Huskies this season.
The adversity facing the UConn team would only increase after that point. After returning home from Niagara Head Coach Bruce Marshall would announce that he was taking an indefinite medical leave of absence, with Coach Berard to assume his responsibilities. Despite losing Marshall, the head coach at UConn for the past 25 years, Ambrosie felt the transition was smooth. “Coach Berard’s role didn’t change at all. When he was the assistant, he ran most of the systems and practice. The team bought into him and he did a tremendous job keeping us focused,” Ambrosie said.
A re-evaluation of the team’s strengths took place that about that same time. “We sat in the locker room and evaluated who we were as a team,” sophomore forward Brad Smith said. “We had speed as a team and wanted to incorporate that into our game.”
With Berard in control behind the bench, the Huskies won four of their next five games, including a road game against future Hockey East opponent Merrimack, as well as the program’s first sweep over the defending conference champion Air Force Falcons. “After the Niagara series, we could have just gone down, but we fought,” Ambrosie, who scored the game winning goal against Merrimack, said. “I think that was one of the nicest goals of my career. It was a great win, the best feeling of my career to that point. It was Coach Berard’s first win, so it was emotional; our class had been trying to do that for three years.”
The Huskies started rolling, playing good hockey heading into the Christmas break. “Our first five games were disappointing, but we could feel ourselves coming on heading into Christmas,” Ambrosie said.
Brant Harris was a key that was finding his form around Christmas. After finishing second on the team in scoring the previous season and attending development camp with the Washington Capitals, Harris started his junior season snake bitten. “I had to just keep plugging away. I was playing well, so I just had to keep going,” Harris said of his start.
Before the Christmas tournament, Harris had scored just one goal and one assist. From that point on, Harris scored 29 points in the final 24 games of the Huskies season, exploding to get the Huskies on track for a second half tear. The second half started strong again for Huskies, as they won their opening two games against Penn State before Bruce Marshall announced his resignation as Head Coach at UConn. Still, the Huskies didn’t blink and focusing on each game individually, even with an inter-state rivalry game against #4 ranked Quinnipiac in Hamden looming large. “It was extremely difficult not to look ahead to Quinnipiac, but the coaches kept us in the present,” Ambrosie said.
Riding a national best 16 game unbeaten streak, the Bobcats got all they could handle from the Huskies before emerging with a 2-1 win. The Huskies came away disappointed but used their effort as a building block for their play moving forward. After taking three points from AIC, the Huskies were still searching to find the last piece of the puzzle to make a run. The Huskies came away from their next series with Rochester with a road split, but there was no satisfaction in that. The Huskies had a hostile week of practice before playing a home-and-home series against the Bentley Falcons.
Unfortunately for Bentley, they caught the Huskies at the wrong, as the Huskies beat them on the road before crushing them at home the following night 9-0. “I never thought I would be on the winning side of a game like that,” Ambrosie said. “It was a statement game for us; that was when everyone got scared of us.” The Huskies had come full circle from the beginning of their season and now believed they were capable of anything.
“There was no doubt from Christmas on about what we could do. We were consistent, we were rolling. Nobody could stop us,” Kyle Huson said.
“It started from Coach Berard. He put it in our minds that we can win,” Smith said. “Coach Berard did a good job of instilling that in us,” Gerling said. “We weren’t the best or the deepest team but we trusted each other.”
The UConn locker room was a family, perhaps nothing showed that better than when Chris Bond went down against Army February 22nd due to a vicious hit to his head. Bond suffered a broken and dislocated jaw and spent the night in the hospital with his father, UConn trainer Ed Blair and David Berard. “I don’t know how many other coaches would have done that. Ed and Coach Berard were there until 5 in the morning and they didn’t need to be there. They were there because of how much they care about the guys here, it left a big impression,” Bond said.
“In all of my years of playing, this was the closest group of guys I’ve ever played with,” Smith said of the family feeling.
The Huskies went 4-1-1 from the Bentley game to the end of the regular season, finishing fourth in Atlantic Hockey and securing the program’s first ever opening round bye. “We locked in on it. To get the first round bye was a very rewarding feeling. It was something to be proud of,” Ambrosie said.
The Huskies would host Robert Morris and once again were not favored to win the series despite being the higher seed and at home. “Everyone stayed focused. Any guy would do anything to get a win, we had total confidence in ourselves,” Ambrosie recollected.
The Huskies locked up the series in two games, sending them to Rochester for the second time in three years with a legitimate chance to win a conference championship. “It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had,” Ambrosie said. The Huskies would meet Mercyhurst University in the semifinals, falling 4-1 and ending an incredible season. “There were a lot of hugs and handshakes, a lot of goodbyes,” Ambrosie said.
“We got written off a lot of nights, but we proved people wrong,” Gerling said of the Huskies season.
There remain unanswered questions as the Huskies look towards from the future. The University looks for a permanent coach as the team transitions into college hockey’s best conference. David Berard will be among the candidates and has the confidence of his players behind him. “As a hockey player you want to win every game. There are times where you don’t want to win for a coach, you want to just win for the guys in the room,” Brad Smith said. “We know how much time and passion Coach Berard put in. He pushed us to play as hard as we could. We wanted to win for him, from top to bottom, we were all in.”
Coach Berard said in an interview before the playoffs “If you show your players you care about them, you can push them to any limit.”
The Huskies felt that commitment and reacted to it. “That sums it up,” Ambrosie said of the quote. “We saw his passion and the time he put in. Everything he did was unbelievable. He spent nights at the rink putting work in. He would’ve done anything for us, we saw that and that’s why we put in so much.”
With Berard behind the bench, the Huskies went 19-10-3, secured the program’s best non-conference record and led UConn to their best record in the Division 1 era. A culture change started when David Berard and Rich McKenna came to UConn, where complacency was replaced with hunger and a family was created. Through adversity and heart, UConn overcame to conceive their program’s most successful season ever and leave a bright path for the future.
The decision will be up to UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel, alongside Senior Associate Athletic Director Doug Gnodtke who oversees the Men’s Hockey program as the sports administrator. Manuel knows what he is looking for in UConn’s next head coach and has taken careful steps to find the candidate with those characteristics. “Obviously we’re looking for someone who is going to help as we elevate the program. Help bring that success not only next year in Atlantic Hockey but in Hockey East and help us develop the program with scholarships and do some of the things we are doing to transition,” Manuel said.
