This Week In The WCHA: Jan. 4, 2001

The Near Impossible

This was a story so big, so unfathomable, that coaches hundreds of miles away played it as bigger than their own games.

And just imagine the reaction if Michigan Tech had won the Great Lakes Invitational.

When Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer entered the media room at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center after defeating Princeton on Friday, he opened his post-game news conference by saying it was great that his friend Mike Sertich and Michigan Tech defeated Michigan.

Indeed, it was the story of the weekend, a “Hoosiers”-esque run to the championship game over two days.

First, the Huskies ran all over Michigan, 7-3. A four-goal third period did the trick and Matt Ulwelling was the star, scoring two goals and assisting on another.

The ending didn’t mirror “Hoosiers,” though. After Michigan Tech’s Jeff Keiver scored his first goal of the season to tie the game in the third period, Michigan State’s John Nail scored the game-winner 19 minutes into overtime.

“Nobody knew how good they were,” Michigan State coach Ron Mason said. “They made us play their game.”

It’s becoming apparent that Sertich is having an impact on Michigan Tech’s game. With Sertich’s systems in place, there’s really no telling what’s in store for the second half of the season.

Will they be content just to do damage to other teams? Something tells me no. That doesn’t mean they’re going to finish any higher than eighth or ninth in the league, but the grit they displayed last weekend indicates they’ll be ready for the second half.

New Title for Hakstol

North Dakota head coach Dean Blais this week reworked assistant Dave Hakstol’s title. Hakstol, in his first season as a Sioux assistant, became the associate head coach.

Blais’ daughter, Mary Beth, remains in a hospital in Rochester, Minn. The coach left the Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown in Milwaukee last Friday to be with his daughter after she was transported from a hospital in Grand Forks, N.D., with an undisclosed illness.

The possibility that Blais would be gone for an extended period of time prompted the change in Hakstol’s title. Hakstol was in charge of the team when it finished third in the Showdown.

Blais, in Grand Forks on Wednesday, said he planned to return to Rochester on Thursday. The players have Friday off practice because they play an exhibition game against Manitoba on Sunday.

“I’ll go back and forth as much as I can and if I have to bail out, [Hakstol] will take the team,” Blais said. “My intentions right now are to go back and forth as much as I can. And the team’s fine with it.

“They were a little bit in shock [Tuesday] because I told them everything that went on. But I also said it’s not going to affect my ability to coach. And after I started yelling at them, they were fine: ‘He’s back, he’s normal.’ ”

Blais said the trip to Rochester takes about six hours, but he said it’s fortunate that the largest aviation school in the country is in town to offer some relief from the driving grind should he need it.

Hakstol is the Sioux assistant with the most recent head coaching experience. He was the coach and the general manager of the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League last season. Hakstol, a former UND defenseman, was the USHL’s coach of the year for the 1997-98 season.

Brad Berry, also in his first year as a Sioux assistant, was an interim assistant coach for the Michigan K-Wings of the International Hockey League last season.

But jumping from an assistant spot to being the chief man behind the bench is not the easiest thing to do, especially in the middle of the season.

“This is [Hakstol’s] first year and it’s something to be an assistant coach but another thing to be a head coach with all the pressures,” Blais said. “Look at Scott Sandelin, who was here for six years and then to jump over to Duluth and be the head coach and make all the decisions and be responsible for everything that goes on.

“Sometimes the best position in hockey is the assistant coaching job. You don’t feel the pressure; you feel the responsibilities but not the pressure of the head coach.”

The Sioux could probably use the week off from NCAA competition right now. Besides the unknown state of the coaching staff, they had trouble getting into Milwaukee last weekend and missed their practice before the tournament.

So when they stepped on the ice for Friday’s 4-3 loss to Boston University, they had practiced once since returning from the holiday break.

“I wasn’t expecting great things out of the Badger Showdown,” Blais said, given the situation. “But now I’m expecting great things in the next two weeks of practice. I’ve got to be here and I want to get the team back to where we were before the layoff.”

North Dakota’s 5-4 victory over Princeton in the third-place game gave the Sioux something on which to build.

“It’s a big win for us because we wanted to start the second half on a positive note,” Sioux goaltender Andy Kollar said after Saturday’s game. “Losing [Friday] night with the lead going into the third kind of broke our backs. We just wanted to come back and play a solid game. It’s a good feeling because we’ve been off for so long. Now we’re back on track hopefully for the next few games.”

Winter Wonderland

They won the Badger Showdown, and then they had to practice outside. How’s that for appreciation?

Wisconsin players took to the frozen pond on Monday, thankful it wasn’t overly cold or overly snowy in Madison, Wis.

But with the heaping of snow the upper Midwest has received, there was more than enough snow around the outsides of the rink to keep the pucks on the ice, which is more than could be said for last season’s foray outdoors.

Last year, a puck apparently left the ice surface and hit a nearby bus. Now that’s accuracy.

Speaking of accuracy, success in the Showdown has been an accurate predictor of success down the stretch for the Badgers.

They have made the NCAA tournament every time they won the Showdown title. That’s six times in the last 11 years.

Rocky Mountain Rivalry

The parties involved in scheduling the first half of this season’s Denver-Colorado College series did a heck of a job in timing.

