Family Reunion

When Miami and Denver meet Friday in West Regional action, the competition behind the benches will be as fierce as that on ice. Denver head coach George Gwozdecky coached the Miami RedHawks — then the Redskins — from 1989-94, where a scrappy player named Enrico Blasi captained the squad.

Blasi, the first Miami graduate to return as head coach, would rather see the spotlight shine on the RedHawks and Pioneers. “Right now people are making a big deal George and myself, but this is about the players, both us and Denver. This time of year, you’re going to play a quality opponent, no matter who it is,” he said.

But this story is too good to ignore. Fortunately for those who love a great tale, Gwozdecky was more talkative.

“If this were a match where we could play their staff — our staff vs. their staff — on the golf course, I could tell you we’d have a huge advantage,” said Gwozdecky. “You could probably quote me as saying we’d take them behind the woodshed and give them a pretty good thrashing.”

Coach, consider yourself quoted.

The connections between the Miami and Denver staffs don’t end with Gwozdecky and Blasi. Denver assistant Seth Appert and Miami assistant Jeff Blashill — both goalies in their playing days — were teammates and roommates at Ferris State from 1994-96. Denver assistant Steve Miller was an assistant to Gwozdecky from 1991-94, where he coached Blasi and Miami assistant Chris Bergeron. When Blasi was an assistant under Gwozdecky in Denver, he roomed with Appert.

“The assistants that are there too — we’ve been through a lot together,” said Blasi. “Steve and Seth — I lived with both of them. There’s a lot of history there, a lot of good times, a lot of respect.”

The respect goes both ways. Or all ways. You get the picture. “Rico and his staff have done a terrific job,” said Gwozdecky. “They’re a very, very good team.”

Gwozdecky said he won’t be expecting mirror-image hockey when the teams take the ice, in spite of the time Blasi spent under his tutelage.

“Good coaches, and Rico is one of them, don’t copy one specific team or one specific philosophy. I think Rico is a terrific young coach, and I think he has done a great job of taking a lot of things from a lot of different schools of thought and implementing that into the kind of talent he has on his team.

“They’re very good at protecting the puck, they’re very good on the wall, their position game is strong, they’ve got a great power play, they play tough defensively. When I look at their team, they don’t resemble our team hardly at all.”

Gwozdecky has even more respect for the team Blasi has built because he’s familiar with the limitations of recruiting to Miami. The school is nestled in the southwest corner of Ohio, close to the Indiana state line, and has to compete with Big Ten schools and their Big Ten budgets for the same players.

“It’s the fact that their facility — it’s a nice facility, but it’s not a facility that’s going to attract the top recruits when you’re going against a school like Michigan State or Ohio State or Michigan State … with their new facilities.” Goggin Arena, built in 1976, holds 2,200 people.

“They are building a new facility which is going to be right on campus. It’s a gorgeous facility. They start the new building this spring, and it will be ready two falls from now. I think you’ve got to give Rico all the credit for that.

“He’s the guy that had the idea, he’s the guy that has created the interest, and he’s the guy that has developed the program. The university says, ‘You betcha, we’ve got to have this kind of facility that’s going to allow us to continue to build with the other schools across the country.'”

Blasi learned more than he can say, he said, from Gwozdecky as coach, mentor, friend. “The way he deals with people, the way he approaches his everyday routine — first class. Hopefully we’ve tried to do that here. When people respect you, they’ll play for you.”

When Blasi took the reins at Miami in 1999, Gwozdecky gave him one piece of advice. “To be myself. He was obviously very happy, and he told me — I was worried, scared is probably the better word — he told me to just go out and be myself. He knew how he ran things and that I would do the same.”

Blasi has one word of advice for Gwozdecky before Friday’s match: “Lose.”

“How do you give a mentor advice?” said Blasi. “We talk on a weekly basis, sometimes twice, three times a week. He called me Sunday morning when he got home. I don’t even know if it’s a friendship — it’s probably more a family than anything.”

Denver leads Miami 3-1-0 all-time, with the teams most recently meeting December 27, 2002, at the Denver Cup. The Pioneers came away from that one with a 6-0 win, the only time Gwozdecky and Blasi have met as head coaches. “He did kick our butts pretty bad,” said Blasi.

And, as Gwozdecky boasts, the butt-kicking isn’t limited to hockey. “I can tell you this, knowing factually over the last three years or so, down at the national [coaches] convention, it has always been the Denver staff vs. the Miami staff, and it’s been no contest. There has been a lot of beaking over the years from the Miami side of things, and even though they’ve been humbled pretty much every year, they never stop talking.

“Unfortunately, it’s not staff vs. staff, and all kidding aside, they’ve got a terrific team and a team that’s seasoned and experienced. If there is any subtle edge that any team might have, it’s their health vs. our familiarity with the World Arena, in addition to us playing in Colorado. I think it’s a great matchup.”

“We’ve been through a lot together, as player and coach, as coach and coach, and now as friends,” said Blasi. “It’ll be fun, but at the same time, somebody’s going to win, somebody’s going to lose, and it will take a while to get over all of that. Obviously I respect the man a tremendous amount.”

At the coaches convention in Florida every April, loser buys lunch. In Colorado Springs, there’s considerably more at stake.