Rick Comley pauses to think before he answers a question. Why did Northern Michigan leave the CCHA for the WCHA in the first place? Comley laughs. “I’m sure for lots of good reasons, when you think back.”
The cover of this year’s Wildcats’ media guide says, “Charging back into the CCHA.” Maybe it should read, a la Jack Nicholson in The Shining, “We’re baaAAAaack!”
The ‘Cats are proving this season that you can go home again, and with a vengeance.
Northern Michigan is tearing up the CCHA in early-season play, behaving not at all like a team with 20 underclassmen, a team new to a conference.
“Tearing up is probably an overstatement,” says Comley, entering his 22nd year as Northern Michigan’s head coach. “Obviously, we’re playing pretty well.”
“Pretty well” may be an understatement.
Through the third week of CCHA play, the Wildcats were 4-1-1 against conference opponents. For their first series, the ‘Cats tied and beat Upper Peninsula rivals Lake Superior; then they swept Western Michigan in two games on the road. In the third week, they split a pair with nationally-ranked Michigan at home.
This success shouldn’t be surprising to hockey fans in the CCHA. It’s certainly not surprising to fans of Northern Michigan, who have watched their ‘Cats succeed in post-season tournament play any number of times, both in the WCHA and the CCHA. As recently as 1991, the Wildcats were national champions.
From 1977 until jumping conferences in 1984, the Wildcats were members of the CCHA. As members of the CCHA, Northern Michigan enjoyed both league and NCAA success. During the 1979-80 season — in just their fourth season of hockey — the Wildcats went 34-6-1; their CCHA record of 17-3-0 was good enough for the regular-season title. The ‘Cats went on to take the CCHA championship, and to advance to the final game of NCAA tournament play, where they lost to North Dakota, 5-2.
Then in 1980-81, the Wildcats again took the CCHA title and advanced to the NCAA tournament, where they lost 5-1 to Wisconsin in the first round, and 5-2 to Michigan Tech in the consolation game.
After joining the WCHA, the ‘Cats again reached the NCAA playoffs in 1988-89, losing a first-round series to Providence. After missing a year of NCAA postseason play, Northern Michigan reached the NCAA tournament three consecutive years, beginning with the 1990-91 season, when the ‘Cats defeated Boston University for the national championship, and followed by consecutive quarterfinal appearances.
For all of that history, Rick Comley has been the head coach.
“When you like what you’re doing, you stay with it,” says Comley. “It’s just like anyone else who stays in a job for a long time. Working with new kids can keep you interested as well.”
Comley says his goal when he started coaching was the same as it is now, two decades later. “We want to be successful.”
One step toward success is a new arena with an Olympic-size ice sheet, to be completed for the 1999-2000 season. Comley says it wasn’t difficult to convince the University that a new facility was needed. “They’ve always been supportive.”
Construction on the $9.5 million Events Center is scheduled for the spring of 1998. The Center is to be paid for with a combination of bond proceeds, private contributions and money from the university’s general fund. When complete, the Center will seat approximately 4,000 for hockey, and 5,000 for other events, such as concerts.
The renewed dedication to hockey and the move back to the CCHA are both a part of Northern Michigan University’s plan to attract more students. In both of these matters, Comley says, “Our president was a leading force. It was enrollment driven…our overall enrollment was down.” The university thought that students would be attracted more to a school that competed with in-state rivals like Lake Superior and Western Michigan, and the two in-state Big Ten schools, Michigan and Michigan State.
It’s part of a plan to “reestablish our presence in the state of Michigan,” says Comley.
That reestablishment is apparent already this season. Fans in Marquette, particularly, have embraced the move back to the CCHA. “The positive thing is the reception,” says Comley. “The people in this town are very excited here about the team rejoining the CCHA.”
Comley says the university and the hockey team have more in common with schools in the CCHA than with the WCHA.
“It’s not that our fans didn’t care about the WCHA teams we played, but places like Colorado College aren’t as real to them as Lake Superior State. The names of teams in the CCHA are familiar. Lake and Ferris are Great Lakes Conference intense rivalries in other sports at Northern. The two Big Ten schools, the fans read about day in and day out.
“Certainly our fans are the reason this move is so successful.”
In addition to his duties as head coach, Comley has served as athletic director for the university for the past 11 years. Of his job as AD, Comley says, “You’re involved with everything. I enjoy a lot of different sports, [but] being both [coach and athletic director] is time-consuming. You try to go to as many different games as you can.”
“The hardest thing in the beginning is working against the perception that you’d tend to favor hockey over everyone else.”
Comley remembers a time when the WCHA and Hockey East shared teams and schedules. “It’s kind of interesting technically. We’ve participated in the WCHA-Hockey East affiliation. We played as many as 16 games interconference a season. When the WCHA expanded, then it wasn’t possible to do it any more.
“Technically,” says Comley, “the only conference we haven’t played in is the ECAC.”
Given the way the Wildcats are playing, one can only assume that the ECAC is happy about that.
The Wildcats finished 13-24-3 overall last season, with a WCHA record of 9-21-8 — hardly the kind of record that foreshadows what they have done so far in the CCHA. Comley says there are many intangibles that contribute to Northern’s triumphant return.
“It’s always a combination of things. We’re not making too much of it. We’re happy that we’re getting off to a good start. Does that mean that we’re a top-five team? No, it just means that maybe the league is a little bit more balanced than people thought.
“You look at Ohio State, you look at Notre Dame, you look at Northern Michigan and Ferris — those are four of the teams that were picked to be at the bottom of the league, and all of a sudden they’re beating teams that are picked to be at the top of the league.
“It creates great balance.”
A good deal of credit for the early-season success of the Wildcats belongs to their young goaltender, sophomore Duane Hoey. In his rookie season, Hoey appeared in 15 games, with a 3.47 goals-against average and a save percentage of .873. This season, through 12 games, Hoey’s numbers have improved remarkably: a 1.97 GAA and a .918 save percentage.
“He’s played very, very well,” says Comley. “The best goaltending we’ve had in a while. And just an awful lot of hard work. Good goaltending and hard work — it’s a young team that plays with a lot of enthusiasm.”
While the season is young, and Comley doesn’t want to sound too gleeful about the Wildcats’ success against CCHA opponents, he says there are signs that Northern’s record isn’t just early-season luck. “The real encouraging thing for me, without making too much of it, is the ability to go on the road and win. That’s a sign of whether a team is a decent team or not.”
With the return to the CCHA, the Wildcats renew old, old rivalries, some bitter — or at least comical.
On Jan. 30, 1981, with the Ohio State Buckeyes in town, the ‘Cats and the Bucs fought to the point of the ridiculous, amassing 185 penalty minutes, 98 of which belonged to the Buckeyes. The rivalry between the two teams resulted in a button that was popular among Wildcat fans in the ’80s; it read, “Oh, How I Hate Ohio State.”
College hockey has changed since then, and such roughness is no longer tolerated. But you can bet that longtime Wildcat fans — mollified for years by play in a league where the geography didn’t contribute as much to rivalry — will be pleased to reintroduce a few rink chants that even the Yost faithful haven’t made famous.
And when Ohio State visits Marquette later this month, will the spirit of the holiday season and the renewal of old CCHA friendships surround the Buckeyes in warmth and welcome? Well, sure, since residents of Marquette are a friendly bunch.
All the Buckeyes will have to do is look past those buttons, painstakingly kept for over 15 years, and dusted off for the occasion.