By Mary Paoletti
There was a time when nobody overlooked Merrimack hockey. In that time, a losing season was unacceptable and conference playoffs were inevitable for the Warriors.
It started with Thom Lawler.
In Lawler's 13 years as coach of Merrimack he succeeded in bringing the once-D II Warriors to the forefront of the esteemed ECAC conference. Lawlers teams made the playoffs in all but one year during his tenure. Merrimack reinforced its resume by winning three ECAC championships and just missing as runner-up four times. His .609 winning percentage remains unsurpassed in Merrimack hockey history.
The centerpiece of Lawler's success? A Division II national title in 1978.
"Thom Lawler did something with the small school athletic program which brought us national attention," then vice-president of development Bob Hatem has said. "I think the man truly represented what sports are supposed to do."
But revelry following Merrimacks historic run was cut tragically short. Just two months after leading his team to a national championship, the coach succumbed to a heart attack. Lawler was 44 year old.
Things have since changed in North Andover.
Mark Dennehy now holds the reigns of Warriors hockey; the fourth coach since Lawlers passing. Also, Merrimack is in its 21st Division I season and has been a member of the power-packed Hockey East since 1989. It was a jump that the program felt ready for, but entering the ring with the big boys proved to be a reality check.
Merrimack has not finished over .500 since joining Hockey East. In the last five seasons alone, the Warriors havent even tallied a double-digit win total.
"Thats the challenge for everyone in Hockey East, isnt it? Dennehy says. "Youre going to be tested on every night. You could be playing against last years national champion or last years Frozen Four team."
So dont blame the fans for getting excited this season. A hot start by the Warriors had them ranked No. 1 in scoring, No. 1 on the power play and No. 2 on the penalty kill in Hockey East contests at the end of November. In the J. Thom Lawler Arena they were unstoppable. One by one, the usual suspects marched to Merrimack; UVM, BU, BC, and Northeastern; looking for an easy-out against the perennial underdog. One by one, the visitors went home with a loss. Merrimacks 6-5-0 overall and 3-3-0 Hockey East records over two months were already doubly better than the entire effort of 2007.
Unfortunately, sustainability has been a problem.
The Warriors have dropped six of seven games since November 28. Cause for concern? Sure. Should fans expect 14-straight losses to end the season like in 07? Coach Dennehy doesnt think so.
"Its amazing to me how much different this years team is from the four teams I coached here previously, he remarked. "We feel as if we have three lines now that can score at any moment. We have not had that type of scoring balance since Ive been here.
Dennehy doesnt seem to feel pressure to return Merrimack to Lawler-like success in a hurry. He was fully aware that he was grabbing the helm of a foundering program when he took the job and accepted the challenge with passion.
"We play David to most teams Goliath every weekend in this league. But theres reason why Merrimack belongs in Hockey East. Most people forget that David won the fight. So we do enjoy that role.
The Warriors arent slaying giants quite yet.
What Merrimack can do in the meantime is take steps toward improvement. Recruiting will play an important role in that process. The nations top talent that turns to the Hockey East will continue to gravitate toward teams like UNH, UMaine, BU, and BC, but as the Warriors progress there will be more players who look to Merrimack for a big hockey-small school experience.
Freshman sensation Stephane Da Costa (Paris, France) is one of them. Da Costa leads the country in points per game (1.18) among rookies and was named the Hockey East Pro Ambitions Rookie of the Month for a third straight time. The forwards mission at MC is simple.
"Just trying to help the team and the organization and everything like that, he said. "That's it,
And Da Costa has helped. The Warriors are currently just two points shy of tying Vermont and Boston University for sixth place in the conference standings. With 16 games left to play, 2010 is already considered an improvement over 2009. Even Thom Lawlers teams had to grind through four different sub-.500 seasons.
For now, Mark Dennehys mix of straightforward determination and patience is a good match for Merrimack. The coach earnestly believes that the Warriors have a place in Hockey East play and that the day will come again when the program wont be overlooked.
One game at a time.