It's April 11th. The 2019 Frozen Four starts today in Buffalo. I'm a Quinnipiac student. Yeah, we're a hockey school, but the NHL Playoffs just started, and the Bruins are on. This should be no more than a blip on the radar for me. I shouldn't care.
But I do. A lot. And for one reason.
The UMass Minutemen.
I grew up in a small town in Northern Connecticut. Check my Twitter bio, it's not that hard to find where.
Follow me while you're there too, you vultures.
Anyway, according to Google Maps, my house is 46 minutes from the William D. Mullins Center, the hockey arena on the campus of the University of Massachusetts. This is usually the point where I'm asked the question in the title.
What most don't know is that while I grew up in Connecticut, I played the vast majority of my youth travel hockey in Western Massachusetts. I called Springfield, Ludlow and/or Holyoke home 2-3 nights a week, and most weekends between August and April.
Glamorous, I know.
The story starts on a year that I usually can't recall, so I usually say, "whenever Jonathan Quick was a freshman."
After a swift HockeyDB search, the story starts in 2005. While I don't remember the day exactly, I can tell you that it was likely a winter Saturday or Sunday that my dad and I decided to make our way to Amherst for the first time. I was seven years old, and playing hockey with the Ludlow Hockey Association. The Wildcats were ROLLING that year, I'm sure.
Right off the bat, my dad and I liked the style of play better than the hockey we would usually watch, in the AHL, with the Springfield Falcons (rest in peace). Nothing against the Falcons, but the AHL as a whole was stuck in a bit of a "talent rut" at the time.
The college hockey game, which my dad and I still prefer, was fast-paced and fun. We were hooked. Whether it was my uncle and cousin (the Potters, shout out) or my Ludlow teammate Zac Steigmeyer and his dad, Jeff, or just the two of us, we'd head up to Amherst every now and then, and watch our Minutemen play.
Soon into the process, we started getting the five-game plan. The 46-minute drive wasn't something we could do 20 times a year, but five games always felt right. My dad and I would always try to keep track of our "records" over the years, and see how many wins and losses we'd seen. More times than not, we'd end up around .500 by year's end.
And then, our records dropped, and so did the team's. Right off a cliff, in fact.
With a certain Man Who Shall Not Be Named having been brought in to take over the program, it didn't take long for an already wounded program to start sinking. This man, we'll call him The Iceberg in honor of the good ship UMass hitting it, struggled right from the beginning.
I'll tell you something. An 8,500-seat arena can make 1,500 people seem like 50 really easily.
Here's what I mean. This is a video I took from the very first game of the Greg Carvel era.
LOOK AT THE DAMN STANDS! You have a NEW COACH and NOBODY cares. Students, locals, no one.
That's what being a UMass fan had become for everyone involved.
I always laugh when I watch this video (now). If that version of me knew what I know...good lord.
But you can hear it when they score. An empty-netter against a team from Canada in a scrimmage to make the game 7-5 in favor of UMass. I still let out a "YEAH" because, somehow, I still cared.
That year was brutal. Five wins is not a fun time for anyone involved. But then, it just kind of...happened.
Cale Makar was drafted 4th overall and still chose to come to school. That's a win.
Mario Ferraro, also good, comes to school. That's a win.
Not one but TWO good goaltending recruits walk onto campus. That's a win.
Amherst native, and proud teammate of Dan Bahl, John Leonard is ready to play for the team he routed for (with me a few times). That's a win.
Then they actually started to win. And win. And lose. But then win again.
Then this year hit. And they won. And won. And won. And won. And won. And lost but like by a goal or two to the #1 team in the country after beating them the night before (I see you Buckeyes). Then win again. And again.
You get the point. I didn't, and still don't know how to handle this. Because UMass and Quinnipiac were both really good all season, I've kept my fandom to a minimum, probably more so this year than either freshman or sophomore year.
Here's the same arena. The same team. The same coach. Just a tick over two years later.
Doesn't look quite as empty anymore, does it?
This was against Providence, after UMass had won on a late goal from Ty Farmer. This is what I had been waiting for, and what Greg Carvel had brought back to town.
Oh yeah, quickly about Greg Carvel.
This guy has been around. Assistant in the NHL, head coach with a handful of programs, and now just about three years into his tenure in Amherst.
First off, he was gracious enough to join us on our 50th episode of From The Bleachers. As if that episode couldn't get anymore special, he jumped on, and in the FIRST SENTENCE of the interview, congratulated us on reaching 50 episodes.
Next, I was GIF-ing UMass' playoff game against Vermont in the 2017-18 season for a class. I GIF'd their postgame celebration at center ice, and he quote-tweeted my tweet with the caption "God, I Love This!"
That was his pinned tweet for about a calendar year.
Not bad at all.
Fast forward to this past December. I am put on play-by-play for QBSN's broadcast of Quinnipiac's home game against UMass. I'm already losing my mind about the concept itself, before I remember that I'm joining the gentlemen from ESPN+ and WQUN downstairs to interview the coaches.
We speak to Rand Pecknold, who offers his fantastic insight as always. We take our notes, and move down the hallway to the UMass room.
Coach Carvel exits the locker room, and comes up to greet all five of us in the huddle. He reaches me, and I follow my colleagues in saying my name. "Dan Bahl, how are you?"
Instant recognition, a smile, and a "how are you, Dan?" as well as a "nice to see you, Dan" on the way out.
That right there, folks, is why I'm a UMass fan for life, and will be losing my mind at approximately 8:30 PM tonight.
Save them for Sunday.