This Week in the WCHA: Dec. 26, 2002

Overcrowding of the Season

Some musings this week, while wondering if that Powerball ticket really qualified as a Christmas present:

  • After a year’s exile, T.J. Caig is eligible to play for Minnesota-Duluth starting in Sunday’s game against Union. But will he really have as much of an effect as UMD fans are hoping for? Remember this: He hasn’t played competitively in over a year.
  • North Dakota debuts its Subway Holiday Tournament at Ralph Engelstad Arena this weekend, with Bemidji State, Brown and Manitoba as its guests. I have no joke for this, but some people might consider the field to be one.
  • In the first round of the Bank One Badger Hockey Showdown, Wisconsin meets Colgate for the first time since the 1990 championship game. That might be the first time “Wisconsin,” “Colgate” and “championship” have appeared in the same sentence since then.
  • The race for the MacNaughton Cup may be down to three teams. Colorado College and North Dakota are battling for the top spot, with Minnesota hanging on. Denver, meanwhile, already has four losses and three ties, the same as Minnesota-Duluth, with which it is tied for fourth place. St. Cloud State is merely .500 at the break.
  • Remember when Alaska-Anchorage had the promise of being an exciting team to watch last season? (Trust me, it happened.) There’s not much that’s exciting for the Seawolves in a 15-game winless streak.
  • And finally, anyone not hosting a holiday tournament in college hockey, raise your hand. Anyone? A critic might say the expansion of college hockey was fostered just to have enough teams to go around for tournament organizers. What? A critic? Me?

    Pay Them No Mind

    The 76 points Trevor Jon Caig scored in just 36 games last season in the British Columbia Hockey League seem so far away.

    A year sometimes can seem like such a short time. Not when you’re sitting in the seats while your team plays on.

    Caig finally gets his chance this weekend. He’ll make his Minnesota-Duluth debut on Sunday against Union. The final game of his NCAA-mandated respite comes on Saturday.

    He’s heard the expectations. He’s seen the articles and the message board posts. He’s put them behind him.

    “The expectations are pretty high, but it doesn’t really bother me,” said Caig, a forward who was forced to miss a year of action because of involvement with a Canadian major junior team. “I’m just going to go do my best and whatever happens, happens. I’m not too worried about what other people think.

    “I’ve never really been into all the papers and chat lines or anything. People can say whatever they want, but all you can do is just do your best and not worry about them.”

    Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin has said he wants to let Caig develop as a player, so you won’t be hearing anything of expectations from him. But when you’re a highly-touted recruit, the fans want to see why you’re worthy of acclaim.

    Caig’s scoring punch in juniors won’t automatically translate into success in college. But he’s been working on getting quicker and stronger, and the 5-foot-10, 195-pounder thinks he’s made strides. Now’s the hard part — seeing live action to test it.

    “Practice gets old pretty fast after a year,” he said. “But I just have to take the best things out of it and just try to stay motivated to keep working hard.”

    Before the season, there was talk of Caig being the one to turn around the Bulldogs. Now, with UMD at .500 overall (6-6-4) and above it in the WCHA (5-4-3) at the break, that’s not so much of a concern. It appears UMD has found something of what it takes to be competitive.

    The concern now might be that the introduction of Caig and Justin Williams, a freshman who’s set to debut on Saturday after clearing eligibility questions and recovering from injury, into the lineup will throw off some of the cohesiveness built in the first 16 games of the season.

    Caig, however, has no doubt that he can be a bona fide goalscorer for the Bulldogs, even if it doesn’t happen this season.

    “I think that’s the reason they brought me in, to score,” Caig said. “But whatever it takes to play is what I’ve got to do. I’m pretty confident one day I’ll be a goalscorer there.”

    He’s also confident the Bulldogs can continue their charge up the WCHA standings.

    “We’ve had a fairly good first half — we could always be better,” he said. “But I think we’re excited to be where we are. Hopefully in the second half here, we can finish in even a higher spot.

    “I think we want to finish, second place would be nice. I think we’ve got a pretty good team and that’s not overexaggerating.”

