November 9, 2006
Something's 'Bruin' in Lowell

By Jeff Howe

It was a move that had been many years in the making. UMass Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald made a new addition to his coaching staff on Sept. 22, hiring long-time family friend and 17-year NHL veteran Tom Fitzgerald, who had recently retired from the Boston Bruins.

Hockey East Notebook

With one goal and six assists, Paul Worthington leads all UMass Lowell freshmen with seven points.

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The pair grew up in nearby Billerica, Mass., no more than 15 minutes from Tsongas Arena, and later played high school hockey at Austin Prep. Fitzgerald was a closer friend with MacDonald's younger brother, Rindress MacDonald, while Blaise helped out Fitzgerald's father with his select team after college.

Blaise MacDonald and Fitzgerald continued to stay close as their careers traveled different paths. MacDonald's coaching stock was soaring in the early 1990s before taking his first head-coaching gig at Niagara in 1996, while Fitzgerald started to make his mark in the New York Islanders organization at the same time.

During a conversation the pair had a few years back, MacDonald jokingly threw an idea in Fitzgerald's direction, offering him a coaching position when he retired from his playing career. It seemed like a good, light-hearted offer at the time.

But the thing was, MacDonald saw a true leader in his longtime friend. "Fitzy" played on the 1995-96 Eastern Conference champion Florida Panthers and was later the expansion Nashville Predators' first ever captain. He was a warrior on the ice, doing everything he could to show his true grit killing penalties.

Sounds like the make-up of a good coach, doesn't it? That's why – again, last summer – MacDonald told Fitzgerald he could trade his skates for a white board and a whistle.

The more Fitzgerald thought about it, the more it made sense to him. He had a wife and four boys, the oldest one just 12. They had moved all over the continent with him – as far north as Toronto and as far south as Florida – but he couldn't uproot them once again from their North Reading, Mass. home. Plus, he secured an analyst job working Bruins games on the New England Sports Network.

"I thought I owed it to my family to be around and be a dad," Fitzgerald said. "I've got four boys, and that is my first commitment. When this came along, I thought it would be great to get my foot in the door and see if I enjoy it. At the same time, I could do TV. I've got my hand in a couple cookie jars to see what I want to do when I grow up."

At 38, Fitzgerald has sure grown up, especially in comparison to the youthful River Hawks, who have an astounding 15 freshmen on the roster. But just months removed from his final stint in the NHL, Fitzgerald can show these kids just what it takes to make it – and succeed – in the highest level of hockey.

"They want to learn," he said. "They want to get better. The things that I did and the things that people did against me are the things that I try to pass along to the kids. And I think they really appreciate that."

One of the freshmen on the roster, Paul Worthington, was drawn to the River Hawks because of the people he would be learning from. He admitted that he has looked up Fitzgerald's career stats and tried to figure out who the veteran had laced up his skates alongside.

"Coming in here, I knew the coaching staff was unbelievable, and that was one of the main reasons why I decided to come here," Worthington said. "Then, when we heard [Fitzgerald] was coming, it was another plus. We're getting this guy who can teach us all of these (professional) experiences, which he learned all the way up until last year. It was a big help for us."

Fitzgerald's leadership characteristics have rubbed off on River Hawk senior captain Jason Tejchma, too.

"He helps the older guys and gives us tips on how to handle the younger guys," Tejchma said. "Having 15 freshmen, it's tough day-to-day. These freshmen are great; they give us no problems at all. But by helping the older guys teach us how to bring the younger guys along is a big help to us."

MacDonald obviously knew what type of character he was adding to the program in Fitzgerald, but he also created a nice analogy to this Lowell team and Fitzy's career.

"He has been a part of some expansion teams, and if you look at our team this year, that's what we are," MacDonald acknowledged. "We're an expansion team. He has had those experiences of leading and complimenting those small victories while understanding how to push but not push too hard. When you talk to guys who are leaders like that, you can tell it's just natural to them."

Such a young and impressionable group, these new-look River Hawks need as much guidance as they can get. And it seems as though their newest assistant coach has already fallen in love with being able to help them out. Lowell's penalty-killing unit has improved through the course of the season, a direct result of Fitzgerald's tutorials.

