WCHA Column: Nov. 9, 2000

Why now?

The prevailing opinion among WCHA coaches in regard to Michigan Tech coach Tim Watters’ resignation on Tuesday was astonishment.

Not so much at the event, but its timing.

“I was shocked, quite frankly,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “It almost seems like a pro-type deal, and we’re still college. It’s early November. I can’t remember a coach in college being replaced like that during the season.”

No one can.

“I’ve been around a college hockey a long time,” WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod said, “and I don’t remember one.”

Let’s be clear here. Watters was not fired. Officially, he resigned. But Watters and Tech Athletic Director Rick Yeo came to a “mutual agreement,” Yeo said, that Watters would step down.

Translation? Do you need a translation?

“I think a lot goes back to last year, with the season we had last year,” said Yeo, in reference to the 4-34 record that set a NCAA record for most losses in a season.

“We worked hard over the summer, hoping that we could turn the program around this year, that possibly last year was a fluke. I thought we started out on the right foot, but it got to the point where just I didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel after last weekend.

“Rather than wait to make a change at the end of the year, we mutually agreed, Tim and I, that it’s probably in the best interest of the program to have him step down or turn in his resignation at this time.”

After a pair of home losses to Minnesota State-Mankato last weekend, the Huskies fell to 1-7-1 and 1-7 in the WCHA.

But it didn’t sit well with the league’s coaches, who thought college coaches should get to finish the year.

“There’s no secret they had a difficult year last year,” Lucia said. “I think they felt good about the recruits they had coming in this year. When you look at who they had to play early on, when you have to play CC, Wisconsin, Northern [Michigan] and North Dakota right out of the chute, that’s a pretty difficult schedule.

“I don’t think anybody thinks you’re going to go from 4-34 to 34-4.”

“I’m upset that it went that way,” Alaska-Anchorage coach Dean Talafous said. “I think Tim’s team was playing a lot better; it’s a tough league. You’re up against, for the better part, nationally-ranked teams every night and they looked like they were going to be very competitive; they were starting to play with some confidence, and who knows?

“I would like, personally, to have seen him play the year out because I think there was a good chance that things were turning around there.”

But St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl said no one but Yeo and Watters know what the real deal is.

“We don’t know the whole story behind the story,” he said.

On the other hand…

While league coaches were dismayed to see Watters leave in the manner that he did, it’s hard to find someone upset with his replacement.

The half-year Mike Sertich was out of the league was too long for some. And, to be honest, this column has been woefully deficient in Sertich-isms. So here we go, courtesy of USCHO Arena Reporter Eric J. Habermas:

“One of my friends in the media in Duluth said he’d never thought he’d see the day a sports story would upstage an election,” Sertich said at the news conference Wednesday that officially announced his hiring.

“I’m glad the election is still in doubt because my future isn’t. I’m just
hoping Rick doesn’t ask for a recount today sometime.”

Sertich later talked about being hired as an interim coach.

“I was an interim coach before — for 18 years,” he said, referring to his tenure at Minnesota-Duluth, which ended at the end of last season.

Then, he talked about the job he has upcoming at Tech.

“We’ll talk to the players about what I think needs to be done and it’ll be
very simple,” Sertich said. “We talked to [assistant coaches] Peter [Wilkinson] and Marc [Boxer] this morning and I think they must have thought they were going to get a visit from [former Soviet Union coach] Viktor Tikhonov or something.”

Good to have you back, Sertie.

Dressed in Pink

Coincidence can be pretty ironic sometimes, can’t it?

Now, I don’t want to get into an argument about what’s irony and what’s coincidence because I don’t have the time, but here’s the point:

As Minnesota-Duluth coach, Sertich had the visiting locker rooms at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center painted pink.

Color him pink this weekend.

His first job as Michigan Tech interim coach is to take the Huskies into the visiting locker room at the DECC.

“How ironic,” McLeod said. “I don’t know how people there are going to react. Despite what happened the last while, he’s a popular guy up there. I think there will be confusion about how to react through the whole thing. You want to cheer the home squad, but it’s Mike.”

Sertich said he knows his role at Tech — an interim coach who will probably be replaced at the end of the season.

But in the interim, there may not be a better tutor for the Huskies than Sertich.

“I’ve known Mike for many years and have always thought highly of him,” Yeo said. “The one thing I always thought about Mike is that he can get the most out of the players. He’s a teacher, his history is that he was a high school teacher before he got into coaching. He makes it fun for the players.

“He does have a great tradition. I think we’re very fortunate that we have a person like Mike that’s willing to step into a situation like this.”

In the Polls

Last week, Minnesota coach Lucia said his team was overrated at No. 5 in the USCHO.com poll.

Between then and now, his Gophers swept defending league regular-season champion Wisconsin at Mariucci Arena and took the No. 1 spot in the country.

So now?

“I still say we’re overrated,” Lucia said.

The Gophers are the third WCHA team this season to have the top spot in the USCHO.com poll, after North Dakota and Wisconsin.

“Before it’s all said and done,” Lucia said, “there could be two more in CC and St. Cloud that get there.”

Those teams are certainly within striking distance. And within Colorado College at No. 5, Wisconsin at No. 6, North Dakota at No. 7 and St. Cloud at No. 9, half of the league’s 10 teams are ranked in the top nine in the country.

That’s a statement for this league, albeit early in the season. But it’s not entirely unexpected, considering that WCHA coaches have been saying for a long time how competitive this league is going to be this season.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on the depth of the teams in the league,” McLeod said. “We’ve said for a long time that sometimes it might be harder to win the regular season than the playoffs or the NCAAs because it’s a long haul.

