Mike Cavanaugh is the newest head coach on a campus with room for another athletic program to go big-time. That's where UConn hockey is eventually headed, to the big-time world of Hockey East in 2014-15.
Cavanaugh was introduced Thursday at a press conference in the state-of-the-art Burton Family Football Complex, right across the street from ongoing construction of a state-of-the-art basketball practice facility. Just a couple hundred yards down the street is little, old Freitas Ice Forum, where Cavanaugh will start building his program.
"The passion that UConn has for its sports has always intrigued me and amazed me," Cavanaugh said. "It’s what brought me here to UConn."
The hope is that some of passion for and the success of, for example, the basketball programs is experienced by the hockey program. Cavanaugh said clearly Thursday that he has arrived to win national championships. He envisions UConn becoming a hockey power, now that it has committed the necessary resources, is awarding scholarships, and selected a coach to lead the way for the foreseeable future.
Cavanaugh has signed a five-year contract that pays $200,000 a year, with basic cost-of-living raises along the way, and it won't be long before his new team is facing off against his old team in downtown Hartford. UConn and Boston College are scheduled to play each other in a Hockey East game at the XL Center in Oct., 2014.
Maybe by then a shovel will be in the ground for hockey's own state-of-the-art facility. Maybe the first small steps will have been made toward UConn becoming a national player like Yale and Quinnipiac, which met in this year's NCAA title game at the Frozen Four. Maybe plans will have been announced by then for UConn and those two schools and another to participate in a Beanpot-like annual event.
Having coached under the legendary Jerry York at Boston College and having developed relationships with scores of coaches in the hockey world who can be resources and sounding boards, Cavanaugh now has a new neighborhood, new friends, to knock ideas around with. He said his first duties as head coach are simply to get to know as many people at UConn as possible. Cavanaugh officially is on the job starting May 20.
"I think that’s moving horizontally throughout the campus," said Cavanaugh, 44. "I had a chance to meet coach [Jim] Calhoun this morning. He was terrific. He said, ‘When you get here, seek me out.’ I’m looking forward to picking his brain. During the interview process I said, ‘I can’t wait to meet Geno Auriemma.’ Eight national titles, 90 straight wins, whatever that record was, is just incredible. I look forward to going and watching one of his practices, to see how he operates. I think it’s always important to keep learning in life. The minute you think you have everything figured out, that’s when it usually goes south. I’m going to continually try to learn and evolve from everyone on this campus, daily."
Soccer coach Ray Reid, whose Huskies won a national title in 2000, attended the press conference and introduced himself to Cavanaugh afterward.
"My mission here – I’m going to simplify it for you – is going to be to graduate players and win championships," Cavanaugh said.
There was a lot of talk about recruiting Thursday. Cavanaugh's lead role in recruiting players out of Connecticut and New England, players who helped the Eagles to four national titles in while Cavanaugh was on the bench, was key in winning the job.
Can he start to land elite recruits immediately?
"I don’t see why not," Cavanaugh said. "When I went to Boston College, they said we couldn’t recruit Canadians. If you just listen to people who say you can’t do something, I don’t think you’re going to be successful. … I’ve been recruiting this talent for a long time. I have a lot of connections here, trusted friendships. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. Do I think it’s going to be easy? No. I don’t think anything is easy in life. But I look forward to the challenge of recruiting those kids. … It might be challenging at first, but when we build this program I think kids are going to be clamoring to come here."
That effort starts now. So does the effort to get to know his current players. There are many parts of the job Cavanaugh will approach without Hockey East on his mind. He'll spend one season with the team in Atlantic Hockey, then hop back into Hockey East as a head coach at UConn instead of an assistant at BC.
"I obviously know the league pretty well," Cavanaugh said. "This year will be a little more challenging for me because I don’t know the Atlantic Hockey opponents as well. And I want to make this clear: Hockey East is two years away. There are going to be seniors on this team that are committed to winning an Atlantic Hockey title, because that’s all they can play for. They’re not going to get a chance to play in Hockey East. It’s imperative that I set the tone for this program. That is our goal this year. Hockey East will wait. … If you win the Atlantic Hockey league title, that gets you a berth in the NCAA Tournament. That’s the big goal we’re all going to play for. I’m not afraid to say it – I’m coming here to win national championships. If you’re afraid to put those goals out there, you’re never going to achieve them."
Cavanaugh addressed the team Thursday at noon. It's been an interesting time for the Huskies. Players learned Bruce Marshall, UConn's coach for 25 years, was taking medical leave in November. Assistant coach David Berard ran the program in Marshall's absence, and continued to after being named interim coach when Marshall resigned in January. The Huskies went on to one of the best seasons in their history under Berard, finishing with a winning mark for the first time since 1999-00. UConn was 19-14-4, 19-10-3 under Berard, who became the players’ choice for the full-time job. Berard ultimately finished as runner-up to Cavanaugh. Former Denver coach George Gwozdecky was the other finalist from a group of 40-plus applicants.
During the press conference, Cavanaugh was asked to share what he could about his conversation with players. They had gathered in the Freitas locker room.
"I told them we’re going to move forward," Cavanaugh said. "This is not going to be Boston College moving to Storrs. This is going to be UConn Hockey. That’s what I’m focused on. Make no mistake. Jerry York gave me my start in college hockey when he hired me at Bowling Green [in 1992]. He is a valued friend and has been a terrific mentor and I’ll cherish his relationship for the rest of my life. But it’s important that we establish what UConn hockey stands for. That’s what I expressed to the players. I expressed that this is a partnership. I have found that the best organizations – whether it be a college hockey team or a Fortune 500 business – everyone has to have the same ideals and striving for the same goals."
Cavanaugh spoke about the meeting with players again after the press conference.
"I think everything is gradual," he said. "If you come in and try to demand something early on, that can be standoffish. I don’t want to drive a stake through anybody. I’m sympathetic to what they had to go deal with this season. But I wanted to let them know that I’m excited to lead them. I’m not looking forward to Hockey East this season. I think it’s very important for these seniors to experience a chance to win a championship. … This is not going to be Boston College. This is going to be UConn. ... They were so eager and enthusiastic. They share that same competitive spirit that I do. "