"It's easy for him to see and understand the game," MacDonald added. "Some players don't understand how to break it down and build it back up, teaching-wise. But he is very good at that. He is a good learner. He has played for some Hall of Fame coaches, and he learned a lot from all of them. He remembers philosophies and teaching principles from them."

Fitzgerald is ready to take his show on the road when the River Hawks travel to Orono for Friday night's slugfest against the top-ranked team in the country. But UML has a bit to boast on this trip as well. Lowell is currently tied atop the Hockey East standings with UMass and Boston University, one point ahead of the Black Bears.

He'll be in Alfond Arena with his new team skating in front of just a few thousand fans while his old club will be playing in front of nearly 15,000, many of whom paid 10 times what it costs to enter Alfond. This isn't exactly what Fitzy signed himself up for. Strangely enough, he's gotten a lot more.


Upside-Down Standings: Maine might be the best team in the country right now, but the Black Bears aren't leading their conference. Understanding that Maine has played fewer games than the three teams ahead of it in the standings — and that it's the first week of November — the league is a bit topsy-turvy right now.

The Minutemen (3-1-0), River Hawks (2-0-2) and Terriers (2-1-2) are all tied on top of the Hockey East world with six points. Meanwhile, Vermont may be the recipient of national praise, but the Catamounts are tied for last in the league with Northeastern.

Somewhere in the middle are UNH and Boston College — tied for fifth with four points. It doesn't mean much, but it's worth pointing out.

Tom Fitzgerald on Tom Glavine: Another former hockey player, current New York Mets pitcher Tom Glavine, also grew up in Billerica, Mass. The 1995 World Series MVP for the Atlanta Braves was a hockey standout for Billerica High School. He was later drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the fourth round (69th overall) of the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, though he never played a game for them.

Though Fitzgerald never played on the same ice as Glavine, he does remember the two-sport stud while growing up.

"He was two years older than me, but we came through the program together," Fitzgerald said. "You move up in two-year increments so we would always miss each other. He was a great hockey player. I remember hearing how great of a hockey player he was. I remember people saying he was really good at baseball, and I'm like, 'Well, he's dynamite in hockey. How much better could he be in baseball?' Well, he picked the right sport."


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New Hampshire at Maine (Sun.)
It's the best rivalry no one seems to talk about. They're not in media-happy Boston so the series doesn't get the recognition in that sense (like BC-BU), but these two teams genuinely hate each other. UNH has a lot to prove early on this season, and Maine can continue sending a message that it's the best team in the country with a win.

While You’re There: On Friday night, UMass Lowell visits Alfond Arena at 7 p.m. But since it's a holiday weekend, Orono may be a bit quiet. Take a short trip down I-95 to Bangor if you're looking for some nightlife.

Stick Salute

OK, we're really not trying to beat a dead horse here, but this one goes out to UMass Lowell and UMass, which are both tied with BU for first place in Hockey East.

Bench Minor

Feel like checking out some Hockey East action on Saturday night? Of course you do! Well, that's too bad because there aren't any games on the slate.

• After serving a suspension for a violation of team rules, Chris Capraro re-entered the UMass lineup with a bang last Friday night. He scored two goals and added an assist in a 4-1 win over Providence at the Mullins Center and was named Hockey East's Player of the Week.

• After one 10-game streak died for the Eagles, however, another one was attained. With a 1-0 victory over Vermont on Saturday night, BC has now beaten the Catamounts 10 consecutive times.

• How does Maine replace Greg Moore's scoring production? Let us count the ways. In the Black Bears' seven wins this season, seven different players have scored game-winning goals. And with four assists over the weekend, freshman Teddy Purcell has five goals and seven assists in eight games this season.

• Merrimack has committed 43 penalties in its last three games. The Warriors have allowed nine power-play goals in that stretch.

• After sweeping Northeastern over the weekend, the Whittemore Wildcats have not lost to the Huntington Hounds in 17 meetings (14-0-3).

Editor's note: An item originally posted in this notebook indicated Providence snapped a 10-game winless streak against Boston College last week. The Friars beat the Eagles, 5-3, but the game was at Schneider Arena. Inside College Hockey regrets the error.

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report