As important as the on-ice success will be for the next coach, academic success is equally as important for Manuel. “I want coaches who have had success developing student-athletes or have been a part of a program that has done that and coaches who are successful with the academic side with their student athletes as well. It’s not just what they’ll do on the ice; it’s how the program and the coaches have been with their student athletes in the classroom and off the ice,” Manuel said.
Among the challenges facing Manuel is how to gauge a candidate’s character, as well as separating a single person’s success from that of an entire coaching staff. “You have to looking into their background. We have to do our due diligence and talk to people who know different candidates confidentially to get a sense of who they are as people,” Manuel said. “You ask them questions in the interview process to gauge their response to certain questions or situations to get them to provide feedback on how to deal with those things.”
Separating a coach’s individual accomplishments from that of a team is even more difficult, especially when looking at an assistant coach. “The head coach gets all the credit but a head coach can’t be successful without great assistant coaches and great student athletes,” said Manuel. “Obviously with an assistant coach it is harder to determine how much they impact the success. You have to talk to the head coach, talk to the people that would know the program who would understand the impact of that particular person. So it’s a little harder with an assistant because they aren’t the ones making the final decisions but you can get really good feedback from people in the process and you can also, in the interview process, get a good sense of whether or not an assistant coach has done the things to prepare them to be successful.”
Outside of the feedback coming to Manuel from his team, the student-athletes at UConn have had a chance to voice their opinion. “I take into account what they would like to see in their head coach,” said Manuel. “But student-athletes are not involved in interviewing candidates. I met with some of the student-athletes and we talked about and received their perspective of what characteristics they would like to see in their head coach.”
Manuel has not spoken and will not speak with any recruits for the hockey program about how their commitment would be effected if David Berard was not hired. Berard is still acting as the Head Coach until told otherwise and is considered a serious candidate for the full time position. “I’m very proud of the team. Obviously David has done a great job and is candidate for the position. I am very impressed with him. I have gotten a chance to see him over the last five months or so lead that program and we will interview him as a part of the process and make a decision I believe that will take us through this year and into playing in Hockey East,” Manuel said of Berard.
Manuel expects a four to five year commitment on the contract of the next head coach in order to build a winning program at UConn. . “In my mind you need, as we move forward, is somebody to come in with a commitment from us of about 4-5 years. It’s not something where I expect us to win the conference tournament the first year in hockey east. When you are building a program I need to know and whoever is selected as the coach needs to know that there is a long term commitment to them to build a program the right way,” Manuel explained.
On a final note, Manuel explained that UConn made a four year commitment to Hockey East to play at the XL Center in Hartford. “That helps us with marketing and selling the program. It helps with fan base coming in and the experience of our team playing in a former NHL and now an AHL facility. It is a great facility to play hockey in and it gives us time to really go into more detail and to plan what a facility on campus would cost as well as to start to develop a plan, a financing and a fundraising plan to build anything that we would need to build on campus.”
Come Senior Night, UConn will honor arguably the most influential senior class in the history of the program. The five young men set to graduate this spring have been the driving force behind unparalleled growth in the Husky hockey program, igniting a culture change and setting UConn into uncharted levels of success. Sean Ambrosie,Garrett Bartus, Evan Carriere, Alex Gerke and Tom Janosz comprise a group that has set all-time marks individually, but their contributions to their team casts a reach that extends far beyond the record books.
Sean Ambrosie has spent half of his UConn career with a “C” stitched to his sweater, growing into a respected leader and feared opponent over a storied four year career. When Senior Night arrives, Ambrosie will sit four points shy of UConn’s all-time division-one record, three games away from the career games played record while having already set the career assists mark earlier in his senior campaign. A Minnesota native, Ambrosie arrived at UConn an energetic speedster with offensive upside but still in need of some work.
“For Sean, it was about slowing his game down. His speed coming in was great, but he needed to adjust his game to make it a real asset,” former Head Coach Bruce Marshall said of Ambrosie. “Sean brings energy to the rink every day, he competes hard and that’s what his teammates respect about him.”
It was under Coach Marshall where Ambrosie was appointed Captain, a learning experience that helped shape Ambrosie into the player he is today. Interim Head Coach David Berard has seen Ambrosie blossom since becoming comfortable in that leadership role.
“My first impression of Sean was that he was still learning how to be a leader and what it took to be effective,” said Berard, who joined UConn during Ambrosie’s first year as Captain. “You have to learn that there are lines you can’t cross as a Captain, you have to set an example as well as hold your teammates accountable, it’s difficult to do.”
Coach Berard credits Ambrosie with understanding the culture that the coaching staff was trying to create at UConn and influencing others to get on board with the direction of the team. Ambrosie’s leadership style isn’t a vocal one, but a lead-by-example approach noticed by his teammates every time he steps on the ice.
“He comes to work every practice and he brings it every game,” said freshman forward Joe Birmingham.
Ambrosie’s attitude is encapsulated in a game based on speed, size and skill and has led him to the top of UConn’s all-time scoring list.
“He’s got great speed, one of the fastest on our team, and he has great ability down low. He’s agile, he always has his head up and he makes great passes,” said linemate Jordan Sims.
Ambrosie has led the Huskies every year of his career in power play scoring, but his improved play at even strength is an indication of his overall game rounding into top form.
“We’ve worked with Sean a lot on being more assured of shooting the puck and using his speed and size more effectively. He was more of a passer last year, but this year he is a real threat to score,” said Berard. “He’s just a more sound player. He’s been our most consistent player all year and he’s having the year you expect a senior captain to have.”
The persona of Sean Ambrosie off the ice differs greatly from his reputation as a player. Ambrosie’s affinity for spontaneously wrestling his teammates has earned him quite the reputation.
“He’s the biggest twelve year old we’ve ever met,” said sophomore winger Trevor Gerling with a laugh.
Brad Smith has lived with Ambrosie for the past two years and has a unique bond with him.
“He’s a character. As much trouble as we give him, he’ll do anything for his teammates, he’ll be the first guy to help you out with something,” said Smith.
For Ambrosie, his favorite memory came in 2011, playing in Rochester for the Atlantic Hockey tournament during his sophomore season. The Captain is well aware of the foundation he helped change for the UConn program.
“We won seven games my freshman year and I think our class was key in helping turn the ship around. Even though we won’t get to play in Hockey East, we all feel the reward.”
It took Garrett Bartus until his junior season to cement himself as the greatest goaltender UConn has seen in their history. The St. Louis native has broken nearly every goaltending record for the Huskies, despite joining the team halfway through his freshman season. Bartus has set the precedent for future goaltenders, like sophomore Bobby Segin, who has tried to learn everything he can from his fellow netminder.
