Friday, April 21, 2017

UNH Captain's Corner: Reflections on the 2016-17 Season

UNH Captain Matias Cleland

Tyler Kelleher
Dylan Maller
Jamie Hill

One year ago, at the 2016 Men's Ice Hockey Awards Banquet, Matias Cleland accepted and welcomed a unique challenge. He had just become the sole captain of the 2016-17 UNH Wildcats. There would be no co-captains or alternate captains. At the Media Day last September, I asked Matias about his role as the captain:

"Congratulations on being the only captain. Is this the first time you've ever played on a team with just one captain and no alternates?"
Cleland: "Thank you. I think so, yes it is."

"Does it introduce more pressure on you or do you see advantages of being the only captain?"
Cleland: "I don't think it adds any pressure to it. I think we have a large groups of leaders in that room. A lot of guys in the junior class, a lot of guys in my class are leaders and that's how we look at it. I think we're leading by committee and they're all going to be a leader, even if it's a sophomore or a freshman. We can all be leaders on the ice and especially off the ice."

So what kind of captain did Matias Cleland become? These quotes from UNH Head Coach Dick Umile near the end of the season say it all:
"Dick Umile said postgame that Matias Cleland is the best captain he has had in his 27 years behind the UNH bench." Nick Stoico, Concord Monitor
“A guy like Cleland. He is our leader and our warrior. He is committed to it and got his teammates ready to go to battle where they did not want to see the season end. It has been a frustrating season, but now in the new season, we just won two out of three.” Dick Umile, UNH Head Coach
Matias Cleland's senior season will also be remembered as one of the best offensive performances by a defenseman in UNH Hockey history. As the starting left defenseman, point man on the UNH power play, and backbone of the penalty kill unit, Cleland scored 2 goals and 32 assists in 34 regular season games. He was the leading scorer among all NCAA Division I defensemen in the 2016-17 regular season. Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher of Denver University also scored 34 points but he played in 2 more regular season games than Matias.

Cleland's 32 assists in 34 regular season games were the most of any defenseman and he tied for 4th among all NCAA players. 20 of Cleland's assists came on the power play. Dylan Sikura (21), a Northeastern forward, was the only player with more power play assists in the regular season.

Matias added a goal and an assist during the 6 Hockey East Playoff games against Merrimack and UMass-Lowell. That brought his 2016-17 totals up to 3 goals and 33 assists in 40 games. Those 33 assists earned Cleland a special place in the annals of UNH Men's Hockey. Only three UNH defensemen have tallied more assists in a single season. Hockey Hall of Famer Rod Langway scored the most single-season assists (43) by a UNH defenseman in the 1976-77 season. Peter Hermes (1984-85) and All-American Tim Murray (1996-97) tallied 37 assists. On the impressive list of All-Time UNH Leading Scorers, Cleland is tied for 16th for the most assists in a single season.

Matias Cleland's overall performance was honored at the 2017 Hockey East Annual Awards Banquet in mid-March. He was named a Hockey East All-Star Honorable Mention.

Over the course of this season, it's been my pleasure to interview Matias for the "UNH Captain's Corner" series. In this, our final interview, we discussed the 2016-17 season and what his classmates have meant to him over their 4 seasons at UNH.

Captain's Interview

Mike Lowry ("C-H-C"): As you reflect back on the 2016-17, what were some of the most memorable accomplishments of the team?

Matias Cleland: It was great to beat Merrimack in the best of three at their place in playoffs. We were playing really good hockey and there's nothing better than playoff hockey. Another memorable moment was beating Maine. Maine weekend is always circled on the calendar, and it was great to get two wins that weekend.

Mike Lowry: What was the biggest disappointment?

Matias Cleland: The biggest disappointment was losing to Lowell at the end of the year. We turned it up at the end and that loss obviously ended the year and my career at UNH. I was really proud of how the guys came together and fought until the end.

Lowry: What advice would you give the next UNH captain(s)?

Cleland: I would tell them to realize how great of a program they are privileged to be the leader of and to not take it for granted. I would also tell them to do whatever it takes to win because there's nothing better than winning.

Tyler Kelleher
Dylan Maller
Jamie Hill

Lowry: Over your four years at UNH, you've grown close to your classmates - Tyler Kelleher, Dylan Maller, and Jamie Hill. In the coming years, as your lives move in different directions, what will you remember about them, both as hockey players and friends off the ice?

Cleland: Our class is extremely close, and we will have a life long friendship. We have spent the last four years together, and we will be in touch no matter what we all end up doing.

Lowry: Soon after the season ended, you signed an Amateur Tryout Contract with the Wheeling Nailers, the ECHL affiliate of the Pittsburgh Penguins. You scored a goal in your first game and accumulated 7 shots on goal over 5 games. How do you think your play stacked up against the ECHL players? What playing options are you considering for next season??

