Evin O’Sullivan had been waiting outside the Mullins Center in freezing temperatures for over three hours.
The University of Massachusetts Amherst junior got to the home of UMass hockey at 2:45 p.m. Saturday so he could be first in line when doors opened at 6 p.m. to see the Minutemen take on the No. 8 Quinnipiac Bobcats.
Earlier in the week, for the first time ever, UMass climbed to the No. 1 spot in the national rankings. Judging by the line of students that snaked around the arena, the eyes of the campus were focused on hockey that frigid evening.
O’Sullivan said it was the biggest sporting event he’d ever seen at the school.
“I get here early every game anyway," he said. "And I just wanted to be the earliest one here because I knew that it was such a big deal … You know, we’re ranked first. So I just knew I had to beat the whole line.”
But it wasn’t always like this. UMass didn't even have a varsity program from 1979 to 1993. Just two years ago, the Minutemen only posted five wins. In fact, UMass hasn’t had a winning season since 2007.
Historically, the state’s flagship university has had trouble competing with in-state hockey rivals, from private powerhouses Boston University and Northeastern University to UMass' smaller cousin, UMass Lowell. That's an anomaly in college sports.
It’s something UMass Athletic Director Ryan Bamford understands well. He admitted that when he took the job in 2015, the Minutemen were at the bottom of Division I hockey. But when he started looking for a new coach to lead the team, he kept hearing the same thing.
“Everybody in hockey, college hockey, NHL hockey, said 'UMass is an absolute sleeping giant. You’ve got the facilities, you’ve got the school to sell, you’re in a hockey rich region,'” he said.
Bamford’s decision to hire Head Coach Greg Carvel in 2016 may have nudged that giant out of its nap. In Carvel’s second year, the Minutemen notched a 12-win improvement over the previous season, the biggest in program history, and UMass hosted and won its first postseason series since 2007.
Carvel's recruitment class last year was one of the best in the country. Three players have already been drafted to the NHL during Carvel’s tenure.
It’s difficult to build up successful teams in Division I sports, but Bamford studied how other successful programs, including some big-name local schools, built up theirs. He said it starts with hiring the right coach.
"For this state, obviously, hockey's very important," Bamford said. "For the flagship to have a program, and now have a nationally renowned program, is just an awesome thing."
And in a place like Massachusetts, which has one of the largest number of hockey players in the country, how a school does in the rink is a point of pride.
Inside the arena, the mood was excited but tense. The sellout crowd of 8,412 fans, a record for hockey at the Mullins Center, swirled white towels marked #Flagship and chanted as the puck dropped.
There was a nervous energy in the crowd heading into the third period as UMass trailed, 1-0, in one of the most anticipated games in program history. UMass lost, 4-0, to the Bobcats on the road the night before, and the team hadn't scored a single goal in over a week. The aggressive Minutemen out-shot Quinnipiac, but nothing found the back of the net.
But then, finally, came a breakthrough.
Senior Ivan Chukarov’s first goal of the season couldn’t have come at a better time for UMass as the Minutemen tied the game, 1-1, in the third. The goal didn’t just end the scoring drought — it opened the floodgates. A little over three minutes later, UMass hit another goal to take the lead. An empty netter in the closing minute sealed a 3-1 victory in front of a raucous home crowd.
After the game, Chukarov said the atmosphere in Mullins was special.
“I kind of got goosebumps walking out there and seeing all of those people with the white towels," Chukarov said. "It was a sight to see. Something we haven’t been used to in a while.”
As the arena cleared out, Coach Greg Carvel said he’s seen a natural growth in the excitement for the team on campus.
“I think the university, I think the athletic department, I think everybody’s excited to have a winner," Carvel said. "You know, there’s a lot of teams that are playing extremely well here. And you can just feel the momentum of the whole athletic department and I’m just glad that we’re the tip of the spear for it.”
When the national rankings came out Monday, UMass had dropped to No. 2, but rankings are fleeting. True success comes in the postseason. And while there are many games left to play, the hockey team at the state’s flagship may just be setting a course for destinations once thought out of reach.