“I’ve always tried to play on his side during practice and use him as my teacher,” said Segin.
Bartus’ abilities have stemmed from a unique attitude, one that started as soon as he arrived on campus under Coach Marshall.
“Garrett accepted an opportunity in an adverse situation. He competes hard every single game and every single practice; you knew you would get everything he had,” Marshall said.
That same attitude does not go unnoticed amongst his teammates.
“He’s really competitive; he hates to get scored on in practice. He just has a winning attitude,” said sophomore center Ryan Tyson.
“He carries the same edge that all the greats carry, he’s a great competitor,” freshman Tyler Cooke said of the veteran netminder.
Bartus has made life easy on the young team playing in front of him and has the full confidence of the rest of the Husky team.
“The team we have, we’re going to score goals. We know he’s back there to back us up and get us a win,” saidTrevor Gerling.
Coach Berard has worked closely with Bartus, helping develop his game further over the past two seasons.
“Garrett has great athleticism, good size; he’s a presence in net,” said Berard. “He wants to get better. We’ve worked on improving how he reads the play and being more patient in net, not solely relying on his athleticism.”
Like any goalie, Bartus has his quirks, including the way his equipment hangs in the locker room.
“In the locker room, we hang the pants on the left and the chest protector on the right, that’s the way it has to be. Sometimes I’ll flip it and Bartie will always change it back. He’s only caught me in the act once,” Bobby Segin said.
During a tumultuous senior season, Coach Berard and the rest of the Huskies have seen Bartus’ character shine through.
“He’s dealt with adversity in a different role this year. It took maturity, confidence and character to get through it, it’s been really positive,” said Coach Berard.
The play of Garrett Bartus throughout his career has been one of the most critical aspects in the Huskies turn around and his name will continue to sit atop the list of goaltending accomplishments for years to come.
Evan Carriere’s success during his senior season is the result of tenacity, perseverance and commitment, the same principles that define his on-ice game. One of the most vocal leaders in the Husky lineup, Carriere has finally established himself as an everyday player for UConn, making life a little easier on Coach Berard.
“Evan has been one of our most reliable overall players this season. You know every game he is going to compete, execute and bring emotion,” said Coach Berard.
The animated winger has spent time on a line with Shawn Pauly this season, setting a positive example for younger players.
“He’s got a great work ethic, really good hockey sense and is a huge penalty killer for us. He’s really an unsung hero on our team,” said Pauly.
Those same sentiments are echoed throughout the Husky lineup.
“He blocks nearly every shot that comes his way. He’s just a hardnosed guy, he’s got a big body and protects the puck well,” sophomore center Joe Budnick said.
Coach Marshall appreciated the unconventional aspect that Carriere brings to the lineup every night.
“Evan isn’t your typical player and you need guys like that. You need guys who have the passion and heart to get it done. That’s what Evan brought,” Marshall said.
As much as the UConn lineup will miss Carriere next year, Evan will miss the stability UConn hockey provided over his four years.
“I’m going to miss coming to the rink every day, knowing that the boys will be there. It adds structure.”
Carriere will leave UConn at the conclusion of his finest year as a Husky, with one more thing left to check off his list, a championship.
Alex Gerke joined Sean Ambrosie as a Captain of the Huskies this season, leading a young defensive corps while maintaining his status as an elite defenseman. After putting up 25 points in his junior season, Gerke’s overall numbers dipped during his senior year, but Coach Berard believes Gerke’s overall game went to another level.
“We’ve relied on Alex a lot this season and asked him to do more. He hasn’t had quite the offensive season as the year before, but I think he’s had a greater impact on our team,” Coach Berard said.
Gerke has captained a defensive corps with three first year players in it every night and has excelled in his leadership role. Similar to Sean Ambrosie, Gerke is more of a lead-by-example player, but has been known to speak out when needed.
“When he speaks, guys listen and he is always right on target with what needs to be said,” Berard said of Gerke. Like every player, Gerke had to adjust his game early in his college career.
“Alex came in with a bit of an edge, but when he learned how to manage his game better, that’s when he became a really special player,” said Marshall.
As was the case in his junior season, Gerke has once again played side by side with a freshman, Tyler Cooke, on UConn’s top pairing for all but 5 games this season.
“He’s a smart player in all three zones. He’s really good with the puck and always makes the right play,” Cooke said of his defensive partner.
Freshman defenseman Chris Bond knows Gerke well off the ice, sitting next to the UConn captain in the locker room.
“He’s really funny, the kind of guy you love to hang out with,” Bond said of his neighbor.
Gerke’s on ice vision is one of his greatest attributes, while Coach Berard also pointed out the defenseman’s superb timing while on the power play, as well as praising his aggressiveness and ability to close on an opponent defensively.
“He’s had a great career and played a lot of hockey here,” Berard said.
Gerke shares the same desire to go out with an Atlantic Hockey championship and will miss the everyday routine of UConn hockey.
“Coming to the rink every day is your rock. Whether you need to blow off steam or whatever the case may be, you know the boys will be there.” Gerke said.
Gerke will leave UConn as one of the finest all-around defenseman the school has seen in their history and has set an example for those behind him to follow.
Nearly everyone who knows Tom Janosz will crack a wide grin when they think of the senior defenseman, with the exception of those who have had the misfortune of playing against him.
“I love playing with Janosz, you never know when he’s going to hammer someone,” said sophomore defensemanSkyler Smutek.
“He’s one of the most physical defensemen on our team. He’s being aggressive, his gaps are good, and he is a great senior leader,” said junior forward Brant Harris.
The hero of the 2011 quarterfinal matchup against Mercyhurst, Janosz is a bit of a legend around the UConn locker room.
“We had a tradition where every guy would say what his favorite UConn memory was and Bobby Segin, who was a freshman at the time, said Janosz’s overtime winner, which he wasn’t even here for,” Marshall recalled.
Despite not having overwhelming speed, Janosz has adjusted to play opponents closely in transition, taking away time and space and bulldozing enemy players every game.
“He’s pound for pound the toughest guy on our team,” said Berard.
Despite the tough exterior, there isn’t a more colorful player in the Husky locker room.
“He’s always playing games on his phone, joking around about leveling up or beating his high score,” freshman defenseman Kyle Huson said.
“He’ll always try to make sure you have a good time,” said Cody Sharib.
Janosz recalls his favorite career moment as UConn’s outdoor game in 2011 and hopes simply to be remembered as a player who showed up every day and worked hard. Just like the other four seniors, Janosz will miss the rest of the team come graduation.
“I’m going to miss the friends and friendships I’ve made here, that has been the most rewarding part of this,” Janosz said.