    Up or Down?

    Of the five WCHA teams that played Team Italy two weeks ago, it appears no one got as much out of the experience as Wisconsin.

    Considering the traditional diminished significance of international games, that’s saying something.

    But Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves didn’t want to hear anything about his players having one step out the door for winter break during the Italian game. He told his players to take it seriously, and doing so gave them a 7-0 victory and a spring in their step for a couple weeks.

    “It’s that old Vince Lombardi saying about, ‘Winning is a habit; unfortunately, so is losing,'” Eaves said. “It was a statement for us that we wanted to win that game because we didn’t want that spiral to go down any farther. It wasn’t an opportunity for us to relax a little bit. It was an opportunity for us to make a statement, to get the spiral going up the other way and that’s the way we approached it.”

    After being swept by Minnesota, sealing their Christmastime record at 5-11 and 1-7 in the WCHA, the Badgers got some scoring from unlikely sources to brighten their holidays. Defenseman Mark Jackson, who has seven points this season, scored twice.

    “The kids went home feeling real good about themselves,” Eaves said. “They scored some goals, which had been very few and far between to come by. We worked hard — I don’t think they expected us to come at them that hard. We wanted to win and we played that way.”

    The trick for the Badgers will be to maintain that enthusiasm — over a two-week break for one, and into their second-half WCHA schedule. Consistency hasn’t been a strong point for UW — that’s being polite, it is the holiday season, after all — but whether the the Badgers can accomplish it likely means the difference between a middle-of-the-road finish and a bottom-of-the-barrel ending.

    The upcoming Badger Hockey Showdown, with a semifinal against Colgate and a second-day game against Northern Michigan or Harvard, could be a turning point for Wisconsin, Eaves said. Or it could be another regression.

    “We want to win the darn thing. It’s our tournament,” Eaves said. “That was the message that was given to the kids when they go home: Go home and have a real relaxing break and be with your family. But in the back of your mind, remember that this tournament could be another part of the whole turning point of the season for us.

    “It’s an opportunity for us to step forward and become a better team. We’re hosting it and let’s win the darn thing. Looking around the room and talking to the guys before they left, I think that’s what they heard.”

    They’re Missing

    A reminder of who’s missing whom for the next two weeks because of the World Junior Championships:

    North Dakota is hit hardest, with forward Zach Parise and defensemen Matt Greene and Matt Jones playing for the United States; Minnesota loses forwards Gino Guyer and Barry Tallackson; and Colorado College will be without defenseman Mark Stuart and forward Brett Sterling.

    The real impact on those losses will be next weekend, when North Dakota hosts Colorado College in a battle of the top two teams in the WCHA.

    Along Those Lines

    Thomas Vanek didn’t have to miss any of Minnesota’s games this season, but he probably will next year. He scored nine goals in five games last week at the World U-20 Group B Championships, giving Austria a spot in next year’s World Junior Championships.

    That performance is merely an extension of the strong debut season he’s having for the Gophers. He’s tied for the team lead with 25 points and paces Minnesota with 13 goals.

    Farther Along Those Lines

    Speaking of the World Juniors, Grand Forks, N.D., has been selected to host the 2005 version of the event, with most games taking place at Ralph Engelstad Arena. The International Ice Hockey Federation General Congress still needs to give its approval, which is expected in June.

    Other games will take place at the other Ralph Engelstad Arena, in Thief River Falls, Minn., a 3,800-seat building currently under construction. Thief River Falls is about a 70-mile drive from Grand Forks.

    Grand Forks was selected over Columbus, Ohio, and Omaha, Neb.

    Stat of the Week

    Of Michigan Tech, Michigan, Michigan State and Boston University at this weekend’s Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit, Michigan Tech has the top point scorer (Chris Connor, 16) and the top goalscorer (Brett Engelhardt, nine).


    Enrico Blasi makes his return to Denver as something of a stranger to the Pioneers players.

