The vindication of Northeastern hockey coach Jim Madigan

Scott McLaughlin
March 20, 2016 - 4:07 pm

Jim Madigan and Northeastern won the Hockey East championship on Saturday. (WEEI.com)

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No one has ever questioned Jim Madigan's love of Northeastern University and its hockey program. He played there from 1981-85 and has worked for the school in one capacity or another since 1986. What some people -- media and fans alike -- have questioned, however, is whether Madigan is the right guy to be the team’s head coach.

The questions started right from the moment Madigan was hired in July 2011. Although he had been a scout for the New York Islanders and then the Pittsburgh Penguins for the previous 18 years, he had never been a head coach and hadn't been behind the bench at all since 1993 when he was an assistant coach at his alma mater. Did he really have what it takes to be a Division I head coach?

The fact that the Huskies missed the Hockey East playoffs in each of Madigan's first two seasons as head coach didn't help, especially considering what two other Hockey East coaches hired the same summer as Madigan -- UMass Lowell's Norm Bazin and Providence's Nate Leaman -- did in those two years. Lowell had won a Hockey East championship, made back-to-back NCAA tournaments and reached a Frozen Four, and Providence had made back-to-back Hockey East semifinals.

The 2013-14 Huskies won more, but even still there were questions. They weren't a good possession team and many (myself included) believed their style of play was not conducive to sustained success. A disappointing end to that season and nine straight losses to start the 2014-15 season seemed to justify those concerns, and the criticism of Madigan continued.

But then the Huskies started playing better hockey. They became better defensively, they possessed the puck more and they started winning games. The season still ended in disappointment, though, as they got upset by Merrimack in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs.

This season, the Huskies once again got off to a terrible start. They won their first game, then went 0-11-2 over their next 13. Madigan came under criticism again. He didn't even try to hide from it.

"When you're 1-11-2 to start, you're subject as a coach to people's thoughts and opinions," Madigan said. "I actually kind of like reading what some of them write. It's kind of like idiot radio, sports stations. Billy from Southie's calling in and Tony from Eastie. I get a kick out of listening to what their comments are, so I'm just reading it. 

"Some of it stings when it's some of your own people who don't know whether a puck is blown or stuffed or what it's made of, but they feel like they want to comment on it. That's their prerogative. I just don't like it when our players have to listen to it. I don't mind them taking shots at me. I'm fair game. But our players had to put up with a little bit, so I had to tell our guys, 'Don't listen to what you're seeing and reading. Just focus on what we can do.'"

What the Huskies could do was turn things around pretty quickly. As hard as it may have been to believe given their record, there were reasons to think that. They were still playing the better possession game they had started playing last season and they certainly had some offensive talent, but they were making too many mistakes, they had one of the lowest shooting percentages in the country and they weren't getting good goaltending. Those were real problems, but nothing that couldn't be turned around with what they already had.

Starting with a trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland, over Thanksgiving weekend, things started to come together. They played well against a very good UMass Lowell team in the first round of the Friendship Four, but gave up a late tying goal and then lost in overtime. No one likes "moral victories," but the Huskies now had proof that they could compete against one of the best teams in the country if they played the way they were capable of playing. The next night they went out and crushed Colgate, 7-1.

"Going over to Northern Ireland, we have a group of young men and a close group, but we were together there on planes, buses, at the rink. There were no distractions. There were no interruptions to our group," Madigan said recently on WEEI's College Puckcast. "And we went in with a game plan to play against Lowell, and we executed really well. We did not win. ... But we walked away with confidence and said, 'Hey, we played well. If we can play like this, and against a quality opponent like Lowell, then we're going to be OK.'"

They came back to Boston and played two close games against Boston College, coming away with a tie and a one-goal defeat. They only got one point out of the weekend, but they had again gone toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the nation. The players were starting to gain confidence.

Then the Huskies started winning. And winning. And winning. They made fewer mistakes. Their shots started going in more. Freshman Ryan Ruck gave them very good goaltending and ran with the starting job.

Senior defenseman Dustin Darou, who now plays on the team’s top pairing, returned from injury on Jan. 8 and senior forward Kevin Roy, the team’s leading scorer each of the previous three seasons, came back on Jan. 22 and finally found his goal-scoring touch a couple weeks later (he had zero goals in his first 16 games this season, and now has 10 in his last 12).

The Huskies finished the regular season on a 14-1-2 run, then continued to roll right through the Hockey East tournament. They swept Maine in the opening round and then went on the road and swept NCAA tournament-bound Notre Dame in the quarterfinals.

Their remarkable turnaround came full circle this weekend when they beat Boston College in Friday's semifinals and UMass Lowell in Saturday's championship game. When the Huskies had played well against those two teams back in the first half, they saw that they could compete against those two, but they hadn't actually beaten either. But after three and a half months of consistent improvement and lots of winning, Northeastern was now able to beat both, capture its first Hockey East title since 1988 and clinch an NCAA tournament berth.

As improbable as it sounds, the Huskies insist that they believed in themselves all along. Madigan believed in his system and his players, and his players believed in him, even when many outside their room didn't. Now that faith has paid off and the doubters have swallowed their words.

"Well, 1­-11­-2, I trusted [the process]. I think people from the outside were wondering what the hell I was talking about," Madigan said. "But we had faith and believability in the group. The record we didn't think was indicative of where we were. … It looks like the sky is falling, but we did have a good group that believed in the process, and we just stuck to it, and that's why I said it's all those young men in that locker room. The resolve, the resiliency, the determination, throw any adjective you want, it sticks, and it's true. So we stuck with it, and it paid dividends."

There's still work to do for Madigan and the Huskies. They begin their quest for a national title on Friday, and given how well they've been playing, they should absolutely be considered a legitimate contender to win it all. And now that they've reached this point, they will be expected to sustain this kind of success in coming years.

But for now, let this turnaround and this championship serve as proof that, yes, Madigan does have what it takes, and yes, he is the right man to lead Northeastern hockey.

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