‘One of the most dedicated guys I’ve ever met’
One of the best things about Don Brose’s retirement, a number of college hockey coaches said this week, is that he’s going out on his terms. No one is shoving him out the door and there’s no group of fans on a certain message board calling for his head.
And he’s going out, largely, as a winner. He may never win the Division I national championship, or even the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, but what he has done is brought a new spark to the WCHA and a team ready to be an upper-echelon competitor.
For that, he has to be commended. And commended he was by the league’s coaches this week.
Here’s a sampling of what they had to say:
— Minnesota-Duluth coach Mike Sertich: "I guess it doesn’t really surprise me because he mentioned it to me last year that he was planning on it. He’s definitely one of the most dedicated guys I’ve ever met. Starting with club hockey on an outside rink and to bring it to the magnitude of where they brought it today, it’s a real tribute to him and his dedication to the game."
— WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod: "It was a little surprising to me. Suprising, but understandable."
— Minnesota coach Don Lucia: "They’re having such a good year that I thought he might go another year or two. It doesn’t happen very often in our profession where you can go out on your own terms. It’s nice to see that. Don spent 30 years at one spot, it’s something that’s not going to happen very often anymore in our profession. It must be real rewarding for Don to be able to look back in his career. He started on an outdoor rink and got a rink built on campus. He moved from Division III to Division II to Division I and to the WCHA. He had a fantastic coaching career and really contributed a lot to college hockey in general."
— North Dakota coach Dean Blais: "I was real surprised, considering how well they’re doing this season. I thought because they were doing so well, Don might extend it one more year. His idea when they got in the WCHA was to get the program going and turn it over. He’s made a real impact not only on the recruiting, but the whole entire program."
For more, see our feature on coaches’ reaction, which includes words from former Division II and III colleagues George Gwozdecky and Mark Mazzoleni and our story on Brose’s retirement announcement.
Who wants to follow a legend?
It’s not easy to follow a legend in college hockey. Some, like Wisconsin’s Jeff Sauer, who came after Bob Johnson, have made it look relatively easy.
But there are things that the next person has to overcome. Not being the legend is one of them.
The field is open for the job at Minnesota State when Brose’s contract runs out in June, but, and the opinion light is on here, MSU would have to be insane not to give the job to Troy Jutting.
Here’s a guy who has stood next to Brose for the better part of the last 15 years, as a player and assistant coach.
The most ringing endorsement, though, comes from Brose himself.
"Troy played for me for four years," Brose said. "Troy has been a graduate assistant coach and then a part-time assistant coach and a full-time assistant coach. We were in a black hole after they turned us down in 1992 to go Division I. We had 15 freshmen enrolled, and eight days after school starts, the university board decides they were going to turn us down for our plans. It was a black hole, and Troy was the guy that helped bring the program back with a lot of hard work in recruiting."
And what more could you ask for? Jutting, a Richfield, Minn., native, is one of three brothers to have played for the Mavericks. He had 145 points in 136 games. And he’s in his 10th season as an assistant to Brose. That takes committment.
Brose said he would like to see Jutting take over as coach. In a program so steeped in tradition, there has to be some continuity. The way to keep Brose’s legacy alive, at least in part, is to hire Jutting as the next coach.
On the line this weekend
In an ironic twist, Wisconsin fans might be wishing their team doesn’t clinch the MacNaughton Cup this weekend. Not that the fans don’t want to see the Badgers skate with the Cup, but, for them, the ultimate would be next weekend.
There have been plenty of times Minnesota has bumped off the Badgers to advance itself. But if Wisconsin and North Dakota earn sweeps this weekend, the Badgers can clinch next weekend at Mariucci Arena with as little as a tie.
Just something to think about.
The biggest series this weekend, however, is probably the Colorado College-Minnesota State matchup in Colorado Springs. Three points separate third and seventh place in the standings, and this is the only series this weekend that pairs two of the teams in that range.
CC and St. Cloud State (26 points) are tied for third place, with Mankato (25 points) one point back in fifth, Minnesota (24 points) one behind Mankato in sixth and Alaska-Anchorage (23 points) one behind Minnesota in seventh.
"Things could change dramatically this weekend," CC coach Scott Owens said.
Points don’t come easy at this point of the season, but Minnesota may have the advantage coming out of the weekend. The Golden Gophers are at Michigan Tech this weekend.
Offense by any means possible
Owens has long maintained that his Colorado College team’s offense has to get goals from anywhere it can.
Thank goodness for Noah Clarke, then.
The freshman has scored a goal in each of the last six games, including three last weekend that tied him with K.J. Voorhees as the team’s leading goal scorer (16).
"It’s been huge for us because the scoring from our upperclassmen has dwindled a little bit as of late," Owens said. "I can’t remember seeing somebody scoring six goals in six consecutive games, let alone a freshman."
That, combined with fellow freshman Joe Cullen’s success the last two weekends, has the Tigers in a pretty good position.
"I think the other thing that’s interesting is Joe Cullen has three goals this season and he’s scored in three of the last four games," Owens said. "From our two freshman forwards, we’re getting some production, which has really been helping us out down the stretch."
The Tigers offense will have to be on full alert this weekend because no one really knows what to expect out of Minnesota State. Will the Mavericks be more motivated than ever to win one for their coach?
"It’s hard to figure out what their response will be," Owens said. "It’s more positive for them than negative; I think they could rally a little bit for that. That concerns me, that’s certainly an intangible that doesn’t factor in to a normal weekend. We just need to take care of business in our own building here."
