By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.
By CHAZ SCOGGINS
LOWELL Billy Riley doesn't remember a lot about that autumn evening back in 1978. But he'll never forget the brash prediction he made.
Then he backed it up. Six months later the University of Lowell Chiefs were NCAA Division II Champions, and local hockey fans were provided with a season they'll never forget.
It has been 25 years since ULowell beat Mankato State of Minnesota 6-4 on March 17, 1979, to win the national championship in the school's 11th year of varsity ice hockey.
That season would be the springboard for two more national championships in the next three years, a program upgrade to Division I four years later, and membership in Hockey East, college hockey's strongest league, the year after that.
Twenty-five years later, the gold has turned to silver, just like the hair of many of the players on that team.
"It couldn't be 25 years ago, could it?" asked Tom Jacobs, who scored a school-record 42 goals that season a record that still stands and now owns a construction business in his hometown of Hudson, Mass.
"Twenty-five years! I must be getting old!" echoed John Jaskul, now an executive for Savings Bank Life Insurance who lives in Woburn.
But a quarter of a century has not dimmed the memories of the players on that first national championship hockey team, nor Riley's recollection of that autumn night at the old Speare House in Lowell.
"We had an alumni fundraiser before the season, and I was up on the podium trying to jazz up the alumni," Riley related. "I don't remember what I said at the beginning of my speech, but at the end I said that if we don't win the national championship this year, it will be a disappointing season.
"And Jim Ciszek, the athletic director, just looked at me with his mouth wide open and said: 'I don't believe you just said that!' But that was the way I felt.
"I knew we had a good team and a lot of depth. But it was a lot of hard work, too," continued Riley, who coached the hockey team to 363 wins in 22 years before stepping down and still works in the university's athletic department. "Coaching that team was like running a horse race. We had 20 thoroughbreds, and they were all a little different. You had to know when to whip them, when to reward them, and when to hold them back."
Nine years earlier, when Riley had been hired as coach of a third-year Lowell Tech hockey program with an 11-16-1 varsity record, it didn't appear to have the makings of a future national champion.
"The outgoing coach, Richard Morrison, told me not to get too discouraged, because the program would never be a winner," Riley recalled many years ago.
Riley coached LTI to five winning seasons in the next six years and a couple of ECAC Division II Tournament berths from which the Terriers were ousted in the first round each time. Then, in 1975, Lowell Tech and cross-river Lowell State merged to form the University of Lowell.
The hockey team got a new nickname, the Chiefs, and a new attitude. That year's freshman class would become national champions as seniors.
But it couldn't be said that those freshmen shared the same vision as their coach. Not then, anyway.
"We were playing in a dumpy rink in Tyngsboro, and I never thought it would lead to anything," said Jaskul, who transferred to ULowell from a New York junior college the following winter. "But as the team got better every year, you could see something was happening."
"We were a big-time college team that was a small-college team in everything else," said Dean Jenkins, a sophomore on that national championship team who would also captain the 1980-81 Chiefs to a second NCAA crown. "It was us against the world. That was the mentality Billy installed in us, and it worked."
Jacobs, however, was so discouraged as a freshman that he nearly transferred after the first semester. The Chiefs had been crushed 12-0 by Division I power Boston University in an exhibition game to start the season, and one month into the campaign things hadn't improved. The Chiefs were 3-4-1 and and had given up an average of 8 1/2 goals per game in their four defeats.
"We had 13 freshmen, and when we got beat by Army 10-6 and AIC 10-3 in back-to-back games, I was so frustrated I almost quit," Jacobs admitted. "I didn't even take my final exams. Fortunately, my grades were good enough I could take those F's and still pass my courses.
"I hated losing. But so did Billy, and he convinced me to stick it out."
The Chiefs ended that season with an 11-10-1 record, and Jacobs would end his career as the school's all-time leading scorer with 97 goals and 200 points. A quarter of a century later he is still tied for second on the all-time list in goals and is third in points.
Jaskul enrolled the following autumn because he thought he would be a star at ULowell. And for one year he was, scoring 10 goals and 32 points in 22 games. The Chiefs posted a 17-9-1 record, upset Bowdoin 4-2 in the first round of the ECAC Tournament as Jacobs scored three goals, but were wiped out 6-2 by Merrimack in the semifinals.
"I was going to go to St. John's to play baseball, but I knew a couple of guys who were playing for Lowell, Rudy Palermo and Jack Condon," Jaskul said. "And they said to come on up, that I'd be the best player up there.
"Then MacTavish came."
Center Craig MacTavish was the catalyst for the ULowell hockey program. He would net 26 goals and 45 points in 24 games as a freshman, then set a school record that still stands by amassing 88 points in 31 games as a sophomore, scoring 36 goals and handing out 52 assists.
