BOSTON — Not many coaches get the opportunity to start with a blank slate. When Merrimack hired Erin Hamlen to run its newly-announced women’s hockey program two years ago, she wasn’t just given the keys to a hockey program. She was given an empty history book, and told to go fill it with ink.
That program, which has had its foundation built over the last two years, will make its unofficial debut Friday night at Lawler Rink, when the Warriors host the Whitby Wolves in an exhibition game. The games start for real next Friday (Oct. 2), when Merrimack hosts St. Cloud State in its inaugural game.
“I think there is some nervous energy in the room,” Hamlen said on Monday at Hockey East Media Day. “There is obviously a lot of excitement, too. I think we want to keep (the players) from getting a little overwhelmed with too much excitement. There is a lot of new in our world right now. We’ve got new players, there are 21 of them, and out of those really only two are upperclassmen.”
After she was hired Hamlen quickly added Brent Hill to the team as an assistant. Along with Hamlen, the pair has spent much of the last two years scouring Canada, Minnesota and Massachusetts for players, among other places. Last year, with four players on campus, the team added Olympian Kacey Bellamy.
“The administration, from the president down, has been so supporting and have given us everything we’ve asked for,” Hamlen said. “When I said we needed an assistant my first year so that we could hit the road and go out and recruit — and that was two years out from the program actually starting — they gave me an assistant. When I said I needed a second assistant for the second year because now we had kids on campus and we want to keep doing what we’re doing, then we had a second assistant. They’ve done everything the right way.”
Merrimack’s investment might be most noticeable in the new locker room, which is still having its finishing touches applied. The facility will be the envy of other programs around Hockey East. In fact, Hamlen said another league coach already admitted there was some jealousy.
The facility, which will have a twin on the other end of the building in the renovated men’s locker room, will be state-of-the-art. Hamlen said that just artist renderings have already helped in recruiting.
The recruiting process itself had its ups and downs for Merrimack. A little more than one year ago, it looked as if this inaugural team might be all finished on paper. But after there weren’t many transfers available at the end of last season, there was some last-minute scrambling to make sure all of the pieces were in place.
“I think we got a lot of positive responses right away,” said Hamlen. “It was a little surprising. We were kind of done earlier than we thought, but really you’re never done. … Then the spring came and the transfer thing didn’t really work out as well as I would have liked, so then we reached back out and it was a little scramble at the end. So there was a gap where we felt we were pretty good. It all evened out over the end. I think we as a staff had a plan and we decided to follow that plan with what we needed to do with scholarships and with our money and it all worked out according to that plan.”
The Warriors brought in four players last season and they practiced for the year. Jillian Battista, Chaislyn Burgio and Jackie Pieper will all be sophomores on the inaugural team while Marie Delarbre is a junior transfer from Minnesota-Duluth.
The Warriors also added junior Samantha Saulnier as a walk-on.
“We had three coaches and four players out there, so talk about not being able to get away with anything,” Hamlen said. “They were under our thumb pretty much 24-7. It was a great opportunity for them. We had some players that we felt had certain skills we wanted to see get better, and some of it was just flat-out conditioning. It was a unique opportunity. We had four kids on the ice and we could just go skill work with them, constantly. A goalie that we had her with her own personal goalie coach for a year. All of those things you’d die to do as a player to get better, but never have the time to really do, they did that. So it was a cool experience for them. I think it was hard for them, too. They didn’t have a team. So I asked a couple of them how they feel this year having a team and they think it’s awesome. They love having players around and having a team.
“I think it seems more real. They have players, and a team and the jerseys are here and we’re getting ready for a game. But I also think it was so beneficial (last year) that it was something they’d never give back.”
Merrimack opens against St. Cloud State on Oct. 2 and will host the Huskies again on the afternoon of Oct. 3.