Lucia would love to win his team’s last six games this season. That would almost surely give his team home-ice advantage for the WCHA playoffs.
But that would be a tall task. After this weekend’s series at Michigan Tech, the Gophers host Wisconsin and have a home-and-home series with St. Cloud State.
But, according to Lucia, if they get four wins, they’ll be in good shape.
"Last year, it only took 26 points for home ice and I think 32 points was third place," Lucia said. "The way teams are playing right now, I think we’re going to have to have four wins in order to have home ice. Who knows if even that will be enough.
"We’ve got a difficult last three weeks. We just have to try to win as many games as we can because you can’t count on somebody else doing the job for you."
Lucia is stressing to his players this week that they can’t even count on wins against the last-place team in the league.
"Tech’s had a difficult year. Their goaltending seems to have improved as of late, their scores are certainly getting much, much closer," Lucia said. "Anytime you go on the road, there isn’t any gimmies. We have to make sure we work extremely hard. If we allow Tech to outwork us this weekend, we’ll probably lose."
After seeing Wisconsin freshman phenom Dany Heatley create magic against his team last weekend, St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl made reference to Tony Hrkac, the former North Dakota star and 1987 Hobey Baker Award winner, and that Heatley’s presence reminded him of Hrkac.
This week, some didn’t exactly agree.
"I don’t think that is a fair comparison," said Gino Gasparini, who coached Hrkac at North Dakota and is now the commissioner of the United States Hockey League.
"I think Dany Heatley is a prototype power forward, with pretty good hands. Tony Hrkac was a smaller, 5-10, 5-11 center-iceman, a playmaker."
The difference in size makes a direct comparison between the two tough. However, the intent of Dahl may have been to say both players carry the same kind of aura with them on the ice. When they have the puck, you have to watch.
The player both Gasparini and McLeod mentioned as a better comparison was Troy Murray, who played two seasons for the Fighting Sioux in the early 1980s. Murray is a 6-foot-1, 195-pound forward from Calgary, Alberta. Heatley is a 6-foot-3, 200-pound forward from Calgary, Alberta.
In his freshman season, Murray had 78 points in 38 games. Kind of puts Heatley’s outstanding numbers this season in perspective. Heatley has 39 points in 28 games this season.
"I remember watching Troy, he was one of those guys like Tony, in that they did things so much different when they had the puck," McLeod said. "The first thing that would come into my mind is, ‘OK, what are they going to do now?’ "
More nail-biting for Blais
Midway through last Friday’s game against Alaska-Anchorage, North Dakota’s Blais was a bit nervous about his offense. The Sioux scored all of one goal in two games at St. Cloud State the week before and had yet to score against the Seawolves.
While the Sioux eventually won both games, Blais figured out that the root of the problems was in a few individuals.
"It wasn’t like we were not getting the opportunities," Blais said. "We just ran into some good goaltending. The one thing we tried to do is be consistent in our line play. The entire team was doing pretty well, but there was a few individuals here and there who weren’t playing as expected. And all it takes is one player to shut down the rest of the line. And that was happening on a couple lines."
"They either come around or they don’t play," Blais said. "That’s the bottom line. They have to play at a higher level or, more than likely, they’re going to be on the bench, or if not on the bench, they probably won’t play the next night."
Almost-first to almost-worst
A TV color commentator last weekend posed an interesting question:
"What happened to Denver?"
Indeed, what has happened to Denver this year? Here’s a team that had such a strong season last year, culminating with a win over North Dakota in the WCHA Final Five championship game.
But this year, the Pioneers have fallen victim to a number of problems that have caused them to plummet to ninth place in the league.
"Last year’s team, we had nine seniors. This year’s team, we have four seniors," Gwozdecky said. "Last year’s team, of those nine seniors, probably almost every single one of those guys had their best seasons as seniors. We were big, we were strong, we were experienced, we were motivated. And we had a marquee player (Paul Comrie) in our lineup who was a gamebreaker. This year, we’re a completely different team. We’re much more inexperienced, we don’t have the marquee player in our lineup. We have to depend very heavily on our junior class.
"Our blue line last year was big, strong and experienced. This year, we’re basically freshmen and sophomores. When you take out such strong personalities like we had on last year’s team, and you expect much younger players to come in and fill those roles, sometimes it can be a real challenge for those young guys. And it has been this year. The attitude has been great. This team has been a real joy to been with. They have not given up; it’s been frustrating for them at times, but they’ve been very strong-willed. We’re a good team, we’re not a great team, but we’re a good team."
Maybe that helps to explain it.
Underappreciated player of the week Jason Ulmer, North Dakota
That’s right, I said Jason Ulmer of North Dakota. As was pointed out in an e-mail, he has been overshadowed for most of his career.
Yes, he has 37 points in 30 games this season, but the top-line center has the majority of those points by feeding players like Lee Goren, Jeff Panzer and others.
"I think he’s kind of been overshadowed every year," Blais said. "He came in as a freshman and had to play behind Jason Blake and (David) Hoogsteen, his older brother and all those guys. Basically, a fourth-line type guy.
"He was on the power play and penalty kill last year and now this year, he’s one of the impact players for us. He’s going to graduate on time, a great student, just turned 21 years old so he came here right out of high school and has developed into probably the best two-way player in the conference. He’s so good in his own end and his plus-minus is tops on the team."
Yes, someone on the top line can go unnoticed every once in a while.