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MACDONALD EXITS NIAGARA IN BLAISE OF GLORY

Blaise MacDonald fielded phone calls from his wife's hospital bedside Friday afternoon.

He had lots of business to attend to, after all, since he was named head hockey coach at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell on Thursday, though his place was with Carol and their third child, Jacob, born Friday morning.

With his soft Boston accent and Hockey East roots, it was only a matter of time before MacDonald would leave Niagara University for a step up in the college hockey world.

But even with all the intangible factors -- his hometown, Hockey East, a new rink -- picking Lowell over Niagara wasn't an easy choice.

"Absolutely it was one of the toughest decisions I've ever had to make," MacDonald said. "There was so much emotion involved. You could not quantify the decision because it was made in terms of emotion and that made it difficult."

Difficult because the Purple Eagles aren't just his team -- they are his child in a way.

MacDonald built the Niagara program from scratch, starting with the Purple Eagles' first season of Division I hockey in 1996-97 and culminating in last year's run to the NCAA elite eight.

The past season was a struggle for MacDonald as 15 freshmen fumbled through a 14-19-3 overall record.

Still, it was the success of the 2000 tournament run that propelled Niagara into the mainstream college hockey consciousness and upped MacDonald's stock as a coach and recruiter.

"We've had pretty well-documented success at Niagara and that success is attributed to our players," MacDonald said. "These players have been a privilege to coach and we've had a great coaching staff to work with. All of that is made possible by a very supportive administration."

Perhaps the only thing not achieved in MacDonald's tenure was finding a big conference home for Niagara. The Purple Eagles joined the upstart College Hockey America conference with puck no-names such as Alabama-Huntsville, Bemidji State and Wayne State. The competition may have been good, but the brand name and respect was missing.

MacDonald worked to get Niagara's name out to Hockey East and the ECAC -- the two most likely candidates geographically to accept the Purple Eagles, but nothing formal ever seriously materialized.

"I'm not too focused on Niagara getting into a major conference because I believe the CHA is going to be a great conference," MacDonald said. "I feel strongly that the CHA just needs time. You'll see teams in that conference, in the next two or three years, beating teams in the four major conferences. I know they've got schools committed to hockey and they've got great coaches."

Meanwhile, Niagara is searching for its next coach. MacDonald voiced his support of current Niagara assistant coach Dave Burkholder.

"Right now, our attention is focused on the needs of our student-athletes," Niagara Athletic Director Mike Hermann said in a written statement Friday. "Our commitment is to them and our hockey program. We have already begun to identify candidates we feel will lead Niagara's program into the future."

MacDonald's future lies with a program that went 19-16-3 overall this past season, placing fifth in Hockey East with a 10-11-3 record. The River Hawks return 21 of 26 players.

He returns to a school where he served as an assistant coach and to a $28 million hockey facility with a $15 million student recreation center on the way.

"One can't help but be impressed by Blaise's work ethic, commitment and passion," said UMass-Lowell Athletic Director Dana Skinner. "I have little doubt that the level of commitment that Blaise brings to the table will serve to inspire the entire university community."

Rumors of a merger between the UMass-Lowell hockey team with the UMass-Amherst team were dispelled when a spokesman for the state university system told the Lowell Sun on Friday that both campuses would retain their own Division I hockey teams. Lowell is Division II in all other sports.

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