“The depth of the quality in the league is certainly evident in the polls, but you can see it by the scores. Weekend to weekend, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

But all that competition every weekend could take its toll.

“It’s going to be unfortunate by the end of the year that we beat up on each other so much,” St. Cloud coach Dahl said. “We have so many league games and not as many nonconference games, it’ll be tough for our teams to get more than the three in the NCAAs that we usually do.”

The Waiting Game

This is a story of two teams, each with nothing to do last weekend, and how they came out of it with drastically different results.

There’s Alaska-Anchorage, which practiced last week, rested up some tired bodies and apparently came out of it better off.

Then there’s St. Cloud State, which didn’t practice because of NCAA scheduling rules, had a player get injured and may have come out of the week in a worse position.

“We healed up a little bit, that’s always good,” Talafous said. “I think all coaches enjoy the little bit of extra time to do some teaching because when you’re preparing week after week and you include the travel, it makes it a real short week: three days at the most and you’re back on the plane. You’re concerned with trying to improve but also concerned about the other team and the game plan for that weekend. It doesn’t allow a lot of time to slow practice down and try to work individually with players and if you want to throw anything new in.

“I think we used it to improve our game plan and to heal guys up. From our standpoint, we try to make it a positive. If you never have time off, you make that a positive. You just have to take what you get and make the best of it.”

For Dahl, though, things are a little different. Defenseman Brian Gaffaney went down with a groin injury and will miss this weekend’s key series at Colorado College.

That’s pretty much indicative of the way it went in the last week.

“It’s one of those weeks where you can’t practice with the team, so you have to let them do their own stuff,” Dahl said. “It doesn’t come at an opportune time, after six games. We’d rather have it at the end of November or the end of January. But there’s not much you can do about it. Our guys got a chance to concentrate on their midterms and still play a little two-on-two tournament. They came back in good shape, really, and I was happy with them, and they’ve been practicing great.”

Building a Home

Minnesota coach Lucia has seen his team fare pretty well at home. Now, he wonders how it’ll do on the road.

“We played real well last weekend, but we were at home,” Lucia said. “For the most part, seven of the eight games for all practical purposes have been at home [including the Hall of Fame game at the XCel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.]. What we’ve been able to do is take advantage of those games at home. Now it’s going to be a different story. The next three games are on the road with North Dakota and St. Cloud the following Friday night.”

And those will come with the Gophers at less than full strength. Stuart Senden will remain out and be joined on the sidelines by Nick Anthony and Matt DeMarchi.

That means the Gophers will play five newcomers at forward this weekend — four freshmen and sophomore Chad Roberg.

“You talk about finding more about your own team, and as we head into this weekend, we’re going to find more about our team,” Lucia said.

He Said It

“I’m very happy to be here and I want you to understand that I know why I’m here.”

— Sertich, at his news conference Wednesday.

News And Views

Some thoughts while watching CNN’s Jeff Greenfield get loopy well into the night on Election Day:

  • If your newspaper Saturday morning read, “Denver 5, North Dakota 2” on the scoreboard page, please don’t blame the paper. Blame the Associated Press. The news service sent out an incorrect score on Friday night. The Sioux beat the Pioneers 5-2.
  • Alaska-Anchorage won’t bother going back to Alaska between a series with Wisconsin this weekend and a set with Minnesota State-Mankato next weekend. The Seawolves will stay in Minnesota and practice in Bloomington, Minn. Talafous said his team does this once a season. “They miss four days [of class], the kids, but we know this way in advance so this week they’ve taken a lot of quizzes and tests early, to get them out of the way, and they bring their homework with them. It doesn’t seem to affect them. We do very well academically and this is just a one-time thing so we seem to manage pretty well.”
  • Denver, which plays at Mankato this weekend, should probably be happy to get away from home for a while. The home schedule thus far has been challenging, with the Pioneers playing then-No. 2 Boston College and then-No. 7 North Dakota. They’ve been outscored 18-9 in those four games.
  • Speaking of not getting any breaks, Minnesota-Duluth’s opponents this year have a combined record of 18-1-3. The Bulldogs are 0-6 for the first time in the 57-year history of the team. They haven’t even led in a game thus far. Tough way for Scott Sandelin to start as coach.

    On The Docket

    No. 1 Minnesota makes what is scheduled to be its last trip to this version of Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D., to play No. 7 North Dakota.

    “North Dakota’s an outstanding team,” Lucia said. “People have wanted to know what’s wrong with North Dakota — well they played eight out of 10 games on the road. They’ve only had two home games, for crying out loud. They’re sitting in great shape with a 5-2-3 record.”

    Meanwhile, Colorado College tries to keep that perfect record alive at home against St. Cloud State.

    “Any time you play a very good offensive team, your goaltender has to play well but you have to play good team D too to shut them down,” Dahl said. “So far, that’s been a strength of this team. Obviously, that’s got to continue. The [Mark] Cullen line and the [Alex] Kim line are both very, very good and do the majority of their scoring. We’re going to have to really pay special attention to them, but not forgetting about the third and fourth lines, who also I have a lot of respect for.”

    That Michigan Tech-Minnesota-Duluth takes on added importance this weekend because of the Sertich angle.

    Anchorage plays at Wisconsin — the Badgers are on a three-game losing streak — and Mankato hosts Denver elsewhere in the league this weekend.