As UConn bids adieu to the five seniors on Friday night, it will honor five players who shook the foundation of a program and sent it to a level that they never believed they would see it achieve in their time at UConn. Their first season saw the Huskies win seven games and just three years later the five seniors have helped win more than double that total with games still remaining. Ambrosie, Bartus, Carriere, Gerke and Janosz may not make up the most glamorous graduating class UConn has ever produced, but there is no doubting that there has never been a more important one.
Trevor Gerling opened the scoring for UConn against Sacred Heart on November 9th, 2012, when a shot from the right side found its way past Steven Legatto and into the back of the net. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous goal; it didn’t end up being the game winner, nor was it a major milestone for Gerling. But what made that goal so special was the fact that Skyler Smutek was manning the blueline behind Gerling when the puck went in. For two best friends, who had traveled across the country to play college hockey together, played with and against each other for nearly a decade, and spent every summer since they met honing their skills alongside each other, it was a milestone in every sense of the word. There are few families in sports that have bonds as strong as those created in hockey and the Seattle-born blueliner and winger are a perfect example.
Gerling and Smutek — known fondly as “Gerls” and “Smutty” to their friends and teammates — first met in the spring between their 11- and 12-year-old seasons while trying out a spring team. After making the team, the two of them began a friendship that would span many years and many more miles. Smutek and Gerling played their first full winter together as Bantams for the Kent Valley Selects in Washington. It was at this time where Smutek remembers the closeness starting, as the two also lived in the same apartment complex.
“It was really easy to bond since we lived close by,” he said. “Every day Trevor’s Dad would bring us to practice and my Mom would come and pick us up at the end.”
After finishing their time in Kent, the two switched associations and played in Seattle for three years, spending every winter and summer together playing hockey until the age of 18. Smutek went to play in Quesnel, British Columbia for the Millionaires junior team, while Gerling played for the Langley Chiefs in the British Columbia Hockey League. The two were separated by nearly 400 miles and 8 hours of driving time, but still stayed in contact, helping one another adjust to life as a junior hockey player.
“It was different,” Gerling recalled, “we helped each other out in different ways, just talking to each other throughout the year.”
The two only played four times in their three seasons in the BCHL, and didn’t have their first game until their sophomore seasons when Langley traveled to battle the Millionaires. The first game was a memorable one, especially for Gerling. Smutek and the Millionaires were leading 3-2 with fewer than 2 minutes to play and on the powerplay when Gerling skated onto the puck at center ice with only Smutek to beat. Gerling made a beautiful play to chip the puck by a retreating Smutek and scored the game-tying goal. The Millionaires ended up winning the game, but Gerling had the personal bragging rights.
Gerling and the Cheifs were the much better overall team, and proved it in their next two games against the Millionaires, winning 7-1 in Quesnel later that season as well as dominating 8-1 the following year. With just one meeting remaining between the two friends, it was Smutek who evened things up against Gerling and Langley. Both Gerling and Smutek were the captains of their respective clubs when they met for the final time in. After 60 minutes of hockey the Millionaires and Chiefs had battled to a 4-4 tie and headed to overtime. Smutek picked up a loose puck behind the Millionaires net and headed up the far wing where he came face to face with Gerling. Smutek chipped the puck past his childhood pal and skated towards the middle of the ice before ripping a backhander into the back of the cage. Score settled.
It had been four games full of heated moments, one of which had put the two at odds on the ice.
“One game a huge scrum broke out, and the both of us being captains had to talk to the referee to make sure all of the right penalties were called. We both felt we were in the right, so things got heated,” Gerling said. But hockey never drove a wedge in between their friendship.
“There’s always some friendly chirping, and every chance I got I wanted to finish my check on him. My coaches knew we were buddies, so I wanted to make sure they didn’t think I was taking it easy on him,” Smutek said.
“We spent a lot of time against each other on the powerplay and on the penalty kill and the battling got heated, but there was never a wedge between us because of that,” Gerling added.
Gerling committed to UConn in 2009, during his second year of junior hockey after former Husky assistant Joe Dumais had made his pitch to the young forward.
“I made a few trips to UConn, but I kind of knew what to expect from the players, the coaches and the campus,” Gerling said. He was ahead of the game because Jordan Sims, a BCHL alum already at UConn, told Trevor about the hockey program as well as the school aspect of life.
Smutek was not far behind, but things may have turned out a little different for the young defenseman if not for his good friend.
“At the time Trevor committed, I had only been talking to the Air Force Academy, but Trevor mentioned to Coach Dumais that I was available as a defenseman. I got a call from Dumais that summer and he came to watch me play at Quesnel. I was committed to UConn before I even flew down. I had the chance to play college hockey, and especially with your best friend, not many people get that chance,” Smutek said.
A delay in eligibility held Smutek out his first season, but the two friends, now roommates, are seeing regular ice time as Huskies this season, and living with each other across the country hasn’t been a change at all.
“It’s been a little surreal actually, back home he spends half his time at my house and I spend half of my time at his, so it hasn’t been an issue. It’s like having a brother,” Smutek said.
There are adjustments to make in moving across the country for both, but it’s something they’ve done well.
“For me, it’s the snow storms and the hurricanes; the weather is much more extreme. I miss my family back home, but I love our team, we have a great room here,” Gerling said.
For a couple of guys who know each other so well, it seems to only be a matter of time until the on-ice production comes.
The two have each other scouted pretty well, yet another validation of the bond the two have formed over nearly ten years of friendship.
“Trevor has a lot of skill; his hands are some of the best on the team. Once he really gets comfortable out there he can put a lot of points up,” Smutek said. “I see myself as a puck moving defenseman. I think I can get shots through and contribute to the offense. I’m doing my best to transition from juniors and improve the defensive side of my game.”
“Smutty is an offensive presence, he moves the puck really well and he loves the physical part of the game,” Gerling said. “I feel I have offensive talent, but I’m just trying to keep things simple, create with speed and playmaking.”
It’s a friendship that has stood the test of time and distance, as well as a healthy dose of competition, but when Gerling seems to find Smutek on a blind pass, it’s more than just luck; he knows he’ll be there.
We spoke with UConn’s newest recruit Austin Azurdia this past week about his commitment to Connecticut. The native of Wenatchee Washington is currently a member of the Langley Rivermen of the BCHL and will join the Huskies this coming season. You can here the full interview here as well as Azurdia’s most famous highlight here! Thanks folks, remember to tune into WHUS.org for all UConn hockey games and follow Goal Mouth Radio on twitter for everything UConn Hockey.
