When UConn first announced they were moving to Hockey East, I'm pretty sure I laughed at it. Their announcement came in the summer following the 2011-2012 season, a year in which they finished in eighth place in Atlantic Hockey. Anyone who watched that team thought they were competitive, but stepping up to a league where Boston College just won a national championship, with UMass-Lowell and Boston University, was program suicide.
Four years later, the Huskies are a respectable, growing program. They're on solid footing, and even though they aren't close to the top of the league in the standings, they're a team few teams take lightly. In their second year in the league, they have a couple of marquee games, including a big win over Boston College last season and a tie with Boston University, and as has been pointed out, they're trending up in many ways where other programs are trending down.
I've been really fortunate to have a front row seat to the growth of the Huskies. Broadcasting games in Atlantic Hockey and working as the AHA correspondent for USCHO, I've been able to watch a program plant seeds. As they continue to grow, I've often referred to the Huskies among teams in Exhibit A of how to grow a program. And where I seldom cover hockey on these pages, leaving Hockey East to the people who know it best and who live and breathe in it more than I do, I've been really lucky to sit back and watch my attitude change from the way I felt at the beginning of this move to where it is today. In watching what they were, what they are, and where they're going, I've been able to see that there are a few key areas where UConn's been really successful: funding, program infrastructure, and off-ice growth.
Funding is a pretty cut-and-dry thing: you either have scholarships or you don't. While it's hard to fathom in Hockey East, a number of programs run with a lack of scholarship funding in college hockey. When the move began, UConn was one of those teams. When the Huskies announced they would be moving to Hockey East, they didn't offer athletic scholarships in hockey.
Moving to Hockey East required a major monetary investment. The Huskies added 18 scholarships, offsetting Title IX requirements by doing the same for their women's program.
By adding the scholarships, UConn was able to add a measure of recruiting they previously didn't have. It allowed them to compete for Hockey East recruits with other Hockey East teams, and it changed the whole strategy. While they continued to compete on the ice with AHC teams, they were able to become an off-the-ice Hockey East team (more on that later).
In addition, the school committed to expanding Freitas Forum. With less than 2,000 seats, it failed to reach the minimum capacity standards for Hockey East. Construction on expanding and improving the arena was supposed to start this fall, but their success in Hartford (again, more on that later) allows them to defer construction until 2019, which in turn allows them to better analyze how they want to invest their money.
How does this provide a blueprint? As programs like Union, RIT, and others (namely the Ivy League) prove, you can be successful without scholarships as long as you have the right coach, the right arena, the right fan base, etc. But in order to truly compete, there's no substitute for good old fashioned greenbacks.
When UConn first opted to move to Hockey East, I remember learning that the move was met with more tepid enthusiasm on campus. For starters, students didn't really care, and attendance for home games in AHA/AHC didn't exactly explode. All of that had to be grown, and in order to grow it, UConn provided the right men in the right positions.
In the immediate season after announcing, longtime head coach Bruce Marshall resigned and was replaced by David Berard on an interim basis. Berard, a former assistant and longtime Providence Friar, helped provide the right approach while continuing to grow the program. In a season following the announcement of their move and with the resignation of their head coach, the Huskies won 19 games.
At the end of the season, UConn hired Boston College assistant Mike Cavanaugh for the job. As the team began to transition out, the move from Berard to Cavanaugh helped solidify the method of thinking. Marshall did a great job as coach of that program for 20-something odd years, and he's a legend in hockey circles. But Cavanaugh's turned out to be the right man for the job, the right man who once said that he wanted to "win now" in Atlantic Hockey as a respect to his current players while preparing the team for Hockey East.
He knew enough on how to have the vision for the future while competing in the present, which allowed him to succeed both in the present and in the recruiting area. By the time the team left Atlantic Hockey, they were one of the better programs, allowing them to transition to a lower middle tier team in Hockey East.
One thing about UConn is how they're able to market Hartford. Storrs is about a half hour away, but the Huskies have done a good job of becoming Hartford's teams. Hartford is a great minor league city; college sports are a much more visible way to become a sports city without needing a top-tier professional franchise.
In the pro sports lexicon, Hartford falls right between the New York and Boston markets for basketball and hockey. While the Celtics used to play home games in the Civic Center, and the Wolfpack play as the AHL affiliate for the New York Rangers, both belong to other cities. UConn, in that vacuum, is able to fill the void for viewing top-flight sports with hometown association.
With Hartford only a half hour away from campus, UConn was able to tie in with a city really lacking its own sports identity, beginning with the basketball program. Using the roots, the expansion went into football, which in New England is always going to struggle for eyeballs (as we find out with Boston College and the ACC), and now hockey. Basketball is always going to be king, but with hockey growing more and more as a sport, especially in New England, the Huskies were able to capitalize by placing their team in Hartford. All of this happened about the same time the school standardized its look, playing on the one school, one brand approach instead of using different logos and uniforms different programs.
That was a risky strategy. In the event it didn't work, the hockey team would have returned to campus to play in an upgraded Freitas Forum. But the success of the team in Hartford, where they drew over 4,400 fans for their game against Arizona State and sold out last year's game against Boston College, is due in large part to the brand identification in a sport by which regionalism and parochialism is always going to reign supreme.
UConn was able to find there was enough interest in hockey (Hartford Whalers gear still sells well) to support a team that wasn't going to be able to compete at the major league level. New England states are hockey states, and Yale, out in New Haven, sells out or nearly sells out the majority of their games in New Haven. With Hartford far enough away and with the UConn brand entrenched, the association between the two with hockey as a link became something easy enough to fill.
The Whalers left town in the late 1990s, and despite attempts from the Wolfpack, the Connecticut Whale, and others, nothing's felt capable of living up to the nostalgia void they left behind because they weren't "big time" enough. UConn, a team with a tradition within the state, merged its tradition into the vacuum left by the Whalers, and made it their own because they were able to start moving and compete at their sport's highest level.
How successful has UConn been? Because the Huskies draw so well for Hockey East games in Hartford, there's talk of pushing Freitas Forum expansion out a couple of years and staying at the XL Center. That's allowing them to look at doubling the capacity, and if they wait another few years, they'll be able to renovate and plan it as one of the best arenas in college hockey.
The Final Result
UConn's success in hockey still has a long way to go; at some point, they need to jump up and compete with the top of the conference. But they're a team that had the perfect storm come together at the right time. Hockey East was looking for a natural fit, and UConn provided the brand association capable of competing with Boston College and Boston University (UConn is much more recognizable than, say, Quinnipiac).
The Huskies were willing to invest, got the opportunity, and built from there. They've been successful in what they've done. It doesn't translate to the future, but as been pointed out, they're trending upwards. That's good for college hockey and it's good for teams with good brand association in their home if it's a minor league city. They started within, shored up the infrastructure, then made the move. They plotted it along a few years. They found the right home in the biggest conference, fixed things in preparation for a move, then jumped as a ready-made program. They enjoyed the rub of the conference's teams, and they're reaching a point where they can provide a rub of their own.
UConn might not be the perfect program, but having seen them as a team with no scholarships and no real home ice advantage, they're hardly recognizable now. They're a Hockey East program, and while they're still a way from being at the top of the league, they're well on the road to what they can be.