When the doctors put Norm Bazin back together, it was a good day. When he awoke from a medically induced coma with his jaw wired shut, his arms, shoulders, ribs, pelvis and legs broken, his spleen and lungs bruised, it was another good day. And two years ago, when he returned to his alma mater and transformed the University of Massachusetts Lowell River Hawks into a winning hockey team, that was a good day, too.
But this business of competing in the 2013 NCAA Frozen Four could be a whole other story. This could be the game that catapults UMass Lowell to its first appearance in the championship final, capping one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college hockey. In 2010-11, the River Hawks won a grand total of five games. Since this past Christmas, they’ve been the hottest team in the U.S., winning 24 times in 28 games, coached by a guy who tells you straight up, “I never have a bad day.”
Never? What if Bazin and his team lose Thursday’s semi-final against Yale?
“I can live with that as long as we leave it all on the ice.”
In Lowell, where he once played and worked as an assistant coach, they call him Amazin’ Norm Bazin because it rhymes and it’s true. The 42-year-old Manitoban has revitalized a once downtrodden program, helped raise money to upgrade the team’s training facility, and on Wednesday was named Division 1 coach of the year. He’s done all that while ensuring the spotlight is locked on those who deserve it, the players.
And yet, there’s no separating the coach from the team, just as there’s no separating the man from what has shaped him.
Bazin was born in Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, southwest of Winnipeg, where he and his four brothers worked the family farm. From there, Bazin went to Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Sask., and earned a hockey scholarship from UMass Lowell. Putting in the hours and doing what needed to be done became a staple of life and hockey. Then came the accident that almost killed him.
In November of 2003, Bazin had just left Spokane, Wash., on a recruiting trip and was driving north on U.S. Route 395 when a Ford Explorer slammed into him. The driver of the Explorer was impaired and later convicted of vehicular assault. (She was sentenced to three months in jail.) It took rescue workers an hour to pry Bazin from the wreckage.
When they did, he was rushed to a nearby hospital with multiple injuries, including a severed aorta. A priest read him the last rites.
For 12 hours, a critical-care physician reassembled Bazin’s bits and bones. His wife, Michelle, was seven months pregnant at the time with their first child. Her husband was put in an induced coma. Eight days later, Bazin awoke to an arduous recovery.
“My wife called me saying Norm had been in a bad accident,” recalled Dwayne Roloson, the former NHL goalie who was Bazin’s teammate and roommate at UMass Lowell. The two were also the best man at each other’s wedding. “I tried to get over there and everything I got from Michelle was, ‘Don’t come. You don’t want to see him.’ Later, Norm and I talked [on the phone] and he said, ‘I don’t want you to see me. I’m too embarrassed.’”
Bazin was no less determined, though. He put in the effort thinking largely of his good fortune, not his bad.
“When you go through something like that, you have an appreciation,” Bazin said. “You see how it could have been worse. Sure, maybe one day I was, ‘Why me?’ Your jaw is wired, both arms are broken, you’re sitting in a wheelchair doing little circles with your hands [for exercise]. And then you see someone with both legs missing just back from Iraq and you ask, ‘Why not me?’”
Bazin eventually returned to work as an assistant coach at Colorado College. In 2007, he revisited the crash site with his wife, as much for closure as to inform the Spokane physician who had saved him (Dr. Daniel Coulston) that Bazin and his wife had named their second son after him (Coleston).
From Colorado College, Bazin got the head-coaching post at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., before returning to the school he played for and helped coach. That he’s done so well in re-energizing the River Hawks comes as no surprise to those who know him best.
“Going through a life-threatening accident has helped him focus on his priorities and made him a better man,” said Tim Whitehead, who was at UMass Lowell during Bazin’s time as a player and hired him as an assistant. “The players see him making sacrifices to make them better and that inspires them. His success as a head coach is not an accident. He’s earned it, every bit of it. It’s why so many of us are rooting for him.”
Bazin is rooting for his players. He wants them to compete hard and take nothing for granted. They do that, he’s told them, it’s going to be another good day, win or lose.