Six years ago, current men’s hockey head coach Mike Cavanaugh took the reins of the program with the mindset of creating a winning tradition in Storrs beyond the storied basketball programs. Just a year ago, Cavanaugh’s group finished fifth in the Hockey East, their best in four years in the conference.
The 2018-19 season has been one of both struggle and growth with a roster boasting 12 new faces at the season’s start. In what proved to be a tough weekend series against UNH, Cavanaugh was reminded of his beginning here at UConn.
Mike Souza lead his UNH Wildcats against Cavanaugh’s Huskies this weekend in a home-and-home series. The two sides skated to a 2-2 tie in Hartford on Friday night before the Huskies were blown out in New Hampshire 6-0. The matchup to watch, however, was not between the goaltenders or any of the other skaters. It was the first time Souza was directly coaching against his former boss, Mike Cavanaugh.
For the first two years of Cavanaugh’s UConn career, Souza was on the bench with him, coaching the Huskies through their Hockey East transition. Helping in all aspects of the program, Souza’s main focus while at UConn was coaching the power play and playing a key role in recruiting efforts before being named associate head coach for what would be his last season with the Huskies.
“He was great,” Cavanaugh said after Friday night’s game. “I had never been a head coach and I wanted to find some people who were as hungry as I was to make this a go, make this a championship program. I had known Mike [Souza] and he’s just a very well-respected guy in the game. I was so happy when he said he wanted to come work with us and he did a fantastic job here. It was only two years but he left an imprint on the program.”
Souza’s personality and poise was on-par with that of a head coach, qualities that Cavanaugh recognized early he knew he would see his colleague running a program of his own in the future.
“I think he’s mature beyond his years. I think he really understands the game and, as I said, he’s very well-respected in this field,” Cavanaugh said. “I knew one day he was going to be a head coach. I didn’t know he was going to leave me so quick… I was happy for him.”
“I can talk about Cav all night,” Souza said. “I think what sums up Mike Cavanaugh is that when he hired me, he told me it was his goal for me to get the job at UNH, among many goals, but for me.”
Souza, a 2000 graduate from UNH, played four years of hockey for the Wildcats. He lead the team to two Frozen Fours and a national championship appearance against Maine in 1999 where he was named to the NCAA All-Regional and NCAA All-Tournament teams for his six points in the Frozen Four, the best among participants.
Selected by the Blackhawks with the 67th overall pick, Souza played five seasons in the American Hockey League (AHL) before bouncing around Europe until 2011, when he began his coaching career as an assistant on the Brown University coaching staff. He spent two seasons there before being hired by Cavanaugh.
“I was so excited to come over to Connecticut and I loved UConn because it has a lot of similar traits to UNH quite honestly,” Souza said.
UConn won three national championships in Souza’s first year in Storrs. Both basketball teams won it all in March, following a field hockey championship in the previous fall. This all had Souza chomping at the bit to “get under the hood with Cav.”
The duo experienced early success at UConn, like the program’s first ever win over a ranked opponent when they took down the ninth-ranked, Providence Friars 3-2 in the 2013-14 season. The transition to the Hockey East brought more losses than wins at first, but the young Souza learned from Cavanaugh that winning at the college level is not always what is most important, something he strives to emulate in his own program.
“First and foremost, I’d want my son to play for Mike Cavanaugh, if i had a son,” Souza said. “I think that says it all. It’s about the kids and it’s about life after UConn more so than it is about life at UConn. I think sometimes, in our competitive world we live in, we get lost in the wins and the losses and we forget sometimes that these are young people and we’re able to play such a pivotal part in their lives and I don’t know if there’s anybody who does it better than Mike [Cavanaugh]. Just the way he runs the program. It’s a first-class operation and I’ve tried to take some of his ideas, the way he conducts his day to our program. He’s a special person and UConn is lucky to have him.”
Souza left the Huskies following the 2014-15 season to become the associate head coach under 28-year head coach Dick Umile at UNH. Souza took over the program following Umile’s retirement and has lead his Wildcats to a seventh place Hockey East ranking with a conference record of 5-5-5 and an overall record of 9-8-8.
Cavanaugh’s Huskies now sit in last place in the conference with a record of 2-11-2 against conference opponents. UConn will have to make the most of their remaining 10 games, nine of which are against Hockey East rivals. Just seven points behind Maine for the eight seed in the Hockey East tournament, expect Cavanaugh’s Huskies to put it all on the line for that final spot.
Kevin Arnold is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.