When Providence College athletic director Bob Driscoll began his search for a new hockey coach, his list of names was short.
His first choice was Nate Leaman, who had transformed Union into a national contender in 2010-11 with a school record 26 victories (17 in the ECAC) and the Dutchmen’s first NCAA Tournament appearance. As a result, Leaman earned Division 1 coach of the year honors.
Leaman accepted Driscoll’s offer and now has the Friars pointed in the right direction. The team has started the season 8-7-1, recording the same number of wins it had all of last season. That doesn’t surprise Driscoll, who felt Leaman was the right person to turn around the program.
“I also coached at Union and I knew what he did there, given the fact they had no scholarships, was really, really special,’’ said Driscoll. “I had him at the top of my list for a number of reasons. But because of the fact I knew he had built something from scratch and the way he recruits and just how he conducts his business, I thought he was a perfect fit for Providence.’’
Driscoll believes Leaman has the chance to become a legendary bench boss.
“I thought it was an unbelievable opportunity for Nate because I think he’s one of the great up-and-coming young coaches who could turn into a Jackie Parker or a Jerry York,’’ said Driscoll. “I really think he’s the next generation of great coaches. I knew we were making the commitment to get it back to the old days when [Lou] Lamoriello was here. So the timing was right. I was excited for us but I was equally excited for him. There aren’t a lot of programs out there that have the kind of history that Providence has.’’
In addition to the new coach, the school is building a 35,000-foot addition to Schneider Arena, beginning in the summer. So far, the plan for the resurgence of the Friars appears on track.
“I think [Leaman has] been spectacular,’’ said Driscoll. “We have basically the same talent but the fact that we were able to beat Merrimack back-to-back and compete well against BC and beat BU early, I think he’s done a lot so far. [He’s] changing the culture - the mental toughness, the work ethic - he’s got one of the best recruiting classes in the next couple of years coming in so he’s done a really, really good job. I haven’t been surprised at all because he did the same thing at Union.’’
The highlight of the campaign is the wins Dec. 2 and 3 against Merrimack, which was the No. 1-ranked team in the country at the time.
“We’ve certainly been challenged in the first half of our season,’’ said Leaman. “We’ve played six games against teams that were ranked No. 1 in the country in the first half of the season. I thought we played some great competition. We had some ups and downs but we definitely improved.’’
One of the goals Leaman had entering the season was to build mental toughness in his squad, which he says is an ongoing process.
“I don’t think we’ve exhibited much mental toughness coming into the season and really, in our first probably 10 games,’’ said Leaman. “I thought the best thing about the Merrimack series was we showed a lot of mental toughness in sticking to our game plan and the poise we had and our discipline. We saw some glimmers of mental toughness coming through.’’
The impact players for the Friars have been senior goaltender Alex Beaudry (2.85 goals-against average, .901 save percentage) and freshman forward Ross Mauermann, who is tied for the team lead in scoring with 13 points. His overtime goal beat Merrimack Dec. 2.
But Leaman is also getting contributions from many players.
“The players are working hard and they make it fun coming to the rink every day,’’ he said.
The improvement on the ice has translated into more enthusiasm on campus, more funding, and a whole lot of buzz.
“I get phone calls all the time from alumni who are thrilled that [Leaman’s] here,’’ said Driscoll. “The students are coming out at a much higher level to support the team. People writing big-time checks to the program, a lot of that has to do with the faith that they have in the leadership. In the 10 years I’ve been here, this is the most excitement we’ve had around hockey.’’
Leaman isn’t the only new face in Hockey East. Jim Madigan has led Northeastern to a 7-7-2 mark, including six straight wins going into the break. Norm Bazin has UMass-Lowell at 11-5-0, which is twice as many wins as the team had in all of 2010-11. The River Hawks defeated Rensselaer, 7-2, yesterday.
“Change usually brings new energy and from kids, too,’’ said Driscoll. “It’s a different system, it’s fresh so it’s not unusual to get that bump. The question is, can people maintain it over the long haul? I think change can be really healthy and I think all those programs are committed to building a successful hockey team. It’s exciting for the league.’’
UMass-Lowell AD Dana Skinner is thrilled with the job Bazin has done.
“The hockey players seem to really enjoy coming to the rink every day,’’ said Skinner via e-mail. “I suspect their enthusiasm has a lot to do with the up-tempo style of play that Norm has introduced, and the enthusiasm has spread across campus and into the community. Playing exciting hockey and winning in front of some of our largest crowds has certainly helped spread the word.
“The interest on campus has grown because the team is playing an exciting brand of hockey and winning, but it also helps that both Norm and his wife, Michelle, are graduates of UMass-Lowell. Lots of people are rooting for Norm and the team and that support is evident at every game.’’