You don’t enter college expecting to play for three different coaches in your four years. The NHL, maybe, but not college, where coaches get the time they need to try to rebuild a program that has lost its way.
This season’s seniors at Michigan Tech, however, will be playing for head coach No. 3 as Jamie Russell takes a swing at the monumental task of making the Huskies winners again.
After they started the 2000-01 season 1-7-1, those seniors saw Tim Watters, the man who recruited them, replaced with longtime WCHA coach Mike Sertich. The former Minnesota-Duluth coach guided them through the rest of their freshman season, as well as their sophomore and junior campaigns before deciding, after last season, that it was time to retire.
So you could easily forgive Brett Engelhardt, Jon Pittis, Justin Brown and Frank Werner if they were disillusioned with college athletics and somewhat skeptical of Russell’s leadership. Not so, Russell said.
“They’ve been through a lot, and to be honest with you, they’ve been very good,” said Russell, 37. “They’ve treated me very well, been very receptive to everything. I think they’re excited for a new era.”
That may be, but how many new eras can one program sustain in this short a time? Russell, a former Huskies player who had been an assistant coach at Cornell before coming back to Houghton, Mich., sounds like he’s in this for the long haul. In being hired, he described the Tech job as one he coveted. His wife is from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he has been back to Houghton every summer since he graduated and said “it’s like coming home.”
In anticipation of being around a while, Russell is starting his planned transformation of the Tech program with the building blocks. Commitment, sacrifice, work ethic and character are the things he mentioned in describing where he’ll start.
Next up is the system. Out is the passive style of the last few years and in comes a plan that Russell hopes will take advantage of the small ice sheet at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena.
“We’re going to be a very aggressive team,” Russell said. “We’re going to be going after teams. We’re one of only four teams in our league to play on an NHL-size rink. Systems-wise, I think it’s a little different from what the players have been used to here. Coach Sertich did a good job setting a real solid foundation. I’m certainly looking for a consistent effort, playing 60 minutes and competitiveness. We’ve got to compete and win one-on-one battles all over the ice.”
When that’s in place, the new regime will look at recruiting. Russell said his staff will pursue players from areas Tech hasn’t gone in the past. He may mean the United States Hockey League — the Huskies are the only team this season to not have a recruit that played in the USHL last year.
New assistant coach Ian Kallay, who joins holdover Mark Maroste, was an assistant coach with Sioux City and Green Bay in the USHL before becoming a coach and general manager of a team in the Alberta junior league, so his experience will be tapped. Russell wasn’t too bad of a recruiter at Cornell, either. He had a hand in bringing goaltender Dave LeNeveu, a Hobey Baker Award finalist last season, to the Big Red.
The Huskies also hope Russell can bring over some of his defensive expertise. He was in charge of the Cornell defense and penalty kill, both of which led the nation last season. Tech was last in the WCHA in defense last season, allowing an average of 4.14 goals per game in conference play. The penalty kill was eighth in the 10-team league, killing off only 77.1 percent of opponents’ chances in league games and 74.6 percent overall.
It’s the building blocks that matter to Russell here, too: “Playing defense has very little to do with talent,” he said. “It’s about character, commitment, winning those battles, blocking shots — doing all those little things. They go an awfully long way. They don’t get noticed on the scoresheet, but they’re the types of things that win you hockey games.”
Tech is counting on a solid season from Brown and juniors Clay Wilson and Brad Sullivan on defense. John Scott, the tallest player in college hockey at 6-foot-7, has made strides, Russell said. Freshman Lars Helminen should see some time on the power play.
The last line of defense, however, is a clean slate as far as Russell is concerned. Cam Ellsworth showed flashes of brilliance last season — see 94 saves in a series against Colorado College — but will have to win his starting job again. The junior will go up against sophomore Rick Cazares and freshman Bryce Luker, indicating the kind of position battles that will be prevalent early in the season.
“He had a great offseason,” Russell said of Ellsworth. “I challenged him when I was hired in June to raise his fitness level, and he certainly responded. He’s come in in great shape. So that’s the first step. But to be honest with you, with all our positions, players have to prove themselves again.”
Even Engelhardt, the lead-by-example veteran who, along with Chris Conner and 20-goal scorer Colin Murphy, will be expected to lead the Huskies’ offense. Newcomer Taggart Desmet, who sat out last season after playing major juniors, could be “a very big impact player for us,” Russell said.
Getting away from being a one-line team is the challenge, however, meaning there are plenty of opportunities for lesser-known players to grab part of the spotlight.
“It’s a new beginning for everybody,” Russell said. “Jobs are wide open. There’s nothing taken for granted, and it’s going to be very, very competitive.”
The Huskies can only hope that, soon enough, they’ll be competitive, too.
The Huskies don’t host Minnesota or Alaska-Anchorage and don’t travel to Colorado College or Denver. … Russell played defense for the Huskies from 1987 to 1989 and was an assistant captain both seasons. … He’s the 20th head coach in the 83-year history of Tech hockey.