With the championship at the Wells Fargo Denver Cup last weekend, Denver is 9-0-2 in its last 11 games.

With a sweep of Harvard last weekend, Colorado College is 7-1-1 in its last nine.

Ring the bell. Round 1 is Friday night.

“As far as the ticket managers are concerned, they’re assured of sellouts,” Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky said. “That’s a perfect time for the ticket managers, that’s for sure. It’s the hottest ticket in town, or in the area perhaps.

“If you love college hockey, or if you love hockey in general, this should be a great, great series.”

And for the Pioneers, it should be a great way to gather more exposure. Now that the Denver Broncos are done, here’s a chance to catch the attention of the media in a tough market to crack.

“No matter what market you’re in, if you’re successful you’re going to draw attention and coverage from the media in general,” Gwozdecky said. “I think with our success over the last month and a half, we’ve been able to gather a lot more attention. Obviously, with CC being successful as well, I think this becomes a very high-profile series in this area.

“And nationally as well, there’s some very interesting ramifications. Both teams are ranked in the top 15, at least in the popularity poll. At this point of the season, it makes for some very interesting arguments and discussions. When these two schools get together, there’s always a little bit more coverage and attention.”

This series could draw comparisons to the 1995 Denver Cup final, the only time Denver and CC met in that tournament. With both teams highly successful, a capacity crowd watched DU win 3-2 at McNichols Arena.

“There was an awful lot of interest because of how successful both programs were at the time,” Gwozdecky said. “This is kind of a similar situation. Although we haven’t played this year yet, I think both teams have played real well. They started their season a little stronger than we did, but there’s no question I think both teams are playing well right now, and I think it should be a real good series.”

No More Classes, No More Books…

If you’re a hockey player wanting to avoid distractions, this is the time for you.

No classes, no exams, no homework. The student part of student-athlete is gone for the next few weeks.

St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl’s team has operated best this season, it appears, when distractions are limited. They’re 7-1 on the road, where it’s easier to focus on hockey because you’re usually staying in a hotel and are away from most of the world as you know it.

“I think what happens when you go on the road, there’s nothing to worry about but playing hockey,” said Dahl, whose team is 13-4-1 after the first half and plays at Minnesota-Duluth this weekend to open the second half.

“You don’t have, ‘I have to meet my parents after the game or see them before the game,’ ‘I have to be getting more tickets’ and all that kind of stuff. It seems right now, when we go on the road, it’s just us. We do stuff together and it seems like this team has bonded very well.”

Dahl is fortunate that his team came back from break in good shape, he reported. After playing the Russian Select Team on Dec. 18, the team practiced during finals week and the players went home on Dec. 22.

They came back together on Monday and didn’t seem to lose a step, Dahl said.

“I told them they needed to do something while they’re at home because you can lose three weeks of conditioning in a week of doing nothing,” Dahl said. “They must’ve done something because they did a real nice job and I was really happy with what they did.”

The Huskies probably could have played in any number of holiday tournaments this year. That’s one of the perks of being one of the top teams in the WCHA.

But Dahl is adamant that he won’t give up the time off his players get during the break.

“I’ve found that we take that break at Christmas and it renews them mentally and keeps them fresher,” Dahl said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that sometimes quality is better than quantity. Our practices have gone from being 2 1/2, 2 hours, 45 minutes when I started to an hour and a half. I’ve cut the length of our practices down and really stress the quality of them. It seems to be a better fit with today’s athlete.”

He Said It

“We played very well down there. A lot of people didn’t give us a chance. But that was not an aberration. We played well going into the [holiday] break and carried that over.”

— Sertich, to Gregg Wong of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

News And Views

  • Minnesota State-Mankato will play the 1,000th game in school history on Saturday against Clarkson. Here’s hoping the Mavericks players feel privileged to take the ice for that game.
  • Next year’s Denver Cup is scheduled to feature Harvard, Bowling Green and UMass-Lowell. Set for the 2002 tournament are Clarkson, Miami and New Hampshire. It’s good to see the four-conference setup has remained.
  • Colorado College coach Scott Owens and Sally Thornton of Des Moines, Iowa, were married on Sunday, a day after the Tigers completed a sweep of Harvard. Gee, if I went to a hockey game the day before my wedding, my fiancee would kill me.
  • Speaking of the Tigers, goaltender Jeff Sanger recorded his seventh career shutout on Saturday, defeating Harvard 3-0. The junior took over the top spot on the CC shutouts list, surpassing Judd Lambert.
  • Each time Minnesota has won the Mariucci Classic, the Gophers have defeated a team from the CCHA in the championship game. This time it was Lake Superior State, 5-4 on Saturday.
  • In his last five games, Minnesota-Duluth goaltender Rob Anderson has a 2.11 goals against average and a .933 save percentage. The bad part? He’s 1-2-2 in that time.

    On The Docket

    It’s back to the conference grind for everyone next weekend, with the featured series being North Dakota at Minnesota.

    Mariucci rocks when the Sioux come to town; don’t expect anything less this time.

    Depending on this weekend’s results, next weekend’s Denver-Wisconsin series at the Kohl Center could be essential for the Badgers to stay in the thick of the top-five race and for Denver to stay near the top.