When one thinks of schools in the Hockey East Conference that produce National Hockey League players, they think of successful teams such as Boston College, Boston University, the University of Maine, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Northeastern University. These institutions have produced skilled players such as Cale Makar, Hall of Famer Paul Kariya, Jack Eichel and Spencer Knight.
However, one school that gets zero consideration is the University of Connecticut, despite the fact that it has been in the competitive conference for nine seasons. Players such as Tage Thompson hope to change UConn’s “hockey school” reputation (on top of their designation as a basketball school) at the NHL level.
Until Matthew Wood committed to the UConn men’s ice hockey team — the “IceBus” — in August 2021, Thompson was the program’s highest-rated recruit. Thompson spent two years with the IceBus from 2015 to 2017, scoring 33 goals and 64 points in 70 games played. He finished in the top two in scoring both years, leading the team in goals and points in his final season as a Husky. His efforts did not go unnoticed as the St. Louis Blues selected him 26th overall in the 2016 entry-level draft — the only first round draft pick in UConn Hockey’s history.
During his first few professional seasons, he bounced around between the NHL and the American Hockey League and was part of the Ryan O’Reilly trade in 2018. The 2021-22 season, his fifth in the league, was when he finally broke out. Thompson posted 38 goals and 30 assists for 68 points in 78 games, all of which were career highs. He led the Buffalo Sabres in goals and points while finishing tied for second in assists behind former first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin.
For his scoring prowess, Thompson earned a seven-year, $50 million extension that starts after the 2022 season and lasts until 2030. With this new contract in hand, the Daily Faceoff expects Thompson to center the Sabres’ top line with Jack Quinn and Victor Olofsson as his wingmen. As long his contract does not turn into Jeff Skinner’s (eight years, $72 million following a 40-goal season in 2019; 52 goals and 100 points in three seasons since), Thompson will be a franchise superstar.
Thompson is not the only player who will make the IceBus well known. Back in January, I wrote about what it meant for former Husky goaltender Tomas Vomacka to be a part of the Nashville Predators and their goalie pipeline. Since the article came out, Vomacka got promoted to the Milwaukee Admirals, the AHL affiliate of the Predators, and is at least a year away from being Juuse Saros’ backup netminder.
Those two players are the most widely known, but that will change soon. Jonny Evans, Carter Turnbull and Marc Gatcomb are three players who have chosen a professional career and are working their way up the ranks.
Evans joined the South Carolina Stingrays, the ECHL affiliate of the Washington Capitals, and put up 13 points in 11 games. If Evans starts the season hot, then he could earn a promotion to the Capital’s AHL affiliate in the Hershey Bears. Turnbull is Evans’ teammate on the Stingrays, but he posted five points in the same number of games. With more experience, the former captain is bound to have a breakout season. Meanwhile, Gatcomb is on the Abbotsford Canucks, the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks. He did not record a point in six games, but more time on the ice should lead to improved numbers.
These guys are just the beginning of something special. The first part of establishing a successful hockey program is picking up talented recruits. One of those big-name recruits is Wood, the youngest player in college hockey at 17 years old. Originally recruited for the Class of 2023, Wood already has two goals and five points after his first two games and should be a delight to watch at the XL Center on cold weekend nights.
But it is more than just the prospects they recruit. Last year, the university announced plans to build a new on-campus hockey arena that will host the men’s and women’s hockey teams. The arena, since renamed the Toscano Family Ice Forum, will serve as the “hockey version” of the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion, as the men’s team will play the other half of their home games at the XL Center. Although the seating is a lot smaller than I expected it to be (recency bias has me estimating a capacity of about 4,000 to 5,000), this is a great way to increase the team’s popularity and give the Huskies a barn where they can have a consistent home-ice advantage with more students attending the games.
None of this could have been possible without head coach Mike Cavanaugh. Boston College’s head coach Jerry York announced his retirement in April after 50 years of coaching and 28 years with the Eagles. Some people linked Cavanaugh as his heir apparent because he was an assistant coach in Chestnut Hill for 18 years before he came to Storrs. This would have weakened the Huskies, as Cavanaugh led the team through the transition from the Atlantic Hockey Association to the Hockey East and developed a competitive program.
Instead, the Eagles turned to Greg Brown as their successor, while UConn worked quickly to extend Cavanaugh for six more years. Cavanaugh had signed a five-year extension one year earlier, but this new deal keeps him in Storrs until 2028.
Almost exactly how Jim Calhoun revitalized UConn men’s basketball, Thompson set the foundation for success in UConn men’s hockey. After coming up short in their first ever Hockey East Conference Championship game last March, the IceBus has entered a new era. With Cavanaugh in the driver’s seat, the Huskies strive to become another winning program that everyone can root for. Before that happens, they need to bring home a conference title.