UConn's New Hockey Coach Says He's Here To Win Championships

STORRS — Most guys go to Disney World after they've won championships. Mike Cavanaugh was offered the job as architect of UConn's hockey future as he was pulling into the place with his family.

"I'll tell you this," Cavanaugh said Thursday at his introductory press conference at the Burton Family Complex. "When you're negotiating your first head coaching contract, trying to do it between Splash Mountain and Space Mountain is not the ideal thing to do."

Some folks on the outside might thumb their nose at what UConn can become as an elite hockey program. Maybe they'll point to the lack of tradition or the immediate shortcomings of campus facilities or the lack of this or lack of that. Yet anybody who has paid attention to what the state's flagship university can do when it puts its resources into something doesn't expect Cavanaugh to go over the edge, splash and forever drown in the Hockey East.

The question — if we may be permitted to extend the Disney metaphor — is will Cavanaugh be better than OK and take the program to celestial places it has never been? Can he orbit with the premier hockey programs in the nation?

"I'm not afraid to say it," Cavanaugh said. "I'm coming here to win national championships."

Let's step back for a moment and consider a major reason why it was a good idea for UConn to finally, mercifully, make the move to big-time hockey. This is a state rich in talent, especially in the prep schools. Some vintage names like Brian Leetch and Craig Janney, to be sure. But more recent names like Ryan Shannon, Cam and Tommy Atkinson, Ben Smith, Tommy Cross and Pat Mullane. They're Connecticut guys who had real impact on college hockey … and they all went to BC, where the lead recruiter was Cavanaugh.

"Those guys played an integral part of our success," said Cavanaugh, 44, whose success as the Eagles' associate coach spans 10 Frozen Fours and four national titles over 18 years. "The homegrown talent is something that attracted me to this job."

It would be idiotic to suggest that Cavanaugh could land every big state name right away or that his recruiting should end at the state line. He'll have to mine plenty of other areas. Look at Quinnipiac, which had one state player this past season. British Columbia got Rand Pecknold into the NCAA title game. National champion Yale didn't have one Connecticut player.

Still, Warde Manuel came right out and said it. A reason that he chose Cavanaugh over George Gwozdecky was his proven elite recruiting record in New England and Connecticut.

Can Cavanaugh make the best kids stay home?

"I don't see why not," he said. "When we got to BC, they said we couldn't recruit Canadians. We went out and got Chuck Kobasew and Krys Kolanos. When we won our first national title [2001], it was Kolanos who scored the goal from Kobasew [in overtime]. We weren't afraid to enter into those waters."

"I have a lot of connections in state, trusted friendships. I don't think it's going to be a problem. Do I think it will be easy? No, I don't think anything is easy in life. But I also understand the kids I have recruited here, they are UConn fans. They have a sense of pride in Connecticut."

Cross texted Cavanaugh on Thursday, saying, "You're moving to the best state in the country."

"It might be challenging at first," Cavanaugh said, "but when we build this program, kids are going to be clamoring to come here."

Some voices from outside Storrs said, hire Gwozdecky, 59, who had won two national titles with Denver. Voices on the inside said, hire interim coach David Berard. In the end, after the search, after all the conversations, Manuel had to answer the voice inside his head. He took Cavanaugh for three reasons: The quality man that he is. What he had helped build at BC. And his track record as a boffo recruiter in the region.

"In the end his success recruiting here was important to me and probably [why I] didn't offer it to George," Manuel said. "I wasn't just looking for a sitting coach based on his record."

All things considered, Manuel made a great choice, even if he accidentally called him Matt, as in the NFL quarterback, once. Cavanaugh quickly pointed out his old boss Jerry York used to do the same.

"Mike has the whole package," said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. "He's smart. He's experienced in the league. He's experienced in winning. He is highly respected in the league."

So when did Gov. Malloy, BC man, hockey fan, tell Manuel to hire him?

"About three months ago," Manuel said.

He was joking.

"I talked to the governor three-four times since last summer about hockey," Manuel said. "I called him to give him a heads-up on the three finalists. He said, 'Seems like great choices to me. I don't think you can go wrong.'"

After Cavanaugh had signed a five-year deal worth about $1 million, Manuel left Malloy a voicemail.

"I told him he didn't need to call me back and he didn't," Manuel said. "Look, he loves hockey. He's a great supporter of UConn. But he at no point tried to influence the decision. It just turned out I picked a great coach from his alma mater."

It's funny. Cavanaugh goes from the guy people wondered why he hadn't landed a head coaching job to one where people are wondering if he'll return to BC after York, 67, retires.

"If we do well and he's a candidate for BC, I'm fine with that," Manuel said. "I'll try to compete with BC or anybody else. I'm not going to make a decision based on if he may get taken away some day. I want the best people. Period. If he doesn't do well here, believe me, BC won't come calling. If he does, they'll come calling."

The home opener at the XL Center in the 2014-15 season will be against BC. After all the back and forth between the schools, after all the Big East and ACC turmoil, this should be delicious theater.

"I'm going to want to beat them bad," Cavanaugh said. "I don't think Jerry York would expect any less from me. I know Jerry is going to want to beat UConn. And in the summertime, I'll play golf and have a coffee with Jerry. But as long as they're keeping score, I want to win."

"One thing I want to make clear is BC was a terrific place for me. I developed a lot as a person there. I met my wife [Lynne] there. Both my kids [Quinn and Caroline] were baptized on campus. It'll always be a special place in my heart, but no more special than Bowdoin College, where I went to school, or North Andover, where I'm from. They're all special to me … but going forward, my time at BC isn't going to paralyze me as I become a Husky."

Cavanaugh met Jim Calhoun on Thursday. He met Ray Reid. He's itching to meet Geno Auriemma. More than that, he's itching to meet deans and professors and admissions officials. He said he'll make it simple on us: He's all about graduating players and winning championships. Good. He understands the lay of the land, even to the point of supporting an in-state annual tournament with Yale and Quinnipiac and calling it the Tim Taylor Cup in honor of the late Yale coach.

Manuel said he was talking about two shopping areas with Cavanaugh near his home in South Windsor. He came up with Evergreen Walk and was blanking on the second …

"Buckland Hills mall," Cavanaugh interjected.

"That's a little thing that points out how much time he's spent here," Manuel said. "If we've got a strong athlete in Connecticut, we have a guy who has done well here. People can say, well, that was BC. Shoot, that's what we're trying to build here and we're not giving in on anything."

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