The UMass Lowell River Hawks may have only won five games just two season ago, but don’t call them just another Cinderella story. For a team that prides itself on playing gritty, team-first hockey, their story is less about fairy tales and more about working hard for one another.
With the stage set for the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh next week, the ‘Hawks are focusing on making their time in the Steel City a weekend trip. Lowell will face Yale at 4:30 p.m. on April 11 and look to leave it all on the ice. That means eliminating distractions, according to Head Coach Norm Bazin.
“They’re focused on the ultimate goal, and it’s my job to continue toward that effort,” said Bazin, who was named 2012 and 2013 Hockey East Coach of the Year. “It was certainly a season full of ups and downs…The second stretch was vital. These guys came out with strong results, and road trips to Maine and Vermont ending in sweeps was a heck of a start to a great run.”
Bazin said his team isn’t looking past any opponents in Pittsburgh, but feels confident in their record on the road.
“All four teams have equal opportunity to bring home a trophy … We are thrilled but we’re focused on what we need to do. These guys have been business-like in their approach and we are the best road team in the country. We play with discipline, we play hard, we play fast and that gives us opportunities to be successful on the road,” he said.
Senior Captain Riley Wetmore said he and his teammates are doing their best not to get wrapped up in the hardware they’ve already brought home: a Hockey East regular season championship trophy, a Hockey East playoff championship trophy and the two wins in the NCAA regionals in Manchester, N.H. last weekend.
“We’re just focused like we have been all year. We were happy with the Hockey East Championship but didn’t have time to celebrate it. Winning last weekend means we’re still playing and focused on the next game,” he said.
Wetmore said fan support at the NCAA Regionals gave the team the boost they needed to finish off the close games.
“It was surreal to look up and see the fans and (hear) chanting back and forth. It was an amazing experience,” he said.
Now the team will look to keep their excitement and emotions in check as their next game is a lengthy eight days away.
“I think it works out for us, we’re healing bumps and bruises and just looking forward to it,” said Wetmore. “There are only four teams in the country practicing right now, we’re just working hard every day. The three seniors are just enjoying practices and looking forward to the experience.”
The team’s success has not even fully sunk in for many of them, Wetmore said.
“We’re just happy to be playing, it’s surreal, people are seeing our beards and congratulating us but I feel like we need to go there and we need to play two games. We’re not letting it sink in, we have the summer for that,” he said.
Bazin said fostering a culture of accountability and responsibility has worked to motivate the players, and locker room chemistry has played a major role in the team’s success.
“It’s not always most talented or the fastest teams or more skilled teams that win (the national championship), it’s the best team. They play hard for each other I think the best team will win it,” he said.
Leaders such as Wetmore, Josh Holmstrom and Chad Ruhwedel, Bazin said, have set an example throughout the season and embody the character of Lowell Hockey: hard work, grit, and heart.
“There will be a new national champion this year, and we feel, why not Lowell?” said Bazin.