There was a time in Dan Naurato’s life where he thought he had had enough of hockey. He even went as far as to take 2 years off from the sport entirely while in high school, however, when the UConn Huskies step onto the ice this upcoming season, Naurato will be standing behind the bench as a full-time volunteer assistant coach, standing behind former teammates and new pupils. The Michigan native will be a non-traditional voice on the Husky coaching staff this season and will have an incredibly vast amount of experience in which to pull from. The recent graduate played 79 career games over four years for the Huskies and has undoubtedly the most unique perspective of the rapidly changing UConn hockey program.
Naurato never dreamed of playing in the NHL, his goal was to always play Division1 college hockey. After winning a state championship as a part of Detroit Central Catholic High School, Naurato moved to Massachusetts to play for the South Shore Kings of the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL). It was there that he drew the attention of former UConn assistant Glenn Stewart, who asked Naurato to come down to UConn for a tour. Naurato visited Storrs in November of 2007 and committed to UConn just two weeks after his visit. When Naurato arrived in Storrs for his freshman campaign, he became a part of a culture that, in retrospect, was not where it needed to be for the team to be successful. Now four years removed from his rookie campaign Naurato was careful to choose the correct words to describe the state of the team in 2008. “We had a good group of guys, we had fun, but we weren’t a great hockey team. We didn’t know what hard work was. We didn’t know what it meant to be 100% dedicated to your team.” Naurato pushed on, improving as a player over his first two years, and playing nearly 60 games over his first two campaigns. Hopeful to keep the progress going into the following year, his junior season ended before it had seemingly begun. Just 12 games in, Naurato’s year was ended by a serious concussion, one that sent up a red flag with the team doctor “I went to see Doctor Anderson and he told me that it was my choice to play again the next season, but if I got concussed one more time he was going to pull the plug.” Dan recalled. Hockey players are a different breed, which is why after 3 concussions and two shoulder surgeries Naurato decided his senior season was worth the risk and was on the ice when the Huskies opened the year. He wouldn’t even last as long as the previous season. After only eight games Naurato’s career would end with his fourth concussion in three years. “In one sense I was prepared for it, but it takes a long time to realize you’re never going to play again. That doesn’t really sink in at first.”
It was the start of a rocky road back to health again. “I was distant at first. I stayed home for the entirety of the month long winter break; I was away from the team and the room. Even when I first got back to school it was difficult to sit in the stands and watch practices. But the coaches and the players picked me up, they kept me involved.” A couple more moths passed before Naurato decided he wanted to become a part of the team again, and approached the coaching staff with the idea of joining them as a player-coach. “They were extremely welcoming to the idea. They were excited for me to be a part of the team again.” The sentiments were echoed by his former teammates, who were very receptive to Dan’s transition. “The players all took to it. They were very respectful of me and what I was trying to do. I think that they were happy for me to be a part of the team again. It wasn’t much of an oddity because I was an older guy to begin with and I had been in there skates, so I could relate to them.” Naurato had become part of a committed coaching staff at UConn, something that had not been prevalent during his years as a player. “It’s difficult to have a coaching staff that changes every year. You would develop a relationship with that coach and at the end of the year they would leave. Then new coaches would come in and you would have to learn how they run the show. That doesn’t take days or weeks, but more like months.” Naurato credits David Berard and Rich McKenna with igniting a culture change that has set UConn on a totally different path. “Right from the time Coach Berard and Coach McKenna were hired you could sense the difference. When Coach Berard was hired he called every player on the team and talked to them for an hour, just so he could get to know them and vice-versa. I respected that a lot.” Naurato continued to describe the positive impacts that McKenna and Berard instilled within the team. “They hold everyone accountable. For the way you act at the rink and away from it. In the way you hold yourself as a person, they raised the standard in that.”
Naurato started his coaching career with just two games left to go in the 2011-12 regular season, the Huskies were locked in a two game series with playoff positioning on the line. “The first thing I noticed was coaching was way more stressful. When you’re behind the bench, you’re jumping up and down at every little thing. It wasn’t like that when you were playing.” Even as a lifelong player, Naurato says he has gained a great amount of respect for what coaches do. “As a player, you don’t see the behind the scenes stuff that they do. There’s a purpose to everything, everything they say has so much thought behind it. I always knew they worked hard, but I never knew they worked this hard.”
The juxtaposition of the experiences as a player and a coach is a unique aspect that Naurato hopes he can carry over to help this year’s Husky team. “I know how players feel and I know what the coaches are thinking. I’m not going to be a disciplinarian, I won’t scream and call people out during practice, but I can help reinforce what a coach is saying and talk to players to make sure everyone is on the same page.” Coming into his first full season as a member of the staff, Naurato thinks he’ll be used in a utility role. Doing things like video work and being someone the players can come to and be comfortable talking to.
Naurato can’t be sure what the future holds for him, but he’s hopeful about it. “I guess the best case scenario would be to end up as a Division 1 coach, it really doesn’t matter where as long as it’s the best place for me to succeed.” For now, UConn’s newest assistant coach can only hope that the players buy into the system, do things the right way and come together for an Atlantic Hockey championship and NCAA playoff berth. In Naurato UConn has gained an invaluable asset to bridge the gap between players and coaches and help improve a team on the rise.
It’s going to be hard to ignore Brant Harris this coming season. After posting 33 points in his sophomore campaign there was no doubt Harris was ready to burst onto the college hockey scene during his junior year. Ironically enough, Harris would make himself known at the NHL level first, when he accepted the Washington Capital’s invitation to participate in development camp this past July. As if his potential wasn’t scary enough already, Harris believes his experience playing beside the likes of Tom Wilson and Filip Forsberg can help him perfect his game. Sporting an “A” on his jersey this coming season, Harris is ready to lead the Huskies to another level.
Brant Harris wasn’t expecting a call from any NHL teams this summer, but that’s not to say that he didn’t know they were watching. Harris works with a family advisor who had been in contact with a “few” NHL teams who had interest in the Saskatchewan native. Just two weeks before the start of Capitals camp, a member of the scouting staff contacted Harris’ family advisor who then relayed the message to Brant. “It was out of the blue for me, I had no idea that the Capitals were interested in me even though I knew a few teams were asking around” Harris recalled. Harris then called UConn assistant coach David Berard to let him know of the news. “They were really excited for me and also for the team because it was great to have them represented.” Intertwined in that excitement must have also been a feeling of pride, as it was the Capitals who found Harris, independent of the coaching staff, and were impressed enough by his play to extend the invite. “As far as I know the coaches didn’t talk to anyone, or send tape of me out to teams. It was the Capitals who took the initiative to reach out and find me.”
