Ice Hockey Teams Skate into New Era with Cavanaugh, MacKenzie

From left; Men's Ice Hockey head coach Mike Cavanaugh with Women's head coach Chris MacKenzie on Oct. 10, 2013. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Men's ice hockey head coach Mike Cavanaugh, left, and women's head coach Chris MacKenzie at the Freitas Ice Forum. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Mike Cavanaugh was named the fourth men’s ice hockey coach for the Huskies following 18 seasons as an assistant for Boston College, where he was part of four national championships. Chris MacKenzie was named the second women’s ice hockey coach for the Huskies after serving as an assistant at Ohio State University and as head coach at his alma mater, Niagara. The coaches talked with UConn Today about their first season in Storrs.

What was your first order of business when you met with your teams?

Mike Cavanaugh: We have one more year in the Atlantic Hockey League. I wanted to be clear with our guys this isn’t going to be a throw-away season. It’s only fair to our seniors. They don’t get to compete in Hockey East, but they have a chance to compete for the Atlantic Hockey League title.

Chris MacKenzie: Our goal is to win the Hockey East championship and make the NCAA tournament. We had a clear set of goals at our first team meeting. Our expectations were laid out right there.

What changes are you bringing to your respective teams?

CM: We’re doing some things systematically different than what’s gone on here before. We’ve had some growing pains with that. It’s to be expected. We’re breaking the season down to five game segments. We just had our fifth game. We’ll re-evaluate where we’re at each time.

MC: I think you always build from your goaltender out. We have a goaltender who is a fifth-year senior. The top line that finished the year last year are seniors and they’ve been tremendous leaders. I consider the team is young when your top line, goalie, or top center is a rookie. Those are key positions where you need strong leadership. We might be a little bit young on defense – we don’t have a senior on defense – but otherwise I like the makeup of the club. If your kids compete hard and win a lot of puck battles you’re going to win games. That’s kind of our focus through the preseason.

You’ve both been assistant coaches. What were you looking for in finding the right staff to help you build your program?

MC: When you coach for 20 years you meet a lot of people, like former players I’ve coached. The hardest part was telling some of those people I was going in a different direction. Hiring the two guys I hired [Joe Pereira and Mike Souza] was pretty easy. I felt comfortable that those guys were going to share the same vision I did in bringing the program forward.

CM: I went through this before. I feel fortunate with the set of assistants I have here. Jaclyn Hawkins ’08 (CLAS) came in to meet with me before I had moved here. She’s the all-time leading scorer in our program. Her passion was evident. I feel I got lucky with getting her back here. Casey Handrahan’s brother and I were college roommates, so I know him. He’s had wonderful experience coaching and playing. He’s a great asset to our program.

What are you looking at toward the future as the program moves forward?

CM: We’re always going to look to put together a competitive schedule. You learn the most about yourself through adversity. If you’re playing tough competition, you’re only going to get better from it. You want to have wins and have a great record, but as long as you’re pushing yourself and putting your program in a place to get better, that’s what you’re looking for.

MC: We’re going to have 12 non-league games. I’d always want to play the Connecticut schools – Quinnipiac, Sacred Heart, and Yale – if I could. I’d like to keep a couple of the Atlantic Hockey League rivalries that we’ve had. We will also look to play a couple of western teams on the schedule. I agree with Chris that you want to go out to a Michigan or a North Dakota where it’s a hostile environment, because when it comes to the NCAA tournament, you can be placed anywhere. The ultimate goal we all have is to win a national championship. You have to prepare your team to play in the most adverse circumstances. The only way you can do that during the year is to schedule those games.

What kind of changes in atmosphere will take place as the facilities for ice hockey at UConn improve?

MC: I love the pageantry of college hockey. I think a lot of that stems from student support. When you look at some of the toughest places or the best venues to play in – Michigan, Cornell, or the University of Maine – they have a great fan base of students that excite the entire venue. I think it’s important that we do build a beautiful, first-class facility on campus where the students have the access to walk over to the game and really get behind both programs. That’s the most effective way to create a loyal and rabid fan base. However, I’m not opposed to playing some games around the state; this is the state’s university and that’s another way to cultivate your fan base.

CM: I would agree the student support is where it starts. There’s been a loyal following. We were happy with our home opener. There were 500 people here. That’s a pretty good size crowd for a women’s hockey game. But the student support is where it will really take off for us.

How has your reception been on the road for recruiting?

CM: It’s been wonderful for us throughout Connecticut, New England, and into Canada. It’s exciting to tell a recruit about UConn, what the vision is, what we want to do, and the excitement around the men’s team getting to Hockey East, and to tell our story of where we’ve been in the past and where we want to go in the future.

MC: Any Massachusetts kid we bring down here is shocked to see how nice the campus is. With the Storrs Center and all the money that the state has appropriated for the school, it’s really eye-opening for people when they come here. It’s been encouraging to see from our standpoint. We’re certainly accepted in the hockey community, until we sign our first recruit. Then they don’t accept you so well, but that’s OK.

Have you seen an increase in intensity for the college game as you’ve been on the recruiting trail?

CM: The women’s game has grown exponentially over the last 20 years. What’s exciting is that this is an Olympic year, and we’ll be front and center. It will showcase our national teams to the world. For us it’s a great thing. I’ve seen growth, energy, and investment in women’s hockey just in the four years I’ve been coaching it. I left the men’s game because I was excited about being a part of it.

MC: There’s tremendous talent in this state, and that’s one of the things I was intrigued about most when the job opened. I’ve been fortunate to recruit a lot of [Boston College] players out of this state. Three of them were captains on championship teams. There’s a lot of talent here. At the Select 15 Festival this year, where they pick the top New England kids, 10 of the top 15 were Connecticut kids. It’s certainly a wealth of talent that we hope to capitalize on.

There was a bit of a shock last year when both Yale and Quinnipiac played for a national championship. What went through your mind when you saw that?

CM: I think it’s great for Connecticut hockey. We can only benefit from the exposure of it. That type of event happening is great for men’s and women’s hockey.

MC: I wasn’t that far removed from it [laughing]. If we had beaten Union, Quinnipiac was next on the schedule. They’ve both been good programs for a long time. It wasn’t surprising to me. When we won a national title [at BC] in 2010, one of the toughest games getting there was against Yale. Yale’s been knocking on the door for a while. Rand [Pecknold] at Quinnipiac has done a good job there for 20 years. It didn’t surprise me that either of them was playing for a national championship.

Where is the game of college hockey right now?

MC: I think the mistake people make is to compare hockey with football and basketball. It’s never going to compare with football and basketball. I don’t think anything can compare with football where you have 100,000 people going to a football game. It’s just a completely different sport. From the men’s side, the Frozen Four has become an event that is sold out year in and year out. I think the state of college hockey and its fan base is growing right now. I like the path college hockey is on.

CM: On the women’s side, we’ve learned the proper place to put the championship. This year the national championship is at Quinnipiac. Where is it trending? It’s growing and getting better every year.

What haven’t you been asked that you think people should know?

MC: I don’t think enough has been asked about the kids on the team. I don’t think people understand in this program there weren’t any scholarship players and they had to pay their own way to go to school. I’ve been impressed with their work ethic and dedication to be a student-athlete at UConn. Going forward, I hope more of the questions will be centered around student-athletes like Brant Harris ’14 (CLAS) and Matt Grogan ’14 (CLAS). That’s where I’d like to see it go.

CM: One of the questions I’ll always ask myself when I’m recruiting: Is this someone I can trust with my daughter? The whole group is someone I can trust with my daughter. That’s an important thing in my world.

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