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Patrick Donnelly | | April 6, 2023

BU's Jay Pandolfo, Michigan's Brandon Naurato forging paths as first-year coaches at alma maters

Frozen Four Preview: Minnesota vs Boston University

Boston University and Michigan, two of college hockey's most prestigious programs, are both back in the Men's Frozen Four. 

You have the Wolverines vying for their 10th title, which would be the most in Division I, in their 27th Frozen Four appearance, also the most all-time. Two of their titles, most recently in 1998, and 14 of the Frozen Four trips came under the tutelage of one of the sport's great coaches, Red Berenson, the program's all-time leader in wins (848). 

Then there are the Terriers, returning to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2015, when they were runners-up in Boston under David Quinn in his second year at the helm. With five titles to its name, BU has not reached the summit since 2009. It is their 21st appearance at the Frozen Four. Three of the five rings and thirteen of the Frozen Four appearances were helped by the guidance of Jack Parker, who is one spot ahead of Berenson on the all-time wins list with 897, sitting third. 

Both teams are steeped in rich history, but this season, it's two first-year head coaches looking to make their own marks. 

Jay Pandolfo returned to BU as an assistant coach in the 2021-22 season after a run in player development and as an assistant with the Boston Bruins. Pandolfo had a decorated career as a player, winning two Stanley Cups with the New Jersey Devils, a national championship with the Terriers in 1995 and reaching the Frozen Four in each of his years as a collegiate player. He took over as head coach in May 2022 after the program parted ways with Albie O'Connell. 

So far, Pandolfo's start to his career as a head coach has shown more than its fair share of promise. The Terriers (29-10-0, 18-6-0) are one of the hottest teams going as they enter Thursday's semifinal against top-seeded Minnesota, winning nine straight. They won the Hockey East regular season and tournament championships as Pandolfo took home conference Coach of the Year honors. 

His group has gone 13-6-0 against ranked teams and 6-1-0 against top-10 opponents, and he is the only coach to reach at least 20 wins in their first season in program history. 

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"Coach Pando's been awesome," BU senior captain Dom Fensore said. "He's a breath of fresh air. He comes in every day and works hard. So dedicated to this program. Works out at [6 a.m.] every day. ... So dedicated to us and wants to get us better. That's what you look for in a coach. He's been awesome this year."

Senior assistant captain Jay O'Brien said, "Obviously, Pando was an assistant with us last year, so we got to know him pretty well. You obviously know all about the success he's had at every single level. Then you get to know him, you realize what kind of person he is, and how much he cares about not only his players, but his staff, the program and everyone surrounding BU. I can't think of a better person to lead us."

It hasn't been rosy the whole season, though. BU entered Boston's storied men's Beanpot tournament as defending champions, but went out with a whimper, finishing last with a semifinal loss to rival Northeastern and a consolation defeat to hated Boston College. It snowballed into four straight losses in all, following a sweep at the hands of Merrimack. 

"The Beanpot stretch. I think we went into it thinking we were going to defend it. I don't know if we thought it was going to be easy, but when we lost, we got down as a group I felt," Pandolfo said. "We were on a roll going into it. As a coach, I may have let some stuff slip because we were doing so well, but then some stuff started bubbling up."

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There were lessons to be learned, and the Terriers haven't lost since with overtime heroics and redemption against Merrimack in the Hockey East tournament before mowing through the Manchester Regional. Having an experienced group with 11 seniors, seven juniors and one graduate student certainly helps right the ship. Pandolfo has relied on the senior leadership "a lot."

"I have an open-door policy for these guys," Pandolfo said. "They come in and talk to you about what's on their mind. They came in and addressed some things with me. We sat down, talked about it, and met as a group. So for these guys to be that mature and be able to come in and talk to me and address some things, I think it helped us. I think it's a big reason why we're here right now.

"These guys are mature enough to figure that out. So, I give them a lot of credit I have all year long. It's made my job really easy as a first-year head coach to have this type of support from our leadership group. You're not always gonna have that. It's been great."

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On the other hand is Brandon Naurato, who also returned to his alma mater as an assistant last season after independently working with players as a development coach. He appeared in four national tournaments and a Frozen Four as a Wolverine from 2005-2009 before stints in the ECHL, IHL and the now-defunct Central Hockey League (CHL, not to be confused with the Canadian Hockey League). Michigan named Naurato interim head coach when it dismissed Mel Pearson last offseason.

His promotion was swifter than most. He first got the news on Aug. 5, roughly two months from the start of the season. There has been a lot of learning on the fly. 

"I think my biggest challenge is that everything's new, and you've got to figure a lot of things out and problem-solve on the fly," Naurato said on March 28. "I think it's important to surround yourself with the right people that have some more institutional knowledge or ask for help. But in general, it'd be like any professional, if you're a real estate agent, you know, or it's you're switching companies, or you have a similar type of role in the same marketplace.

"So I feel comfortable in what I'm doing. You know, it's just the first time I would say, I haven't failed at everything yet to have learned from it if that makes sense. So just everything being the first time would be the biggest challenge and we're just figuring it out as we go."

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Naurato clearly made a good impression, as UM removed the interim tag on March 31, naming him the full-time coach. He's taking it in stride as No. 3 Michigan prepares for its biggest challenge of the season at Amalie Arena, an 8:30 p.m. showdown with second-seeded Quinnipiac with a trip to the national championship on the line.

"Excited about it and honored, but just keep thinking about Tampa Bay," Naurato said at Wednesday's media day. "I know how it sounds, but extremely honored. I'm excited about it. It's a dream come true, but I'm really just focused on this weekend."

The Wolverines are one of the youngest teams in the nation with an average age of 21 years old. They boast the highest-scoring offense and a 26-11-3 record, going 12-10-2 in the gauntlet Big Ten this season. Michigan has won six straight as part of a 14-4-2 second half, including a win in the Big Ten championship over favorite Minnesota. 

Naurato shares common denominators with Pandolfo both with his openness with the team and his character.

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"It's been really special. He's done a great job," Michigan sophomore forward Dylan Duke said. "He makes all of us better hockey players, but at the same time, more importantly, better people. Just got a great open-door policy. We all have no hesitation. Anytime we need anything, walk into the locker room and ask him to watch video. Even if it's not about hockey, we know we can go to him, talk to him, and he's done an unbelievable job. So we're all super thankful that we have him for more years to come."

Freshman forward Gavin Brindley said, "He cares about us more as individuals and as people, than what we do on the ice. I think I've talked to him more about my life and what's going on away from the rink than we actually do hockey. But he's a hockey nerd. He loves the game. He wants us to get better and he's awesome to have around. Glad he's gonna be around for a little while."

Neither players were surprised to see the interim tag removed, and Brindley, a potential first-round pick in this year's NHL Draft, credits Naurato with a lot of his recruitment to Michigan.

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"We're so excited," Brindley said. "Even when I was going through the recruitment process, and he was hired as an assistant coach, he was one of the big reasons why I wanted to play at Michigan. He was the head coach this year, so it worked out really well. We couldn't be happier that he was sticking around for a couple more years."

Naurato and Pandolfo are each finalists for the Spencer Penrose Award, annually given to the coach of the year. Each are among five head coaches in the last 30 years to guide their team to the Frozen Four in their first seasons.

There could be even more history in the making on Thursday and Saturday in Tampa.

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