By PAT EATON-ROBB
STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ Seventeen years ago, the University of Connecticut was playing Division III hockey on an outdoor rink.
On Friday, the Huskies open the 2014-15 season as the 12th member of Hockey East, a conference that boasts eight national titles and storied programs such as Boston College, Maine and Notre Dame, which joined a year ago.
UConn has spent two years making the transition from a non-scholarship program and hired former Boston College assistant coach Mike Cavanaugh in 2013 to build what the administration envisions as a national-title contender.
“Right now, our facilities might not be as nice as some other programs’ facilities, our traditions are not where other programs are, but these kids share the same vision I have,” said Cavanaugh. “They want to be pioneers.”
Cavanaugh says he sees a lot of parallels between what his program is doing, and what UConn did with football a decade ago, when it completed the transition from Division I-AA to the Big East. The Huskies went to a bowl game in 2004, won a share of the conference title in 2007 and played in the Fiesta Bowl in 2011.
“I’ve already seen in the almost 18 months I’ve been here the resources the school is putting behind me,” Cavanaugh said. “I believe in time, hopefully, we’ll have that same type of success.”
UConn becomes just the ninth school with top-tier programs in football, basketball and hockey, joining Boston College, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.
Hockey East Commissioner Joe Bertagna said that is part of what made the Huskies and Notre Dame attractive to the conference. UConn, with its 19 national titles in other sports, provides the league with name recognition that goes well beyond hockey fans.
“From that part of my job that has to pay attention to marketing and branding, it is important,” he said. Not only are we trying to reach an audience nationally for recruiting, but we’re trying to get people to watch our games on television.”
Cavanaugh said being at UConn give him the advantage of being able to pick the brains of national champion coaches in other sports. He said he took a weave-drill he saw Geno Auriemma using at a women basketball practice last year and modified it for his hockey team.
“A lot of the concepts in basketball are similar,” he said. “You get a rebound and you want to outlet it. Same thing in hockey with transition. All those other coaches have been fantastic with me.”
Since 1998, UConn has played hockey in a 2,000-seat on-campus rink with metal bleachers. A new facility has been promised, expected to be part of a campus-wide master plan that will be unveiled in December.
Until that arena is built, the Huskies will play the majority of their home games at the newly-renovated XL Center in Hartford. They have sold about 1,600 season tickets in the 15,000-seat building.
But Bertagna said he’s not worried about attendance, noting that UConn fans are used to traveling to Hartford to watch basketball, and to East Hartford for football.
The state has a rich hockey tradition that includes the former NHL Hartford Whalers and built-in rivals such as Yale and Quinnipiac, teams that played each other for the national title just two seasons ago.
Cavanaugh said the state also is a recruiting hot bed, with some of the top hockey prep schools in the nation.
“A lot of players from Connecticut helped us win national championships at BC,” he said. “So I know there is a wealth of talent for us to go after, and kids in this state grow up wanting to be part of the UConn brand.”
The team has some talent this year.
UConn won two games against Hockey East opponents last season, beating UMass and Providence. It also lost to Boston University. This season, they will play teams of that caliber almost every night, and junior forward Patrick Kirtland said they are anxious to show they belong in the league.
“Being picked to finish last, I think everybody knew that was coming,” he said. “But for us, we want to prove everybody wrong and surprise some people and I think we are going to do that.”
UConn plays at Penn State to open the season on Friday. The first home game as a member of Hockey East will be Nov. 5 against Boston College.
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