So it was off to America’s capital for Harris, who arrived in DC the Saturday before camp was scheduled to begin. He was put up in a hotel with just a two minute walk from the Kettler Iceplex; the Capitals practice facility and the site for the week long camp. Harris roomed with Matthew Bailey, another junior free agent out of the University of Anchorage-Alaska. “All the guys down there are really easy to get to know. It’s always like that with hockey players, especially those who play in college. It’s such a small group of players who play in college, so you’ve always either know a guy’s teammate, played against them or played with them at some point. It’s always a fun time, always easy going.” Harris remembers former Atlantic Hockey foes in CJ Chartrain out of Niagara University, Air Force standout Adam McKenzie; Mercyhurst forwards Nardo Nagtzaam and Daniel O’Donoghue as well as former Robert Morris goaltender Brooks Ostergard, who would stone him on a breakaway in one of the nightly scrimmages during the week.
The camp opened Sunday with a team meeting to outline the week ahead, a first step in mentally preparing the participants in what was to be an exceptionally grueling week. Monday started the physical testing, both on ice and off ice tests. “The off-ice testing was a lot different than normal. It wasn’t just about how many reps you could put up on a bench press. It was things like flexibility tests and seeing how your body reacted under different circumstances in order to see where you were at physically. It wasn’t anything I had done before” Harris remembers. “There were only four on-ice tests, tests to measure your overall speed, agility, top speed and your stop and start.” At the end of the tests, Harris received excellent reviews. “They said I already had NHL speed, it was just a matter of putting my entire game together.”
An early workout and practice opened camp for the invitees. After that it was another practice followed by a scrimmage between the two groups about 3 hours after that. “It was an incredibly intense week. A lot of guys ended up getting injured because of the amount of stress that we put our bodies through.” Those same injuries prevented Harris from being able to play with regular line mates. After starting the week with Thomas Di Pauli and Greg Miller before injuries opened up opportunities to play with the likes of first round pick Tom Wilson and Camden Wojtala. Harris felt that playing with Wilson was a good complement to his own style of play. “He’s a really physical guy also, so it was nice to be able to get in there and bang bodies with a guy who plays the same way.” As excellent as Harris’ short term teammates were, he played against competition equally as impressive. Filip Forsberg was the 11th overall pick in this past years NHL draft and was Harris’ counterpart on several shifts. “It was great to play against him. He’s a much younger player but he’s unbelievably skilled. He’s got the skill part of his game down pat and it’s great to see a guy that skilled be able to use his frame as effectively as he does.” Harris said of the Swedish star. It was those aspects of Forsberg’s game that Harris thinks he can begin to phase into his own skill set, but he would get some help along the way from excellent coaches.
New Caps coach Adam Oates, Hershey Bears head coach Mark French and Reading Royals head coach Terry Ruskowski were among the coaches at the camp. Harris recognized the value in learning from coaches like this, “With Adam Oates, you just listen closely to everything he says. He’s such an intelligent guy and he finds things that you wouldn’t even think of to make you a better player. It was really awesome to work with him.” Harris also offered a different perspective on what it was like to work with pro coaches rather than college coaches, “The real difference is that the pro coaches don’t have as much invested in this as college coaches do. These guys only have us for a week and it isn’t their team to lose, so it’s hard for them to replicate the fire of coaching their own team.” The same can be said for those players attending the camp, according to Harris, “It’s tough to just jump in. During summer you’re in workout mode and you’re out of midseason form. So you play a more positional, smart game. It’s a lot different than the college run and gun game.”
After all was said and done, Harris had to feel good leaving camp. He had scored a goal, made himself known and done all he could to stand out. “We had individual meetings at the end of the week with the scouting staff. They said they noticed me every time I was on the ice and liked that I already had NHL caliber speed. They’re going to be watching me this season, so I guess I’ll have to be on my toes every game” Harris finished with a laugh. “Overall, I just tried to take in as much as I could. It was overwhelming, but a really good experience to have. I got to see how I measured up against top guys and what I need to improve upon.”
Harris now knows at least one of the teams that have eyes on him, but he knows they won’t be the only one. If the past two seasons are any indications of what is to come, things are looking good for both the Connecticut hockey program as well as Harris himself. Any professional team that ends up with Harris on their roster in the future should get a player that has the ability to hit as hard as anyone on their roster, while playing with a skill level that isn’t nearly as commonplace. As camp came to a close, Harris saw current Capitals like John Carlson, Mike Ribiero and Wojtek Wolski. If all goes to plan, Harris will end up playing alongside them, or maybe even against them.
For most of us, the dog days of summer have arrived. Hockey news is slow, ice is scarce and that glorious date in October just doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. For former UConn winger Marcello Ranallo, things may just be heating up. Ranallo graduated this past spring with a major in geography as well as with the Connecticut record for total games played in a career, amassing 148 appearances. After that, it was back out to Burnaby, British Columbia to continue his hockey career. A lifelong Canucks fan and hailing from the same hometown as the legendary Joe Sakic, pulling on a New Jersey Devils jersey was admittedly a little strange. But if things work out for the playmaking winger, it could end up being a perfect fit.
Ranallo’s road to Devils development camp was slightly different than most others. It wasn’t the Devils at first that found Ranallo, but rather Ranallo who went looking for the Devils. Working with a colleague in USA Hockey, Ranallo was able to put himself on the Devils’ radar during his senior season. Before the season began, the Devils told Ranallo that they would come up to Storrs to watch him a few times, but didn’t tell him when. “So I had to be pretty good every night, because I had no idea when they would be there” Marcello said. Ranallo must have impressed, because New Jersey’s Director of Scouting David Conte was the next person to get in touch, extending the invite to join the team for camp. All of this activity was unknown to the coaching staff at Connecticut; it wasn’t until Ranallo got in touch with assistant coach David Berard that the University knew of anything. Nevertheless, Ranallo was in New Jersey on July 15th, ready to get his start in professional hockey.
Upon arrival in the Garden State, the Devils greeted the camp attendees in the lobby of a hotel about 20 minutes away from the Prudential Center in Newark. All hands were on deck to welcome to kids to camp, David Conte, Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello and the rest of the Devils scouting and equipment staff outlined what the week would be like. Scrimmages, on and off ice workouts and a New York Yankees game would headline a tough week. It would be an early wakeup call for Ranallo the next morning; he was in group one scheduled to take the ice at 9 am. Until then, there was some time to get to know some of the guys at the camp. Although Ranallo didn’t know anyone personally before going down to the camp, he was lucky enough to room with David Friedmann, an incoming freshman into the Robert Morris program by way of Toronto. “We had a lot of stuff in common; most hockey players do, so we talked a lot about Atlantic Hockey, about both teams and players. He’s just coming into the college experience and I had been through four years, so I was able to give him some advice about what it’s like” Ranallo remembers.
