What can you say about a campaign that ended just one puckwidth away from a trip to Joe Louis Arena?
“It was a very emotional season for us,” says Western Michigan head coach Jim Culhane. The Broncos had a wild ride in 2003-04, putting together an 8-2-1 midseason streak before running into Michigan, then — seemingly — running out of gas.
The season culminated in a three-game, first-round series against NCAA-bound Notre Dame. “It was a tremendous playoff series for us down in South Bend … where they’d only lost one [home] game all season,” says Culhane.
After going 1-3-0 to finish the regular CCHA season, the Broncos lost their first playoff contest against Notre Dame 4-2 but rebounded with a resounding 4-0 win the following night to force a third game. Jason Paige had the game-winning goal for the Irish at 12:35 in OT, sending Notre Dame to Detroit and Western Michigan back to Kalamazoo.
The emotional ride continued through the offseason, when Jeremy Cheyne decided to forego his final year of collegiate eligibility to sign with the Greenville Grrrowl (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) of the East Coast Hockey League.
“We had a team meeting on August 30,” says Culhane, “and we addressed what took place [Cheyne’s departure]. The players know it’s up to them.”
Last season saw a far more disciplined Bronco hockey club than that of years past, a combination of how the team has matured and how much more the team is Culhane’s rather than his predecessor’s, according to Culhane.
“It’s a couple things. It’s the growth of the players within the team, and recruiting the types of players who will play your system. Once you have the system in place, there has to be a buy-in from top to bottom.”
Evidence of the buy-in was the number of Bronco penalty minutes, cut significantly from the 2002-03 season to an average of 14.46 per game, fourth lowest in the CCHA. Culhane thinks that, given the NCAA’s and CCHA’s promise of tough enforcement of on-ice infractions, this discipline may make the difference for the Broncos in a few tight contests.
His name means “most beautiful” in Italian, and while we can’t comment on how he cleans up, he is the go-to guy for the Broncos. Vince Bellissimo (10-16-26) was one of three of WMU’s 10-goal scorers in league play last season. He’s one of the league’s most elegant forwards, a great skater with great hands.
Red or Blue?
Bellissimo was one of the league’s top 12 scorers last season, and Brent Walton (9-14-23) wasn’t far behind.
“I think we’ll be led by a couple of different guys up front,” says Culhane. “Our senior captain Pat Dwyer (10-11-21) can play both ways. Paul Szczechura (8-7-15) should have a big year.”
Even with the losses of Cheyne and seniors Dana Lattery and Jeff Campbell, offense isn’t WMU’s first concern. The Broncos need to shore up a leaky defense, one that ranked last in the league in 2003-04, giving up 3.61 goals per game.
“We have a freshman class that we’re hoping [will] … step in and provide some quality minutes in quality roles for us right now,” says Culhane. One of those youngsters with the potential to make an immediate impact is Daniel Bellissimo, goaltender and younger brother of Vince, who is expected to challenge junior netminder Scott Foster (3.37 GAA, .878 SV%).
Like many teams in the CCHA, the Broncos will be feeling the pinch of senior turnover. “We lost a large class, guys that played significant minutes, key roles. We have a lot of new young faces in our lineup. We’ll be a young team that can skate well, very athletic.”
Another player expected to make an immediate impact is junior right winger Mike Erickson, a transfer from Minnesota.
Culhane is keenly aware of the Broncos’ cluster partners, perennial rival Ferris State — with whom the Broncos split four games last season — and Miami and Ohio State. “The accomplishments of Miami and Ohio State last year, both teams making it to the NCAA playoffs and Ohio State taking the playoff championship, we know it’s going to be a challenging cluster.”
And like every team in the league but one, Culhane is keenly aware that the Broncos are chasing a preseason favorite that may be impossible to catch. “Coach Berenson and the mighty Wolverines,” says Culhane, with more than a hint of resignation tempered by respect in his voice.