Canton native Greg Carvel left his job as head coach at St. Lawrence University in 2016 with a vision of what he could do as head coach of the University of Massachusetts.
The vision he had has developed much quicker than he anticipated, especially after starting off with a 5-29-2 record in the 2016-17 season.
But now Carvel is preparing to take the Minutemen to an NCAA Frozen Four for the second straight time as his squad, which is 18-5-4 this season, faces two-time defending national champion Minnesota-Duluth at 9 p.m. Thursday in Pittsburgh in a national semifinal. If UMass wins that game it will face either St. Cloud State or Minnesota State in the national championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“I don’t think anybody could have forecast what has happened,” Carvel said. “I came here with a vision. I went to St. Lawrence with a vision. I’ve had enough experience at different levels with different people to have a vision of how a program should be run. It’s not always about how good your players are, it’s about how strong your culture is and how committed your players are to playing the game the right way.”
Carvel, who is 50, certainly had a strong coaching background before he ever landed his first head coaching job with SLU in 2012.
He played four years for Saints coach Joe Marsh, graduating in 1993, and has been a coach at some level since 1994.
He spent close to a decade as a National Hockey League assistant, working with the Anaheim Ducks in 2003-04 and then with the Ottawa Senators from 2005-11, including being on the bench during the 2007 Stanley Cup Final.
He came back to Canton in 2011 to work for Marsh, but when Marsh suddenly retired with a health issue, Carvel found himself guiding his alma mater, a job he kept until leaving for UMass in 2016.
Just two years after his 5-29-2 team, the Minutemen became a national power, finishing 31-10 in 2018-19, losing 3-0 to Minnesota-Duluth in the national championship game. Now they are back again.
“It’s really special in this crazy year that this group of kids have been able to do what they have and they get rewarded by what should be a really great experience in Pittsburgh,” Carvel said. “Seven thousand fans in the building will be strange. We’ve been accustomed to having no fans in the building. I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully in Pittsburgh there’s a little bit of that buzz. It’s a really special opportunity to make the Frozen Four. I think our team is in a really good place. The experience of two years ago will be critical in helping us. We have to play the same tough team again. The last time we played Duluth, it wasn’t close. I expect we’ll have an equally tough challenge this time.”
UMass is one of the hottest teams in the country heading into the Frozen Four. The last time the Minutemen lost was a 4-3 overtime defeat at Boston University on Jan. 18.
The leading goal-scorer for Carvel’s team is a player he recruited to SLU, Carson Gicewicz, who left the Saints after last season and transferred. He has scored 17 goals and added seven assists in 27 games, with three of those goals coming in a regional final last weekend against Bemidji State.
“(Defense) has been a focus going back to my vision of what I wanted the program to be,” Carvel said. “You don’t win if you are not a good defensive hockey team. We have kids who are really good and committed to playing really good defense. They are all good two-way players. We’re not a super-skilled team by any means. The kids are committed to playing what I believe is the right way, limiting teams and frustrating teams and being opportunists. We don’t sit back. We play the game hard going forward and hard coming back. It’s how I want my teams to play. We’ve done a good job down the stretch here really refining it.”
Carvel never got a second chance to be in a Stanley Cup Final after Ottawa lost to Anaheim in 2007. He is getting a second chance at the Frozen Four and will apply lessons he learned the last time around this week.
“We were a tired team going into the (2019) championship game,” Carvel said. “We’ve talked about if we are fortunate to move on that recovery is our priority. We learned we had to do what’s best for our players first. Last time I don’t think we did that well enough.”