    Blasi, who was a DU assistant from 1996 to 1999 — and a graduate assistant in 1995 — takes his RedHawks to the Wells Fargo Denver Cup this weekend to play the hosts in Friday’s semifinals.

    But this is Blasi’s fourth season at Miami, so he’ll be known only to a select few Pioneers whom he helped recruit in his final season in Denver.

    Meanwhile, Denver will be out to break a four-game winless streak against Miami. The Pioneers were swept by Colorado College on Dec. 6 and 7 and claimed only one point from a series at St. Cloud State on Dec. 13 and 14.

    This is the longest stretch without a win for Denver since losing three straight — two to Boston College and one to St. Cloud State — to open the 2000-01 season.

    Clarkson and New Hampshire square off in the other semifinal.

    Ruling the Roost

    When it comes to success in one’s own holiday tournament, Denver rules the WCHA.

    Of the five schools hosting tournaments this season, the Pioneers have the best championship percentage, having won eight of 10 Denver Cups.

    Minnesota is next, having won the Dodge Holiday Classic six of 11 times (54.5 percent). Wisconsin has claimed the Pettit Cup as winners of the Badger Hockey Showdown in seven of the 13 tournaments (53.8 percent). And Michigan Tech has won the Great Lakes Invitational nine times in 37 tries (24.3 percent). The Huskies, however, haven’t won the title since 1980.

    North Dakota, meanwhile, is hosting the Subway Holiday Tournament for the first time this weekend.

    Engaging Wisconsin

    Eaves admits he’s still new to a lot of issues surrounding his Wisconsin team, and the fate of the Badger Hockey Showdown is one of them.

    The Showdown, which marks its 14th year Sunday and Monday at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center, has suffered from dwindling attendance. When the Kohl Center was new in Madison, there was talk of moving the tournament there.

    Eaves said that may be something the school’s administration should look into, but he also said making connections with the rest of the state is important for improving the fan base.

    “I’d like to see first-hand what the draw is, how the crowds are,” Eaves said. “Maybe [moving the Showdown to Madison is] something the administration needs to look at because we do have a great building here. But there is something to be said for going out in other parts of the state and involving that group of people because they’re not that far away. That’s a fan base that can come to Madison, maybe does come to Madison already.”

    The Badgers also play in Green Bay, Wis., this season. That game, however, is a home game for Michigan Tech.

    On the Shelf

  • At Minnesota-Duluth, forward Jesse Unklesbay is closer to making his return from a broken right tibia, but appears to be still a week away.
  • At Minnesota, forward Jerrid Reinholz is expected to practice this week in hopes of playing in the Dodge Holiday Classic. He has missed the last four games with a bruised shoulder.
  • At Michigan Tech, even when it goes well, it goes badly. In a 3-2 road victory over rival Northern Michigan, the Huskies lost forwards Brandon Schwartz and Colin Murphy to knee injuries. Schwartz will be out for six to eight weeks; Murphy for up to four weeks. Meanwhile, defenseman Justin Brown is expected to return from a shoulder injury in time for the Great Lakes Invitational.

    In Other Words

    Colorado College’s Peter Sejna cracked the 20-goal mark for the season last weekend, scoring Nos. 20 and 21 in a 3-1 victory over Western Michigan last Saturday. The junior has a 21-game point scoring streak, five short of the team record. … The field for next season’s Dodge Holiday Classic will include the Gophers, New Hampshire, Northern Michigan and Princeton. … Players of the week named Dec. 16 were St. Cloud State’s Jon Cullen on offense, Michigan Tech’s Cam Ellsworth on defense and North Dakota’s Parise as the top rookie. … That 3-1 victory could have been a different story had CC goaltender Kjell Bennemark not stopped two shorthanded breakaways by the Broncos. …

    Ten games into its 14-game homestand, North Dakota is 9-0-1. That span ends next weekend with the eagerly anticipated series with Colorado College. Overall, the Sioux have a 11-game unbeaten streak in which they’re 10-0-1. … CC-North Dakota may be the featured matchup next weekend, but don’t forget the Minnesota-St. Cloud State home-and-home series.