Connor Hellebuyck (UMass Lowell - 37). (Shelley M. Szwast)
Connor Hellebuyck played two seasons between the pipes for UMass Lowell, winning the inaugural Mike Richter Award in 2014 (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

As we look back on the last decade for Hockey East, one can certainly say that there was a very positive start.

Boston College’s two national titles in 2010 and 2012, combined with another in 2008 and Boston University’s championship in 2009 had Hockey East beginning the decade with four national championships in a five-year stretch.

Not too shabby at all.

But if we’re using national championships as a measuring stick, since then the cabinets have been somewhat barren.

Providence claimed its first national title in an all-Hockey East title game in 2015. It was the first in the program’s history and certainly was a major feather in the cap for coach Nate Leaman, who at the time was in only his fourth year as head coach at Providence.

But other than that, Hockey East barely sniffed a national title.

In fact, if you remove BC’s two championship and the all-Hockey East final of 2015, only one other Hockey East team reached the national title game (Massachusetts, 2019). That came after a decade where a Hockey East team appeared in every national title game except for 2005.

Is that the measuring stick for success for the league? That’s difficult to say and certainly depends on who you ask.

From an NCAA tournament standpoint, 11 different teams qualified for an NCAA tournament during the decade (that includes Notre Dame, which was a Hockey East member for four year – more on that later). Boston College reached four Frozen Fours, two better than Providence. Boston University and Notre Dame each got to the penultimate game once, while Massachusetts and UMass Lowell each made their respective program’s first-ever Frozen Four appearance.

Within the league, though, is where you might have noticed the biggest change.

Entering the decade, only four teams had ever won the regular season title: BC, BU, New Hampshire and Maine. In the 2010’s, three additional clubs added their names to the regular season trophy: UMass Lowell (2013, 2017), Providence (2016) and UMass (2019).

The Hockey East tournament at the Garden was another place where fresh-faced champions emerged.

After Boston College seceded its stranglehold on the Lamoriello Trophy – the Eagles won the first three from 2010 through 2012 – UMass Lowell became the omnipresent team competing for the title.

The River Hawks captured their program’s first title in 2013, then repeated the feat in 2014 and 2017. In between, Lowell appeared in the two championship games, giving them a stretch of five straight finals appearances.

Northeastern also emerged as a ruler of the TD Garden ice late in the decade. They overcame an atrocious start to the 2015-16 campaign to capture their first title since 1988. The Huskies then repeated the feat in 2019.

Hobey Happiness

Since the award’s inception in 1981, the Hobey Baker Award given to the nation’s top player, hasn’t typically found a home in Hockey East. That is until the last decade.

A total of 11 Hockey East players have now won the award, and four of them have occurred since 2014.

Certainly it’s not as great as the 90s, when Hockey East players took home the honor five times. But when you consider the number of finalists, the 2010s certainly standout.

Only 19 Hockey East players were named a finalist in the decade, compared to 23 in the 2000s and 27 in the 1990s.

Three of the four – Johnny Gaudreau, Jack Eichel and Cale Makar – have already become household names in the NHL, while Northeastern’s Adam Gaudette is hardly a slouch player as he builds a career in Vancouver.

Addition and subtraction

The realignment of the NCAA hockey landscape caused by the addition of Penn State and the creation of the Big Ten in 2013 wasn’t a seismic shift for Hockey East as it was for say the WCHA and now-defunct CCHA. But it certainly did cause some ripples.

The biggest news came when the conference announced in late 2011 that Notre Dame would join the conference in 2013-14. Seven months later, the conference revealed that it would expand to 12 teams in the 2014-15 season with the addition of Connecticut, a team that already was a Hockey East member on the women’s side.

The notion of finally having 12 teams was ideal for the conference. With each team playing each opponent twice, that left 12 possible games for scheduling non-league opponents, a luxury for many coaches as you try to create exposure for a program.

Notre Dame, which had advanced to the national title game in 2008 while also reaching a Frozen Four in 2011, was competitive right out of the gate. Still, the team never felt like the right fit for the league. Geographic location was one obvious disadvantage. But there also were significant disconnects between a league comprised primarily of public institutions and the budget constraints that often accompany and one of the largest private schools in the nation with an athletics budget to match.

Thus, in March of 2016, just 30 months after playing their first Hockey East game, Notre Dame announced it would leave Hockey East to join the Big Ten.

Since departing at the end of the 2016-17, Hockey East hasn’t actively recruited a 12th member to take Notre Dame’s spot and has continually moved forward with the notion that 11 teams are fine.

Still, expect that to change as we move forward into the next decade.

Players of the Decade: Johnny Gaudreau, Boston College & Connor Hellebuyck, UMass Lowell

It was simply too difficult to pick just one great player of a decade that included four Hobey Baker winners.

The irony, though, is one of the selections for top players, Lowell’s Connor Hellebuyck, wasn’t even a Hobey Baker finalist.

Hellebuyck was, however, one of three Mike Richter Award winners for the conference in the decade, joining BC’s Thatcher Demko and Northeastern’s Cayden Primeau.

The reason for naming Hellebuyck as a co-player of the decade was the impact he had on his program. When he entered Lowell as a freshman, the program was two seasons removed from a five-win season. Hellebucyk came in and, after earning the starting job past the midway point in the season, helped capture the program’s first Hockey East championship and first bid to the Frozen Four in 2013.

As the game’s got bigger, Hellebuyck’s performances did as well. In four games played at the TD Garden (Hockey East semis/finals), Hellebuyck allowed just a single goal, posting three shutouts. He became the only player to ever earn back-to-back tournament MVP honors.

Gaudreau put together three scintillating seasons at Boston College from 2012-14. In his final season at Boston College, he scored 80 points in 40 games, including 36 goals. Included in that season was a six-points (three goals, three assist) effort against Denver in the NCAA regionals.

Gaudreau exploded out of the gates for the Eagles and helped lead them to the Hockey East and NCAA championship as a freshman. In the Hockey East final against Maine, he scored two goals and in the NCAA tournament registered five points in four games, including a goal in the national title game victory over Ferris State.

Team of the Decade: Boston College

As any decision is when considering superlatives over a ten-year period, it was challenging to pick the right team as the best in the 2010s.

When all is said and done, it has to be Boston College. They reached four Frozen Fours, capturing two national titles. They either won or shared the regular season title in six of the ten seasons and captured three straight postseason titles from 2010-12.

Yes, there were a couple of down years in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons to end the decade, but the club also closed out the decade with a nine-game winning streak to carry plenty of momentum into the 2020s.

Honorable mention: UMass Lowell – The River Hawks do deserve a cap tip with three postseason titles and five Hockey East championship game appearances, which is second only to Maine’s dominance of the late 80s-early 90s when they reached the finals seven times.

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