Coaches trying to fit in
Little things always make the biggest difference.
For some, it’s a different practice time. For others, it’s a difference in scheduling. And then there’s getting used to the team on the ice.
A coach coming into a new situation has a lot to learn. Quickly. And in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association this season, there are three head coaches trying to catch up as fast as they can.
Don Lucia is facing a much larger spotlight as the coach at Minnesota, Scott Owens is trying to fill his extra-large shoes at Colorado College and Don Brose is looking to fit into WCHA protocol as the newest member of the WCHA at Minnesota State, Mankato. Each has his own concerns, but there’s an overriding theme: Each wants to fit in as quickly as possible.
Brose has the most interesting story. He’s been at Mankato since the team’s inception 29 years ago. He’s seen a lot of transitions, but the one that puts his team in WCHA competition, has created another feeling of newness in Mankato.
Just being part of the conference, and the little things that brings, is enough to motivate his team.
"We just built a new locker room and we have a standings board down there where we can slide the names of the teams around and points they’ve earned," Brose said. "We haven’t been able to do that since 1992. Since 1992, we’ve been an independent. We haven’t been able to qualify for all-conference or player of the week or anything like that. We’ve had no conference standings to go by.
"So this is a big stimulus for us. Even though our first conference games aren’t until the week after this, it’s something our kids are already looking forward to. They’re asking, ‘Do we have a press release on our next opponent?’ You can go to the WCHA release we get every week and find out who’s doing what — power-play success, things that were never available to you before."
Entry into the conference has also freed up some of Brose’s time. As an independent, he would have to schedule 34-37 games each season. Now, with 28 of his team’s games taken care of by the league, his job is a little easier.
"That’s the big thing. Everything’s so well organized in the WCHA that while we have not played our first game, we know exactly what’s expected of us," he said.
The expectations for Owens at CC and Lucia at Minnesota are high. For Owens, it’s because of Lucia’s success as his predecessor. For Lucia, it’s because of the school’s proud tradition in hockey.
The interesting thing for Owens is that, because of Lucia’s success and with the strong team still remaining, there is no grace period to get used to college coaching.
"Don’s last six years have been outstanding. From the WCHA championships to the NCAA appearances, with the fans and the facility, the expectations are extremely high," Owens said. "But it kind of goes with the job. I’ve been left with a pretty good team. It’s not like starting over again. And I was here five years ago so I have a little bit of familiarity with how things have been done here and with some of the personnel."
Owens was an assistant to Lucia at CC before becoming a head coach in the United States Hockey League. And because Owens learned much of his coaching style from Lucia and holds that today, the transition from coach to coach isn’t so pronounced. Plus, Owens knows many of the players from the USHL.
"I think we have 16 or 17 USHL players and many of those I’ve either coached against or coached with in various tournaments," Owens said. "That part of the transition has been pretty smooth. The fact that I went to the school, and maybe can relate with them on some non-hockey issues, has made it easier. From our standpoint, it’s been about as smooth as you could possibly hope for."
Lucia, however, hasn’t yet settled into his position at Minnesota and doesn’t see himself doing so this year.
"I’ve always said that I think it takes a year to really feel settled in, so I’ll feel settled in next spring," he said.
That’s not to say he’s not the same coach when he gets behind the bench, just that he has to juggle so many other things — requests from media, requests for speaking engagements and others — that his schedule is full.
"Once you step on the rink, I’m comfortable there. It’s the rest of it that takes the time to get used to," Lucia said. "The weekly demands are so much different. I walk in my office early and it’s go, go, go. I have to get used to practice time being at 1:30 and not 3:45, that comes so quickly in the day. That’s been the hard part."
The tie that binds all three of these coaches is that each shows plenty of potential to make an impact — for Owens and Lucia, on the school, and for Brose, on the WCHA.
If they can get past the administrative duties, they should make the league feel that impact immediately.
Wisconsin off to a much-needed quick start
It’s hard to underestimate the need for Wisconsin to get off to a good start this season. To eliminate past demons, to prove the Badgers own their home ice, to jump out ahead in the WCHA standings.
UW took a good first step last weekend, sweeping Michigan Tech with a little help from an old friend.
The Badgers scored six power-play goals against the Huskies — three in each game. That’s quite a departure from the 1998-99 season, when the team scored 17 for the entire campaign. They never had a multi-PPG game.
It was a pleasant surprise when they would score on the power play, but the man advantage more often than not created more frustration than capitalization.
It was an area the Badgers knew they needed to improve in, and UW coach Jeff Sauer said production like his team had last weekend could carry the team.
"If we can score on a couple power plays each weekend the rest of the season, we’re going to have a pretty successful year," Sauer said. "We want to get our power play up in the neighborhood of at least 20 percent or better. In the National Hockey League, that’s a pretty good figure; hopefully it’ll be a good figure for us."
The Badgers currently reside at 31.6 percent after two games. Pretty impressive, but that’s only after one weekend. And it’s only after a series with Michigan Tech. It will be interesting to see how they fare against the North Dakotas, Colorado Colleges and Minnesotas of the league.
One thing that needs to remain consistently good for the Badgers to continue having success on the power play is the strength of the individuals that make up the man-advantage unit.
