COLUMBUS, Ohio — It may not have been the way he wanted to achieve his dream, but Steve Rohlik got to fulfill his vision last week.
Rohlik said he has always wanted to walk into a locker room and address his team, and that’s what he did on Wednesday.
Rohlik was named as Ohio State’s ninth men’s hockey coach, succeeding Mark Osiecki, who was dismissed after three years at the helm. Within an hour of the announcement, Rohlik addressed his team for the first time as head coach.
Rohlik has had his share of locker room speeches as the associate head coach at Ohio State, but this one certainly was different.
“It was pretty surreal,” Rohlik said about walking into the locker room. “When you put the skates on at 3 years old and you go through this process and this journey, you dream about one day standing in a locker room addressing your team. My dream came true today.
“To talk to these guys, they know my passion, know where I sit, and I think this is going to be the driving force for our program and these guys.”
Rohlik’s dream might have come true but it likely was not the way he envisioned it. He and Osiecki and were close friends and followed similar footsteps to Ohio State. Both were from Minnesota and the duo played together for three years at Wisconsin. After the 1990 hockey season, the two went their separate ways.
Osiecki had a pro playing career that included stops with four NHL teams. After a cup of coffee in the ECHL, Rohlik turned to coaching.
Rohlik began his coaching career at age 22 as an assistant for Wisconsin. After briefly coaching the Badgers, he became an assistant at Stillwater Area High School which was near his hometown of St. Paul. At 25, he became the head coach of his former high school Hill-Murray for four seasons.
“Forty-plus years of me being a player and a coach, 21 years as a coach, has put me in this position,” Rohlik said. “Every level I have been at, I have been a leader, a captain. It feels like I have been coaching since I was 7 years old. Over this experience, it has put me in a position to stand here and honestly say I am ready to be a head coach.
“The journey has been a long journey but I feel ready for this position.”
In 1997, Rohlik was an assistant under Mike Kemp as Nebraska-Omaha’s program got under way. After three years there, Rohlik found himself back in the WCHA as an assistant for Minnesota-Duluth.
In 2003, Rohlik and Osiecki began crossing paths more frequently as Osiecki joined the staff at Wisconsin.
When Osiecki was hired away from Wisconsin to lead Ohio State’s hockey program in 2010, he turned to Rohlik to be his right-hand man. Rohlik has been with Osiecki every step of the way in trying to rebuild the brand of the program.
On March 15, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith called Osiecki into his office. Within 15 minutes, Osiecki was packing his things and saying his goodbyes. It left Rohlik and players stunned.
“That was the first question I had: Am I here or am I going? Where are we at?” Rohlik said.
In a nine-day span, Rohlik went from being an assistant to having an uncertain future as interim coach to the only candidate that Smith and assistant athletic director Chris Schneider interviewed for the head coaching position.
“It has been a whirlwind,” Rohlik said. “An emotional roller coaster, a whirlwind, and happy to get to the point Monday where I got to interview for the job here.”
Schneider, the administrator from the athletic department who oversees the hockey program, said he knew quickly that Rohlik was the right man for the job.
“When we opened up this position, we knew there would be a lot of interest,” Schneider said. “The more I talked with our student-athletes, our staff and coach Rohlik over the past week, I knew we would not have to look very far for our next head coach of our program. During his interview, he clearly conveyed his experience, his understanding of the game, but most importantly, his passion for Ohio State hockey.”
Osiecki was let go because of what the administration called a difference in management. A person familiar with the program told USCHO that Osiecki was seen by the administration as an abrasive figure in his locker room and players became frustrated with training methods.
On the other hand, it appears Rohlik has the backing of the locker room.
Forward Chris Crane left the program a month ago after completing his junior season with the Buckeyes to pursue a professional opportunity with the San Jose Sharks’ AHL affiliate in Worcester. Crane said he credits Rohlik for the opportunity to make the transition to the pro game.
“He deserved it,” Crane said. “He was a players’ coach on and off the ice. Oz and Rohlik did a great job changing the culture at Ohio State.”
Rohlik has a tough challenge ahead. The hockey program is transitioning into the six-team Big Ten Conference. Rohlik will face his alma mater four times a season along with the likes of Minnesota, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.
Rohlik said he will attempt to continue Osiecki’s progress with the program by building the recruiting base. The roster Rohlik will have to work with is strong; the Buckeyes lost only three players who received significant playing time.
“Our expectations are high,” Rohlik said. “We know we are playing in the best league in the country. We are playing a lot against the powerhouses of college hockey, but that is why we’re here and that is why we’re moving into that conference.
“I feel good about what we have in the locker room. I feel good about the kids we have coming in. We are going to compete, we are going to show up, and I would like to think that we will give ourselves a chance to win a lot of hockey games.”