When you think of UConn athletics, many will point to the perennial powerhouse that is the women’s basketball program, or their four-time national champion male counterpart. On May 8, 2013, Mike Cavanaugh set out to bring UConn hockey up to par.
“When I took this job, I looked at it as an opportunity to try to emulate both a Jim Calhoun and a Geno Auriemma who built their programs here at UConn and I thought I’d have those same type of opportunities that they had,” Cavanaugh said.
Cavanaugh was challenged in just his second year in Storrs with the tall task of guiding the program in its transition to a new conference, something Auriemma dealt with flawlessly. An assistant on Jerry York’s Boston College staff for 18 years, he understood very well what the Hockey East is all about, with four national championship rings and 10 Frozen Four appearances to show for it.
Since his arrival, Cavanaugh has seen his team improve from season to season. In year one of the transition, his Huskies finished ninth after being tabbed to come in last during the preseason. Year two, UConn hosted its first home Hockey East playoff series. The 2017-18 season saw the Huskies have their best finish since joining the conference, finishing fifth with an 11-12-2 record against Hockey East rivals. The first time head coach had a background in the conference, making the transition all the easier.
“I always wanted to be a head coach, one,” Cavanaugh said on coming to UConn. “Two, I thought it was a really unique opportunity for me to build my own program and have my fingerprints on a program right from day one till the day I stop coaching here. I thought it was a really unique opportunity to build a program right from the beginning and in a league that I’m extremely familiar with and a territory that I’m extremely familiar with, so I really couldn’t had asked for anything better.”
Cavanaugh ushered a new brand of UConn hockey upon arrival. Taking some “principles and building blocks” from his former boss, now turned rival, Cavanaugh put his own spin on things to make the program his own, and the players have responded well in the years to follow.
In his first five seasons, the Bowdoin College graduate sent 12 players to the NHL, with four more leaving UConn for the pros this year. Tage Thompson (‘17), the first first-round draft choice to come out of Storrs, leads the pack of professional Huskies with the likes of Karl El-Mir, Max Kalter and Miles Gendron joining the pack via the AHL after this past season. The pros for Cavanaugh are all part of his plan.
“I think that’s all part of the process,” Cavanaugh said. “When we recruit a kid we always tell them, ‘Hey, we want you to get a degree, we want you to become a better man, we want you to compete for trophies,’ and if you’re able to accomplish all three of those things, it’s going to give you a chance to play professionally, and that’s also part of it.”
“We’re not going to be able to compete in the Hockey East if we’re not recruiting talent that has the ability to play in the National Hockey League,” he added.
Recruiting, no matter the collegiate sport, is an enormous factor. Though the lack of top tier facilities have cost UConn recruits in the past, a new arena is on its way—but that’s not how Cavanaugh sells the program to the young men he looks to bring in.
Instead, the Hockey East is what Cavanaugh uses to hook recruits on UConn. The atmosphere and environment of the university is a top priority as well, as education is the main focus, but being able to play in “arguably one of the best leagues of the country,” a league that sent two teams to the Frozen Four this year, is not something every education can offer.
Though many will jump at the opportunity to compete in this league, not every recruit is ready to dawn the blue and white sweaters. Cavanaugh, along with assistant coach Joe Pereira and the rest of the staff, look for a certain combination of toughness and intelligence in order to be convince a player belongs in their locker room.
“My staff and I, when we’re recruiting at UConn, we’re looking for tough kids. We’re looking for kids that are smart players, and we’re looking for very competitive players. Talent of course is important, but sometimes it’s been tough for us to attract the top local talent because our facilities are not up to par with the other teams we compete against in our league. However, that does not preclude us from finding players that can help us win.”
This past season may be looked at as a down year to some, with a 12-20-2 record and a ninth place league finish, but there’s hope for the team touted the “#IceBus.” Cavanaugh has seen the entirety of UConn in the Hockey East, and with freshmen like Tomas Vomacka, Ruslan Iskhakov and Jachym Kondelik leading the way to a 5-3 finish, winning games over No. 13 Northeastern and national champion runner-up UMass, there’s a lot to be positive about for UConn hockey.
“We’re excited about the team we’re bringing back next year,” Cavanaugh said. “We have some recruits that we’re adding to the fold that I think are gonna be able to also help us next year. The way we finished the season was encouraging. There’s a lot of things that are looking bright moving forward.”
Cavanaugh has had the privilege to learn from some of the country’s best coaches while at UConn, something not many coaches can say. Jim Penders leads the one of the top baseball programs in the Northeast while Nancy Stevens and Auriemma command the premier programs in their respective sports, with national championships being an expectation than the exception. But the former collegiate athlete himself has not learned more from anyone else than Dee Rowe.
Rowe, a former men’s basketball head coach in Storrs, help put UConn basketball on the map until his 1977 retirement. He helped bring in Calhoun and Auriemma as well as develop what is now called the Husky Athletic Fund.
“I think he understands the landscape in the sporting world like not many others,” Cavanaugh said. “It’d be foolish if you didn’t take the time to pick his brain and I try to do that at least once a week.”
No matter who Cavanaugh talks to, no one will know how to handle his team more than himself. Through the many faces he’s met, the trials and tribulations he’s endured and the lessons learned, Cavanaugh has kept a positive outlook on the program he’s fathered through, what very well could have been, a disastrous transition. Now gearing up from his seventh year at the helm, Cavanaugh is nothing but encouraged with the group of young men he will lead into battle.
“As a coach and an evaluator of talent and, especially in this league, I was very encouraged,” Cavanaugh said on last season’s finish. “I really believe we have the talents to not only make the playoffs next year, but to compete in the playoffs and play in the (TD Garden).”
Kevin Arnold is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.