"Your power plays are only as good as the people who are there," Sauer said. "You can do all the moving the puck, but if you don’t have people that can score, you’re not going to have much success."
Defenseman Jeff Dessner has two of the power-play goals, and Steve Reinprecht, Dany Heatley, David Hukalo and Dan Bjornlie have one each. Heatley was impressive in his collegiate debut, scoring a pair of goals and a pair of assists in his first two games with Wisconsin.
"I think he’s a pretty good player," Sauer said.
A classic rivalry revisited
Some call Minnesota the chief rival of North Dakota. Dean Blais is one of them.
The North Dakota coach doesn’t mince words when talking about his team’s series with Minnesota. There have been some very good games recently, and there’s an easy explanation for that.
"It has a lot to do with emotion. It’s our biggest series of the year," Blais said. "I don’t know if anyone else can claim that. Minnesota seems to draw the best of a lot of schools, but for us, we could probably send 20,000 tickets to that series."
North Dakota doesn’t get to sell the tickets yet. It’s Minnesota’s turn this weekend, as the teams square off in one of the closest, yet most one-sided rivalries in recent times.
North Dakota is 6-1-1 in the last eight regular-season meetings, but it’s tough to find a tighter series that has mostly been in favor of one team.
Take last year: UND won three of the four games with a tie, but only won the total-goals series 20-16. Going back another year, each of the last eight games has been within two goals.
And there have been some great games, including two classics last year. At Mariucci last November, North Dakota jumped out to a 3-0 lead early, only to have the Gophers regroup and earn a 4-4 tie. And in Grand Forks in January, Minnesota was up 3-0 and 4-1, only to see the Sioux claw back to make it 4-3. The Gophers went up 5-3 before the second intermission, but UND scored three goals in 2:30 in the third period to win.
"It’s been that way forever," Blais said. "Even when (the Gophers) had the so-called high-power teams when I first took over, they came into Grand Forks and we tied them twice. We were No. 1 in the country and went down there and they beat us. It doesn’t seem to matter what your record is going into it. They’ve all been close games."
Don’t expect anything less this weekend.
DU, CC at odds over Denver Cup?
Is there a little tension brewing in the Rockies?
A report surfaced in the Colorado Springs Gazette recently that Colorado College is looking to get out of its contract to play in the Denver Cup, hosted by the University of Denver. The two sides appear to be responding amicably toward each other, but there seems to be just a little bit of negative energy between the schools.
Owens points to the fact that CC wants to break out on its own with a Christmastime tournament, much like the one the school, in conjunction with the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, started in the 1970s.
"At this point, we’re thinking we’d like to get back to that Christmas tournament or Thanksgiving tournament in Colorado Springs," Owens said. "The Denver Cup has been a great experience for our program and our team, but we might be heading into a time where we may want to look at doing something ourselves with the facility we have, and possibly a tie-in with the Broadmoor."
The Tigers have Harvard tentatively scheduled for a home series on Dec. 29 and 30 of next year, and Owens said he wants to use that as a springboard into a tournament.
Plus, there might be a bit of contention about the site of the tournament, which has recently been held at McNichols Arena because, well, frankly, because there really wasn’t any other place in Denver to host a tournament unless three teams would agree to share one locker room.
"Originally, it was set up to be at a neutral site, at something like McNichols or the Pepsi Center," Owens said. "That’s a big part of it, but it’s also the direction we want to go in the future."
Denver coach George Gwozdecky understands CC’s concerns, but has his own explanation for why the Tigers want out.
"If I’m in their position, there’s no question that with their new building, they can probably create a lot more revenue if they have two home gates, as opposed to coming to play in the Denver Cup, where the guarantees probably aren’t quite as large," he said. "It was a business deal they made with the University of Denver two or three years ago.
"There’s no question that the reason they want to get out is because they can make more money in their own building."
Gwozdecky said he doesn’t anticipate any difficulty with CC getting out of its contract. Don’t worry about the future of the Denver Cup, though. Since the story appeared in the Gazette, DU has received five inquiries from teams wishing to compete, according to Gwozdecky.
"Anytime you can play your rival, it sparks interest in the local community," he said. "In a sense, that’s going to be missed, but at the same point in time the tournament stands on its own right now. People recognize it as a very competitive tournament. I think that’ll continue."
A quick recovery?
Confused about the status of Minnesota-Duluth goaltender Brant Nicklin? You’re not alone.
UMD coach Mike Sertich reported on the WCHA’s preseason teleconference that Nicklin had torn a ligament in his blocker thumb and would be "on the shelf for about a month."
But Nicklin played in the first period of the Bulldogs’ exhibition game against Team Canada earlier this week and, according to Kevin Pates of the Duluth News-Tribune, appears ready to go for this weekend’s series at Wisconsin. Nicklin also has a sprained knee and will be wearing a knee brace in addition to a cast on his thumb.
The big injury question this week in Duluth surrounds center Jeff Scissons, who is listed as questionable with a hip flexor injury. He didn’t play in the Canada exhibition.
There are questions about the health of the Bulldogs, but one thing that can’t be questioned is that UMD needs these two players to be in top form this season.