Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: UMass hockey alumni watching Minutemen take it to next level

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The interview was conducted on the phone, so I couldn't see Cory Quirk. But I could certainly hear the smile on his face when the topic of his alma mater playing for an NCAA men's hockey championship came up.

"It's been an unbelievable turnaround," Quirk said of the University of Massachusetts' run to the Frozen Four's championship game.

The Minutemen, who scored a heart-stopping 4-3 overtime victory over Denver in Thursday's national semifinal in Buffalo, took the ice Saturday night against Minnesota-Duluth for a chance to win the school's first-ever NCAA hockey championship. Marc Del Gaizo's slapshot in the first overtime period stemmed the tide for the Minutemen, who had surrendered a 3-1 lead.

"When I was there, we thought that was the pinnacle, just making the NCAA's," Quirk said. "Now they have an opportunity to win a national championship. Greg Carvel and his staff have made it unbelievable for everyone, all the alumni. We all talk and text message.

"Everyone's really excited about everything that's gone on here."

Quirk played at UMass from 2006-09, and made it to the NCAA Division I tournament in 2007. Toot Cahoon was the coach, and the UMass goalie was Jonathan Quick, who has his name on a Stanley Cup as the Los Angeles Kings' goalie.

That year, UMass was 21-13-5, and lost to New Hampshire 3-2 in two overtimes in a Hockey East semifinal game.

The Minutemen earned an at-large slot in the NCAA Tournament, and beat Clarkson 1-0 in overtime, before losing to Hockey East rival Maine 3-1 at the East Regional in Rochester, N.Y.

Quirk has been a pro since 2009, when he started two seasons with the American Hockey League's Worcester Sharks. Since then, the Brockton native has played in Germany, Finland and Denmark. In fact, he recently returned from his third season with the Fishtown Pinguins in Germany.

Quirk's resume is pretty darn good. He had 103 career points at UMass and had been the ninth-leading scorer in school history. He skated in front of Quick in 2007.

"After that sophomore year when we had Quicky. Quicky was our backbone," Quirk said. "I thought that was the stepping stone, recruits would want to come here, and we had a lot of resources. I thought for sure things would continue going in an upward trend.

"I think now, it's coming back, and hopefully they can continue to gain momentum with recruits."

Since college hockey returned to UMass in 1993, there have been a great many ex-Minutemen who have played professionally, either in the NHL or overseas. Two of them, Quick and Buffalo Sabres wing Conor Sheary, have their names on the Stanley Cup — Sheary's with Pittsburgh. All of that is good for the program, but in Quirk's mind, playing Minnesota-Duluth elevates the program to a brand new level.

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"I think it's way more important for the program," Quirk said, when we spoke Friday afternoon. "For myself, being in Europe, guys are like 'What's UMass, who's UMass?' Now, I can be proud to wear UMass stuff. They're in the national championship."

Another former Minuteman is John Toffey, whose smile could be felt on the phone when he was asked about this championship appearance.

"Absolutely. It's pretty amazing to see the growth of the program," he said. "It's just an amazing story."

Toffey is one of Jack Toffey's sons. Jack Toffey grew up in Great Barrington and went to Berkshire School, where his father taught for 20 years.

John Toffey played hockey and baseball at UMass, was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lightning and spent three years in pro hockey. He has since coached hockey and baseball at the prep school level, and is currently the head baseball coach and director of Admissions at the Winchendon School.

"We had successful teams" at UMass, Toffey said. "One year, we lost in the Hockey East championship, a triple-overtime game. I think the talk was always about the great facilities at UMass. The Mullins Center being a beautiful rink, and being the flagship university of the state, there was always talk about trying to get to the next level.

"Certainly with the facilities and the institutional support ... I think the expectation was to be a national contender."

Some of you might not remember that when UMass brought hockey back for the 1993-94 season, the Minutemen lost their first game, an 8-2 decision to Merrimack on Oct. 13, 1993.

That February, UMass pounded the then North Adams State 12-1, during a season that had Division I and Division III teams on the schedule.

This is UMass' first appearance in an NCAA championship game since the men's lacrosse team got to the final in 2006. If the Minutemen win their Saturday night game, it would mark the first national championship on campus since Mark Whipple's football team won a Division I-AA title in 1998.

Toffey agreed with Quirk's assessment that getting to Saturday night's final at KeyBank Center will do more in the long run for UMass hockey than Quick or Sheary did by being part of Stanley Cup champions.

"In terms of UMass hockey," Toffey said, "this is another level."

Howard Herman can be reached at hherman@berkshireeagle.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.


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