Rick Comley is gone, but Walt Kyle has returned.
And make no mistake about it: Northern Michigan is still the hardest-working team in college hockey.
How do you replace the man who built your hockey program from scratch, the only coach in the team’s 29-year history?
Well, you don’t. You can’t. But you can bring in someone who thinks an awful lot like he did.
“A lot of people have asked me how we’re going to play, and I can tell you that over the years both as a player and a coach I learned from Rick, and I don’t plan on changing very much of what Rick did,” said Kyle. “A lot of the things that I believe in are things that he taught me. I feel really fortunate to be able to take over the program that he’s left.”
What does that mean? A fast game, with punishing checks and a work ethic that never quits.
Northern Michigan returns some of the best players in the league in forwards Bryce Cockburn and Chris Gobert, and defenseman Jimmy Jackson, who seemed to return to form midseason. There’s no reason to think that — with Craig Kowalski in net — anything will change significantly in Marquette.
“Up front, we have some forwards that we think historically have provided some offense at Northern, and we think they’ll continue to do so in their senior year,” said Kyle. “Chris Gobert, a local boy out of Marquette, is a real dynamic guy who has the ability to score. He’ll be moved to center this year on a regular basis. Right now, we think he’ll play between Mike Stutzel and Bryce Cockburn, two other seniors who again have had some success offensively.”
— New NMU coach Walt Kyle, just the second head man in Wildcat history
The Cockburn-Gobert combo has the potential to be the best one-two punch in the league — perhaps in the country. Along with Stutzel, any CCHA coach will tell you that this will be one tough line to defend.
Kyle is also looking at the unfortunately injury-prone Terry Harrison to contribute offensively.
“I don’t know a lot about our team,” Kyle said during CCHA media day. “I don’t know a lot about our players. What I can tell you is that I think the team is going to be led by Craig Kowalski, our goaltender. We think he’s one of the top goaltenders in the country. He’s a guy who’s certainly done a great job with the program for the last couple of years.”
Kowalski can be one of the top ‘tenders in the country — but he’s streaky. When he’s on, he’s unbelievable; when he’s not, he’s, well, unbelievable.
That’s why the biggest question mark for the Wildcats this season is defense. “We have seven freshmen, potentially five freshmen defensemen in the lineup any given night,” said Kyle. “We feel we have a real strong senior class, led at defense by Jim Jackson, a real competitor, a guy that plays hard every night, and a guy that we’re looking to lead a group of young defensemen and hopefully help them improve as the year goes on.”
While Northern has traditionally played solid team defense, if the blue line breaks down in front of Kowalski and the junior goaltender faces an exponentially larger number of shots, there is rattle potential there for Kowalski.
Into The Light
“It’s great to be back in college hockey for me. It’s particularly rewarding to be back in Northern,” said Kyle. “We’ve always considered Marquette home, and Northern home.”
Kyle himself is NMU’s secret weapon this season. This is a man with proven coaching ability at every level, a man who has coached NHL stars Mark Messier, Eric Lindros, Brian Leetch, Paul Kariya, and Teemu Selanne — and someone who loves NMU hockey, someone who loves being “home,” the ideal candidate to pick up where Rick Comley left off.
Wildcat players, repeat daily: “The best offense is a good defense.”