Monday morning started with an on-ice workout, followed by lunch, and then a scrimmage “The on-ice stuff was intense, a ton of skating, it was tough” Ranallo recalls. Lunch followed, and then the day wrapped up with the first scrimmage of camp. Standing behind the bench for Ranallo’s team were two Devils legends in Sergei Brylin and Scott Stevens. “It was cool to have a couple of guys with that much experience behind the bench” Marcello remembers. Ranallo wouldn’t play with any set lines during the scrimmages, due to the uneven amount of forwards on his team but he remembers a couple of guys he enjoyed playing with. “I had some good shifts with David Wohlberg (Michigan). He makes really good decisions and that makes it really easy to play with him.” Former Boston College star Joe Whitney was another guy Ranallo shared a line with. “He’s really skilled, very fast, another guy who makes it easy for you to play with.” Ranallo offered up his thoughts on a few other standouts at camp, both Devils draft picks and fellow invitees stood out. “Jon Merrill was a top guy; he just thinks the game at an entirely different level. I was on his team and was in awe watching him during the scrimmages. In practice going one on one with him was really tough.” Another couple of Devils draft picks stuck in Ranallo’s mind as well. “Scott Wedgewood was something else. He was really tough to beat. Also Stefan Matteau has a ton of raw talent. You give him a few years to develop in juniors and he’s going to be a really good NHL player.” Northeastern goaltender Chris Rawlings wasn’t beaten often at camp and stood out as a surprise for Ranallo. “He’s from British Columbia as well, so I knew of him. He played really well, it was really surprising that he was that good.”
The rest of the week was relatively normal, as Ranallo began to feel more comfortable with playing at that level. The transition from the college to pro game was easy for Ranallo, something he credits his experience in college for. “I was able to play a lot of games in college, so I know how my body should feel, what to do when it doesn’t feel right. At the pro level it’s a much longer season, but I think the adjustment should be easier because of my experience in college.” Ranallo also was able to get four years of very in depth coaching in college, something that isn’t nearly as prevalent at the pro level. “The coaches just don’t go into as much detail. College hockey is a learning experience, there’s more depth to the coaching there. Professional coaches are more about fine tuning your game, there isn’t as much detail as there is in college.” Ranallo remembered an example of playing in his defensive zone, “I was getting too far up on my man, so the coach just had me step back. He told me to back up and contain the man, I didn’t have to be in his face all of the time.”
Camp wrapped up at the end of the week with Ranallo feeling good about himself and his play, but realizing the quality of talent around him was greater than it had ever been before. “It’s not even the speed of the game that is too much of an adjustment. It’s the small stuff that not many people can see. The passing is so fluid and crisp, the communication is so much better. There’s a lot of talk, it makes it a lot easier to play that way.” As for Ranallo, he felt his greatest asset in camp was his ability to make things happen in the offensive zone. “I liked my overall poise with the puck, I thought I kept it simple and I was able to be an effective playmaker which is my best area. But as far as improvements, just my defensive play, there’s no difference in the system they play to the one we used at UConn, but I just need to be more aware of my winger in the zone.” As Ranallo was leaving camp, David Conte pulled him aside again to tell him that the Devils were very impressed with his camp and would be keeping an eye on him in the near future. With the CBA negotiations on-going, things are slow for unsigned free agents, though Ranallo is hoping for an invite to the AHL Devils rookie camp. Things are expected to happen in the next two weeks, but for now Ranallo is back in British Columbia, working out 5 days a week with his trainer.
UConn will miss Ranallo in more than one way next season. He was a veteran leader, an excellent two way player, a top 6 playmaker, as well as a power play quarterback for one of the nation’s top attacks. For whoever picks him up in the future, they’ll get those same assets as well as the continuing maturation of his abilities. He’s left large shoes to fill, but is on to bigger and better things in pro hockey. Best wishes to him in the future, hopefully good news in the near future!
Heading into his final season at the University of Connecticut, Husky netminder Garrett Bartus is already on track to leave a legacy of greatness that is unmatched in over 50 years of hockey history at UConn.
As he approaches his senior year, Bartus is running out of records to break. He needs but a single win to top all other D-1 Husky goaltenders. He’s broken his own record for Division-1 career saves while setting marks in single season save percentage, saves in a single game and shutouts in a season. He sits second in all-time career goals against average and 3rd in most wins in a single year. His sophomore year he ranked second in the nation in saves before finally taking over the national title during his junior campaign. He’s been a two time team MVP, a 6 time AHA goaltender of the week, was one save away from the Atlantic Hockey record for saves in a single season. The only thing missing from Bartus’ resume is a championship, and if Bartus’ belief in his ability to win one wasn’t enough, he’s got the support of some pretty experienced individuals to back him up.
In many ways, it’s been an unlikely route to the top of the Husky goaltending hierarchy for Bartus. Coming into the 2009 season, Brad McInnis had every reason to believe that UConn was his team. The veteran netminder was backed up by a freshman in Jeff Larson, a graduate of AAA midget hockey in St. Louis without any collegiate experience. McInnis had dealt with injuries his entire UConn career, playing just 13 games through his first 2 seasons and was battling to stay healthy for a productive junior campaign. When UConn opened their season at Ferris State, Bartus was still in St. Louis, playing goal for the St. Louis Bandits in the North American Hockey League and had posted impressive numbers through the first half of what would be his final junior season. McInnis would last just 26 minutes into the first game before injury struck again and Larson was thrown into the starting job. Although Larson played better than expected, UConn was on course for another disappointing season. By the time McInnis regained his health, it was the end of November and Larson was unwell. A native of Missouri, Larson was homesick and let the coaching staff know that he would be leaving the program at the end of the first semester. With McInnis far from game-ready, UConn assistant Joe Dumias contacted Bartus back in St. Louis and had him enrolled and in Storrs by the time UConn began the second half.