Cleland: My play stacked up well against other players in the league. There were a lot of good players and the hockey was good. I felt like I played really well and showed what I can do. I'm working to get into the AHL for next year and waiting on some things this summer.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

16-Year-Old Connor Sweeney Commits to UNH

UNH Commit Connor Sweeney
"Sweeney is a tall, athletic prospect with a long, fluid stride." Neutral Zone
Top college hockey prospects develop at different rates. Some "can't miss" prospects, such as recent UNH commit Max Gildon, are singled out by hockey scouts at an early age. When Gildon was just 14 years old and playing for the Dallas Stars Elite U16 team, the scouts at Western Elite Hockey Prospects rated him as "by far the best defenseman in the 1999 class".

Other youngsters who eventually become excellent college players don't register on the scouts' radar until their mid-to-late teens. 6'2", 185 lbs. forward Connor Sweeney (DOB: 5/5/2000) looks like just such a player. Sweeney, who hails from North Andover, Massachusetts, earned a slot at last summer's USA Hockey Select 16 Player Development Camp. The scouts from Neutral Zone** ranked Sweeney as a "C+" forward and provided this assessment:

"Sweeney led his high school team, Pingree, in points as a ’00 this past season. He is a fluid skater who can carry the puck well and make plays off the rush. The son of former NHLer Bob Sweeney, who currently heads the Boston Bruins Foundation, has great upside, size and skating ability, but will need to grow into his frame and get more involved offensively. He was too perimeter here and wasn’t able to create many scoring chances in zone. An athletic, fluid skater with size and major upside. He was drafted by Muskegon in the seventh round of the USHL Futures Draft and is undecided about his plans next season"
Rating - 3 1/2 out 5 Stars.

** Reprinted by permission of Brendan Collins, Director of Scouting at Neutral Zone.

In the 2015-16 season, Sweeney was a freshman at the Pingree School in Hamilton, Massachusetts and tallied 9 goals and 11 assists in 29 games. This season, as a sophomore, Sweeney had a breakout performance scoring 31 goals and 12 assists. He tied for the most goals scored in New England Prep School Hockey.

Connor is the youngest son of former Boston Bruin Bob Sweeney. He was an All-American at Boston College in the early 1980's, played six seasons with the Boston Bruins, and four additional seasons in the NHL. Mr. Sweeney is the Executive Director of the Boston Bruins Foundation, the non-profit charitable organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for children throughout New England.


I had an opportunity to interview Connor Sweeney, via email, about his hockey career and commitment to UNH:

Mike Lowry ("C-H-C"): Congratulations on your commitment to play for the University of New Hampshire. What are the main reasons you chose UNH?

Connor Sweeney: The coaches at UNH, the strong hockey program and the campus.

Lowry: Have you and the UNH coaches agreed on a target date for you to enroll as a freshman at UNH and join the team?

Connor Sweeney: The coaches and I have not reached a target date yet.

Mike Lowry: What other college programs were you considering? Which schools did you visit and which ones made an offer to you?

Sweeney: Harvard, St. Lawrence, Maine, UVM, Northeastern and finally UNH. Maine, UNH and Northeastern all made me offers.

Lowry: At this stage in your hockey development, what are the strengths of your game? What areas are you trying to improve?

Sweeney: My strengths are my speed, down low play and shot right now. What I need to improve on is my puck handling all over the ice.

Lowry: In your recently completed sophomore season at the Pingree School, you dramatically increased your goal scoring from 9 as a freshman to 31. You tied with Hebron Academy senior Phillipe Gilmour for the most goals in New England Prep School hockey. What factors lead to your burst of goal-scoring?

Sweeney: I started the season off not scoring a goal and I got really down on myself. My dad just kept telling to keep playing my game and as soon as our Christmas tournament started, I took off. I really started to believe in myself and I think that believing in myself was a huge factor.

Lowry: Last May, the Muskegon Lumberjacks drafted you in the 7th round of the USHL Phase I Futures Draft and you are on their Affiliate List. Do you plan on trying out for the Muskegon roster at their camp in May?

Sweeney: I have not officially decided if I am going out to Muskegon or not in May.

Lowry: If you don't join the squad of a Junior team, where do you plan to play next season?

Sweeney: Lawrence Academy.

Lowry: Last summer, you participated in the USA Hockey Select 16 Player Development Camp. How do you think your skills and development compared with the other top US forwards born in 2000?

Sweeney: I think I was right in the middle. Over this past season, I believe I have become a different player and I hope to make it back to Development camp this summer.

Lowry: Your Dad is a former Boston College hockey star, NCAA All-American, and veteran NHL player. What's the best piece of hockey advice he's given you?

Sweeney: He always stresses that believing in my ability is one of the most important parts in hockey and in everything I do. He has always believed in me which has made me believe in myself. Believing in yourself is half the battle.

Lowry: What are your academic strengths and interests? When do you anticipate graduating from high school?

Sweeney: I love History and any Science. I have thought about majoring in business at UNH.

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