Norm Bazin’s head coaching résumé at UMass-Lowell may be short, but his imprint on the program has been immediate.
When he took the reins for 2011-12, a year after the River Hawks generated just five victories, he led the team to a 24-13-1 record. Although Lowell lost to Providence in the Hockey East quarterfinals in the third and deciding game, the River Hawks earned an at-large bid into the NCAA East Regionals and lost in the final to Union — one victory shy of an appearance in the Frozen Four.
Although the River Hawks got off to a slow start this year at 4-7-1, they engineered a turnaround and went 18-3-1 the rest of the way to earn the Hockey East regular-season title for the first time in school history. Lowell finished with 34 points in Hockey East, edging out Boston College, which had 33. Three teams finished with 32.
On Thursday night, the No. 1-seeded River Hawks will take on No. 8 Maine in the best-of-three league quarterfinals.
“We certainly finished the regular season in style,’’ said Bazin. “We are elated to be the regular-season champion. It’s something that’s very new for us. I’m told it’s the closest title run in the history of the league. I think it kept a lot of hockey fans in New England interested.’’
Coincidentally, Bazin was given his first coaching job as an assistant at Lowell in 1997-98 by current Maine coach Tim Whitehead.
Whitehead isn’t surprised by Bazin’s quick success.
“Norm is flat-out one of the best people I have ever known in my life,’’ said Whitehead. “You do take a chance when you are adding someone to your staff who has not coached before.
“I really respect how he tackles every day. He is very organized and prepares very well. I respect the person that he is. It is great to see all the success that he has had and I am very confident that is going to continue. It is not an accident. It is great to see how well he is doing.’’
Bazin said one reason the River Hawks were able to turn around their fortunes was team defense and strong goaltending by freshman Connor Hellebuyck and junior Doug Carr.
“You don’t win the regular season without great goaltending,’’ said Bazin. “Between Connor and Doug, they give us a 1-2 punch every night. The freshmen have come of age, the guys dug deep. We concentrated our efforts on team defense. That’s been the formula in the second half.’’
One of the linchpins of the squad is captain Riley Wetmore, who wasn’t sure what to expect when Bazin was hired.
“I didn’t know a lot about him, I just heard from other coaches that he was an excellent coach,’’ said Wetmore, a senior forward who hails from Swanton, Vt. “We had five wins the year before, so we weren’t sure what to expect. We just wanted to move forward and go up in the standings and be a better hockey team.’’
Wetmore said the difference between his sophomore year and last year was doing the little things.
“Norm has been unbelievable about making sure we [pay attention] to all the little details and keeping everybody on the same page and making sure we’re focusing on the process and not focusing on what we can’t control,’’ said Wetmore.
This being his last collegiate season, Wetmore said it was a thrill to be part of the first team in school history to win the Hockey East regular-season crown.
“It’s hard to put into words,’’ he said. “It was a lot of hard work and effort. It’s amazing, it’s a great feeling not only for me, but for the alumni.
“I’ve been getting text messages and phone calls from alumni this past week and weekend. At the same time, they are not exactly satisfied with the regular season. They want us to keep going further and that’s how we feel as well.’’
Although the team is excited about its accomplishment, everyone is putting it on the back burner to prepare for the Black Bears.
“This is like the start of a new season for us,’’ said Wetmore.
Last weekend was a bit harrowing for the River Hawks. They lost to Providence at Tsongas Center Friday night, so the pressure was on Saturday when they faced the Friars on the road.
“We knew we were a good team and we knew how to win,’’ said Wetmore. “But when we don’t show up, we don’t play, and that’s what happened Friday.
“We knew we didn’t give our best effort, and guys were pretty upset, because it was the last regular-season home game. We played a lot better hockey on Saturday night.’’
The league has benefited from the vast improvement of Lowell and Providence; the conference title is no longer a slam dunk for one of the perennial powerhouses — Boston College, Boston University, or New Hampshire.
“The parity in the league is tremendous,’’ said Wetmore. “I feel like it is second to none from any other league. Every night, it doesn’t matter if you are playing a team in 10th place, they can beat you. It is definitely nice to see some other teams up there.
“Hopefully for years to come, it will be like that.’’