The Start of Something Good

After losing 4-2 to Colorado College in their first-ever NCAA tournament game, the Wayne State Warriors were happy, relaxed.

“This is an emotional time right now because it’s bittersweet for us,” said senior co-captain Keith Stanich, who netted the Warriors’ first goal in NCAA tourney play. “We got to where we wanted, and we laid the groundwork for this program, and it’s a great accomplishment for us.”

Fellow senior and captain Jason Durbin was all smiles, as was Stanich. “For me, this caps off my college career right here. Being able to play at the University of Michigan’s ice rink against the number-two team in the nation … it’s been a dream come true.”

Head coach Bill Wilkinson, however, was experiencing a full range of emotions. Asked to comment on WSU’s first senior class, Wilkinson — one of the more quotable coaches in college hockey — said, “Trying to make me cry?”

“We’ve been through everything for four years, and the guys here have built this program,” said Wilkinson. “They can be so proud of what they’ve accomplished.”

As can Wilkinson. After being dumped by Western Michigan toward the end of the 1999 season, Wilkinson became the first head coach of WSU hockey, the guy tabbed to build the program, in March of 1999. Between March and October 1999, Wilkinson had to hire a staff, recruit players, and assemble a team.

WSU’s first game was a 6-0 loss against Ohio State in Value City Arena in Columbus.

“We got beat six-nothing at Ohio State and I can remember guys were going the wrong way,” said Wilkinson. “When the puck was coming out, we were going in; when the puck was going in, we were coming out. We had no idea at times what was going on.”

And just as they were after their NCAA loss, those freshmen — this year’s seniors — were smiling. According to Wilkinson, that’s just the way these guys are.

“I haven’t had really one iota of problems from the senior class — or any of the kids, actually — but the senior class has certainly taken it under their wing and molded this program,” said Wilkinson. “If anybody has a stamp on it, it’s these 12 seniors.”

These seniors — Jon Brink, Tyler Kindle, Brent Renfrew, Nick Shrader, Durbin, Dustin Kingston, Steve Nichols, Marc St. Jean, David Guerrera, Jack Redwood, Maxim Starchenko, and Stanich — reflect the nature of the last-minute recruiting, as well, hailing from as far away as Fairbanks, Alas. and as near as Trenton, Mich. Starchenko is from Kharkov, Ukraine.

So why would a player take a chance on a brand-new program that didn’t even have a rink?

“It was just a great opportunity for me,” said Stanich. “Coach called me up and said, ?Hey listen, we’re going to start something special here.’ I knew it was going to be special because to start a program and be the first at anything is very special.”

Like any new endeavor, this one has had its ups and downs. The Warriors still don’t have a “home” arena, rotating home games between the Great Lakes Sports City, the Taylor Sportsplex, the Compuware Sports Arena, and Joe Louis Arena, all venues in the greater Detroit area.

Stanich said that the team has learned to take it all in stride. “With anything, there’s a lot of adversity to face. Not having a rink is … we don’t look at it as not having a home rink; we look at it as having four rinks. We traveled around a lot, but we took the crowd with us wherever we went. It causes a little bit of problems but … it helps build character.”

Wilkinson looks forward to the day when the Warriors have a rink on the WSU campus while being mindful of what the Warriors have already accomplished.

“From where we’ve started, our program, we’ve come miles. It’s almost like we’re on a rocket ship. It’s astronomical how fast we’ve climbed the ladder.

“I’m going to be pretty proud all summer, I’ll tell you that, when we go out and talk to recruits, or play golf, or whatever. We’re really putting the banner of Wayne State out in the forefront.”

Wilkinson’s not the only one whose buttons were bursting after WSU’s first NCAA tournament game. Durbin and Stanich were just as proud of their teammates as Wilkinson was of his players.

“I can’t say how proud I am of the 11 [other] guys who started this program who are still here,” said Durbin. “Again, those guys worked extremely hard on and off the ice to propel us to the situation where we put ourselves this year.”

Stanich said the seniors are “a great bunch of guys,” fun to “hang out with on and off the ice.”

“With all the adversity we faced and the this-and-that that we went through, to get to this point — it’s just amazing.”

Stanich said that if he could give one piece of advice to the remaining WSU players, it would be this: “I just think that they need to continue to work hard and to continue to put this program on the map. It’s a start, it’s a foundation, but we have a long way to go.

“We don’t think of this as the end; we think of this as the beginning.”