Bartus and McInnis were supposed to split the starts moving forward, but with McInnis out of game shape and Bartus making the most out of his playing time, it was the freshman star that won the starting job. Although the team only went 7-23-3 in the regular season, Bartus’ performance in the post season turned heads – making 27 stops in a 2-1 win against Bentley in the first round. In the second round, UConn would bow to RIT in 2 games, despite 51 and 33 save performances from Bartus. Normally, a team with nearly 4 times as many losses as wins would not feel so optimistic at the conclusion of such season, but McInnis recalls the aftermath with a sense of hope. “What Bartus did was provide a spark. When you’re used to losing, it’s easier just to keep losing. Garrett brought the competition and the expectations of the team up along with him.” Bartus finished the year with the record for most saves in a single game and was named team MVP by his teammates. “If we could get a hold of those 30 ballots at the end of the year, I would bet 30 of them would have listed Bartus as MVP, he was the backbone of our team” McInnis recalls.
If there’s someone who knows what makes Bartus tick, it’s Shane Clifford. Clifford coached Bartus as a junior player, while in his spare time coaching Stanley Cup winner and Olympic gold medalist Marc-Andre Fleury along with the past two NCAA champion goaltenders Parker Milner of Boston College and Kenny Reiter of Minnesota-Duluth. Clifford says it’s the simplification of Bartus’ game that has made him so good. “He just sets his feet, gets square to the puck and reacts incredibly well.” McInnis added that Bartus has polished his play while in college, something that comes from his work off the ice and the experience he’s gotten from playing every night. The most talked-about aspect of the mild-mannered goaltender’s game is his work ethic. “All he wants to do is win, and get better. I’d take 1,000 students like Garrett Bartus. Even when he has a bad night, he won’t have a bad day. UConn had no idea what they were getting when they brought him in,” Clifford raved. Asked what the ceiling was for Garrett Bartus, Brad McInnis simply answered: “I was surprised to see him back on the team this year. He’s a pro-caliber goaltender without a doubt. He has the experience and skill set to be successful at the next level.” Clifford agreed, saying: “He can play in any league you can drop a puck in; no doubt in my mind, there is no ceiling for him. ” Clifford made special mention of Rob Madore, formerly of Vermont and now under contract with the Carolina Hurricanes, and Kenny Reiter, an NCAA champion and current Islanders prospect, both of whom have raved over the playing ability of Bartus and believe he can play at the next level.
When Bartus finishes his career at UConn this coming spring, he will be remembered as the very best at his position and will have set the precedent for generations of goaltenders to come. From the very start, he’s backstopped Connecticut to the best records it has had in over a decade, igniting a culture change that looks to propel the program to an entirely different level. Exciting times are ahead for Connecticut hockey, thanks in part to a shaggy-haired kid from St. Charles, Illinois, with one hell of a glove hand.
Ryan Lambert covers college hockey for Puck Daddy on Yahoo! You can follow him on twitter at @twolinepass
Ryan was kind enough to answer questions regarding UConn Hockey among a few other topics. Enjoy!
Q: How closely have you watched UConn hockey?
RL: I saw them play three times last year and have watched them periodically here and there throughout the years
Q: Put yourself in the shoes of the Joe Bertagna when you bring in Notre Dame, who do you target if anyone to bring into the HEA?
RL: Clearly Joe Bertagna targeted UConn for admission to Hockey East, which makes sense because it was already a member program of the women’s league. It’s more congruous than going out and getting, say, RPI to come aboard instead, as was rumored. Either UConn or Quinnipiac seemed, to me at least, the most reasonable candidates for expansion, though again, the former seemed like the no-brainer.
Q: Now that the dust has settled on the College Hockey shake up with conference movement, did Hockey East come out a stronger conference than before?
RL: It did, just by virtue of having added a nationally-known program like Notre Dame. I’m not sure that UConn, in its current form, makes Hockey East very good, or indeed proves anything other than an annual doormat. But that’s because it does not currently offer its players scholarships, and we don’t know what it will look like when it does. Theoretically, given its name value in the NCAA sports landscape at large, it could be a boost down the road, but right now it’s too early to tell.
Q: What do you think UConn’s greatest obstacle is in order to be something more than a doormat in the league?
RL: Obviously the lack of scholarships and the fact that they have a fairly small fanbase. I went to two games down there this winter and there was nobody there. The rink and facilities aren’t very good, and that’s not going to attract either fans or players. I know Freitas is getting renovated and they’re moving to the XL Center for league games, but that place isn’t especially nice either. Maybe I would just say institutional support — which has been promised but obviously not delivered yet — is most critical. If the athletic department can put its weight behind getting people excited for this sport, it can be successful both in terms of generating revenue and competing in some meaningful way in Hockey East. The latter, though, could take a lot of time.
Q: What will scholarships do for recruiting?
RL: I don’t think they’ll necessarily be pulling kids even the quality of, say, UMass or Merrimack. Just because you have scholarships doesn’t necessarily mean players want to go there. UConn will have to establish a culture before entering the league so that it can even begin to reap those rewards once it starts playing BC, BU, UNH, Maine, Notre Dame, etc. twice a year each.
Q: In watching them year to year, what have you noticed in terms of improvement with their play on the ice?
RL: They’re certainly getting harder to play against. That is almost certainly a function of the team having exactly two players under the age of 21 on it last season (and both those kids were 20-year-old freshmen) but it’s a tried and true method of being at least somewhat competitive when all else fails. Other than that I don’t know how much evidence there is that the team has improved on the ice. They haven’t finished above .500 since the 1999-2000 season, though again, this is almost certainly the result of their having no scholarships. This past season, admittedly, was the team’s most successful since that year, but again, the majority of its players were in the 22-25 range despite having 16 freshmen and sophomores. Not knocking it, but that’s not normal in college hockey.
Q: What do you think has the most potential to develop into a good rivalry in Hockey East with UConn, excluding the obvious one in BC?
RL: UMass, most likely. Closest in proximity, the other big state flagship campus in the league. And UMass fans would also have you believe there is something of a rivalry in football and basketball as well. It definitely makes the most season.
Q: Are those 2 teams headed in opposite directions? Or will UMass be able to catch itself once the coaching search comes to an end?
RL: UMass fans are extremely discontented with the situation, as they should be. The program seems to have a new “top candidate” every other day at this point, and two guys have flat turned down their offers that we know of. It’s an ugly scene to be sure, and one that will remain uncertain for some time depending upon who they hire. But yeah, one has to at least expect things will stabilize when they get the new coach in place, even if the level of the program now is well below where it was, say, two years ago. As it stands, UMass is still a better program than UConn and will likely continue to be so for some time just by virtue of being in a significantly better league. That may change when UConn finally joins Hockey East and is up to speed on scholarships, but for now, and for the foreseeable future, UMass is clearly the better program.
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