MacTavish would turn pro after the national championship season and go on to play 18 years in the NHL and etch his name on the Stanley Cup four times. He is currently the coach of the Edmonton Oilers.
ULowell went 17-6-1 in 1977-78 but was again eliminated by its long-time tormentor, Merrimack, in the ECAC Tournament semifinals. This time the Chiefs nearly pulled off an upset. Barry Yeadon's tantalyzing bid for the tying goal stopped dead on the goal line behind the goalie, and ULowell lost by a 6-4 score with an empty-net goal at the end.
Merrimack went on to win the national championship, and the Chiefs knew how close they had come.
"Once we tasted success the year before, we knew we had the players to make it happen (in 1978-79)," said Jenkins, who ranks fifth on the all-time list with 191 points, had a cup of coffee in the NHL, and is currently a real estate developer living in Westford.
"We had our stars, like Mac and Jake. But we had some guys who were real good role players, guys like John Costello, Billy Moffatt, and Geno Hayes, who never got the credit due them.
"Everybody on the team had a lot of passion and worked hard every day in practice. Practices were wars, and that's the way Billy had it set up," Jenkins continued. "But we had a lot of fun doing it, and we made each other better players."
"We had a solid, solid team," said Jacobs. "We had great defensemen. Even Paul Lohnes, who was just a freshman, was great."
Lohnes, a three-time All-American and one of five players Kevin Charbonneau, Tom Mulligan, Tom Tidman, and John MacKenzie were the others to perform for all three NCAA champions, scored 10 goals and had 27 points as a freshman. He would finish his career as the highest-scoring defenseman in school history with 58 goals and 167 points in just 129 games.
The 1978-79 season opened inauspiciously with the Chiefs being crushed 10-2 by Division I Clarkson. But they had battled Clarkson almost evenly through the first two periods before collapsing in the third period and being torched for seven goals.
A 5-4 loss at Maine followed, but the Chiefs won seven of the next nine, including a stunning 3-0 upset of defending ECAC Division I champion Boston College. Junior goalie Brian Doyle dealt the Eagles their first shutout at home in 20 years.
After the Christmas holidays, center Mark Jenkins, Dean's older brother, joined the team. Union College had recently disbanded its team, and Mark, who was married with a baby, passed up a pro contract to play his final college season with ULowell.
"Except for summer leagues, it was the only time Mark and I got to play together," Dean recalled fondly. "And when Mark showed up, he was the one player we needed to get over the hump. We went 20-2 after he got in the lineup.
"He made us more than a one-line team with a bunch of checkers."
Mark Jenkins scored 14 goals and 38 points in just 22 games. Meanwhile, the first line of MacTavish, Jacobs, and Charbonneau produced a hat trick a game, piling up 99 goals and 215 points in 33 games.
On Feb. 1, 1979, ULowell faced Merrimack for the first time that season, a team the Chiefs were 1-13-1 against in their history. The Chiefs throttled the defending national champions 9-3 on their home ice, ULowell's fourth straight win in an unbroken string of 16 victories to end the season.
The Chiefs were nearly derailed in the ECAC Championship game. Salem State led 1-0 after two periods, but Jacobs netted three goals in the third period as ULowell prevailed 4-1.
Then it was on to the NCAA Tournament in North Andover.
"We had real high expectations. It would have been a disappointment not to win it," Jacobs said. "I thought we could have competed in the Division I Tournament; we were that good.
"We were rolling so well by then, we just steamrolled those western teams."
The Chiefs, 25-6, played the University of Illinois-Chicago in the first game. The Chikas were 16-11-1 and had played seven Division I teams that winter.
It was no contest. The Chiefs raced out to a 6-0 lead, poured in eight goals in the second period, and coasted to a 10-6 win. MacTavish scored three goals, and Mark Jenkins added two.
Playing a 25-11-1 Mankato State team for the national championship, ULowell scored the first three goals, opened up a 6-2 lead, and won 6-4 as Jacobs scored twice, Tournament MVP MacTavish had a goal and two assists, and Doyle made 35 saves in net.
While celebrating their title, the players suspected it wasn't going to be a one-time thing.
"I knew they were going to be solid for years to come," Jacobs said. "Players wanted to come to Lowell after that year, and Riley could pick out the guys the Division I schools had overlooked."
Twenty-five years later, the glory has not been forgotten by those who participated. Many of the players are still friends.
Jacobs and Jaskul, who both starred on the ULowell baseball team as well as in hockey, play golf together regularly. Jacobs sees Costello and Fran Dee periodically, and Gene Hayes does the company's taxes.
"What makes it even more special now is to see how far the program has come," Jaskul said. "We pretty much started the tradition. And I love to go to the Tsongas Arena and see our championship banner hanging there."