College hockey in Houghton, Mich., might be entering a critical stage. Michigan Tech, mired in a long stretch of disappointing seasons, knows it can’t afford to lose the support of its students, its fans and its community.
As the Huskies have found in the last few seasons, losses have a way of multiplying. To avoid having his team continue its downward spiral, coach Mike Sertich has implemented a number of controls.
There’s an effort to get the community involved with the team, and, equally as important to Sertich, get the team involved in the community. They’re trying to recapture the interest of the students. A sports psychologist is working with the players to get them in the right frame of mind.
And, maybe above all, there has been this message from Sertich:
Jobs are on the line. His included. That’s not meant to scare them (or maybe it is), but it’s the truth.
“For a long time, it was the hockey player kind of does his own thing” at Michigan Tech, Sertich said. “Well, we’re not going to have that kind of attitude. … We’re going to reach out to our fans and we’re going to get people back in the building. They’re going to come not because we’re winning — which really helps — but we have to show them that we’ve changed.”
Maybe the problem is change has come too slowly at Tech. In some cases, though, that’s the way it has to be, and college hockey usually is one of those cases.
“When you’re a program that needs to be restructured, it takes time,” Sertich said. “You’ve got to plant those seeds and boy, as much as you water it, you wish it would grow faster, but some things are out of your control, too.”
But Sertich can control some things, and the makeup of his team is one of them. The Huskies are more experienced and a little quicker, but depth is a concern and there’s still no telling exactly what form they’ll take this season.
Will they, led by captain Brett Engelhardt, the heart and soul of the team, take strides on offense, shore up a shaky defense and get consistent goaltending? Or will they again have not quite enough leadership and fall victim to a lack of players with enough drive to put the Huskies on the road to recovery?
One of the highlights of the 2001-2002 season was the line of Engelhardt, Colin Murphy and Jon Pittis. They finished 1-2-3 on the team’s scoring chart and were the dominant scoring force.
On the other hand, they were pretty much the only scoring force, and that’s the problem. Sertich likely will break up the trio, if only to spread out some of the scoring.
— Mike Sertich, on his forwards’ duties away from the puck
“Last year, we were pretty much a one-line team,” he said, “and when you stopped that line, you stopped us.”
The Huskies will be looking for someone to step forward and provide more scoring, and for a number of players to simply show an effort worthy of playing on a WCHA team.
“You look at a kid like Chris Durno now, he’ll be a four-year regular,” Sertich said. “He needs to come to the front for us. We can’t have guys like that almost being content with just being in the lineup. Well, now we have some depth, so now jobs are on the line. It’s going to be an interesting battle here.”
The Huskies’ defense is of particular concern to Sertich. Greg Amadio, Justin Brown, Brad Sullivan and Clay Wilson emerged last season as big players on the blue line, but inconsistency led to the Huskies having the worst defense in the WCHA.
But Sertich won’t lay all of the blame on the defensemen. They’re only two of the five skaters on the ice, and the other three take their share of the culpability.
“They have to understand that if they get 17 minutes of ice time in a game, they’re only going to have the puck on their stick for a little over a minute,” Sertich said. “So the other 15 1/2 minutes, they’d better be doing something right. If you want to be a spectator, we can certainly arrange that, too.”
Cam Ellsworth will start the season as the No. 1 goaltender, but newcomer Rick Cazarres, who signed late in the offseason after the Huskies lost incoming freshman Marty Magers to major juniors, will challenge him.
Sertich is looking for a new mindset from the Huskies. He met with the players throughout the offseason, and some of those meetings included a sports psychologist. That’s something Sertich used in his days as coach at Minnesota-Duluth, and it’s supposed to help the players with relaxation and visualization.
He’s also brought in members of the Houghton business community to talk to the team, part of a mending of bridges with the community.
Sertich has been impressed with the improved attitude his team has brought into camp this season. But there’s still plenty of work to be done, on the ice, off the ice and in the players’ minds.
“There’s some old, old things that needed to be addressed and needed to be corrected,” Sertich said. “They understood that before you can change a behavior you need to change the attitude.
“They came here from different programs all over the country. and a lot of them were highly successful. So what are we going to do to be successful? What are the attributes that your teams had? We went into great detail and great depth with that, and I think it’s paying some dividends.”