Fish Or Cut Bait

You couldn’t blame Minnesota-Duluth assistant coach Steve Rohlik if he felt just a little uncomfortable in the unusually plush setting of the Xcel Energy Center’s lower-bowl seating. On December 28, he found an empty seat inside Saint Paul’s pristine arena shortly after lunchtime. In front of him, Bloomington Jefferson and White Bear Lake battled in the opener of the Schwan Cup holiday tournament, the premier high school holiday tournament in Minnesota.

Rohlik kicked back in his cozy seat, checked his game program and surveyed a few players he has been tracking for some time now. He had just arrived at the arena after a 15-minute drive from his folks’ home in White Bear Lake, where he spent a relaxing holiday with his family, including his wife and five-month-old daughter.

The whole day was a bit more relaxing than the usual.

White-knuckle ride

The usual for a college hockey assistant coach includes hopping on an airplane bound for Vancouver and waiting on the tarmac for the de-icing machines to do their work before the long flight. Following another white-knuckle landing will be a couple of ferry rides and a six-hour rental car trek back-and-forth through the Cocahala pass to sit in ice cold arenas watching a special 18-year-old hockey player who could very well thank Rohlik for his efforts with a “sorry, I’m gonna pass.”

“As a staff, you almost feel your guts ripped out of you when you lose a kid after all that work,” said Rohlik who is in his fifth season at UMD. “That’s the hard part.”

It must be hard if a rejection bothers Rohlik more than the loneliness and time away from his family, the cheap meals and the often run-down hotel rooms in the dead of winter. Win or lose on the weekends, Rohlik will be making his way through the great plains to look for another player to don UMD’s maroon and gold next season.

“[The life] can be good and bad,” he admitted. “Obviously you’re thinking about a lot of things from an upcoming game in Wisconsin to what my wife and daughter are doing. Has she rolled over? Did she get any teeth today?”

The absence from home is a harsh reality for the 36-year-old, whose wife, Julie, gave birth to the couple’s first child this past fall. When he’s on the road he can only keep in contact via cell phone. While the occasional company of fellow college assistants working on the same recruits is nice, it doesn’t compare to time at home with loved ones.

“You come across all types of people and elements in your travels,” he continued. “You spend a lot of time in hotels or cars. If you forget your CDs or your cell phone goes out, it can get pretty lonely. A lot of the time you are by yourself.”

Despite the solitude, Rohlik’s affinity for the lifestyle is apparent from the excitement in his voice when he talks about landing a prized recruit. Like most in his position, he realizes the importance of recruiting for the health and stability of a Division I program. The fact is, Rohlik is a people person and there’s no better profession for a former college standout at Wisconsin with the ability to schmooze.

“It’s a fun life as far as traveling and getting to know different people and being able to talk to parents and kids,” said the St. Paul native. “I’ve been to places that I have to show my family on a map where I’ve been. ‘Here’s Nipawan, here’s Powell River, here’s Vernon.’ It’s been pretty interesting.”

Rohlik has seen everything there is from the thrill of signing a blue-chipper to attempting the repair of a flat tire in the middle of a mountain range. All in the name of returning a once-proud program to national prominence.

The lure

Rohlik was hired by UMD head coach Scott Sandelin shortly after he was handed a program in disarray and in need of a makeover. Sandelin targeted Rohlik because of his prowess on the recruiting trail while an assistant at Nebraska-Omaha. The entire staff recognized that future success hinged on spreading the UMD name among the recruiting world. That meant being everywhere from Salmon Arm, B.C., to Tulsa, Okla.

The staff at UMD figured that more important than landing the “big fish” was letting everyone in the college hockey world know that they would always be on the pond with lures in the water.

“If you don’t have your line in the water, you’re not going to catch a fish,” he replied when asked UMD’s approach to a player with a short list that usually includes the Michigans, the Minnesotas and the North Dakotas. “It’s basically pretty simple to that.”

In an age of multi-million dollar arenas as well as four other Division I schools in Minnesota, many questioned that the UMD program could be restored after wallowing in the depths of the WCHA for the better part of the 1990s. The new staff answered with an initial recruiting class of 11 players. Since then, the program has flourished, as evidenced by 50 wins from the beginning of 2002 through the end of last season … a heartbreaking loss to Denver in the Frozen Four semifinals.

“You want to be out there all the time so people recognize and take notice that, ‘Jeez, Duluth is working hard.’ The most important thing is getting to know the coaches so they see you a lot. They are the ones that are working with these kids every day. They are the ones that know [the kids] the best.”

Once pleasantries are exchanged with high school and junior coaches, the real process begins. Recruiting isn’t simply making a visit to a youngster’s game, talking up your program and inviting him to the school where he quickly signs his national letter of intent.

That process begins with tracking a player’s progress from his early teens. Recruiters rely on what they hear from other coaches, an operation that Rohlik was familiar with from his days as a head coach for Hill-Murray School in Maplewood, Minn. He, along with Sandelin or assistant coach Lee Davidson, will then travel wherever needed to evaluate the player on his own. From there, the group deliberates about kids that are worth contacting. Following that, an entirely new process begins that involves wooing the recruit to play his college hockey in Duluth.

“After we see them and send a letter, maybe they contact us and then you go through the whole recruiting procedure of getting to know them, their family, their likes and dislikes. It’s trying to get to know someone in a short period of time, usually from a long distance.”

College recruiters are prohibited from calling players until completion of their junior year of high school, so coaches resort to sending a letter along with a media guide to promote the school. Once they are of age, phone calls can only be made once a week. Kids or parents can call the coaches any time, as many times as they want. One benefit to Rohlik and other recruiters is the advancement of technology, enabling a coach to email a player as many times as he wants.

Digging for pearls

Besides obstacles imposed by the NCAA or mother nature, college recruiters are facing new challenges with the recent trend of players committing to schools before they can legally drive a car.

“Eight years ago, you had a year or two to get to know this kid and go through the whole process,” noted Rohlik. “Now, you gotta make a decision on a player after seeing him once or twice. That forces college recruiters to make judgments, probably sooner than they’d like.”

Minnesota-Duluth can’t wow a teenager with a brand-new $100 million facility. The town is relatively small compared some other cities that boast a WCHA team. The mercury on a warm Duluth day in January might climb to 20 degrees. Bulldog players can often be found scraping snow and ice off their cars before navigating their way through slush to the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center for a practice or game.

Rohlik acknowledges that some other schools may have advantages over a smaller school like UMD. But, he points to the UMD staff’s focus on bringing in players who want to win and be a part of something special.

“For us, it might be a little different from a few other teams who can hand pick this guy and that guy. Between Scott, Lee and I, it’s first and foremost finding a guy who wants to make a difference.

“We’ve got to keep our irons in the fire, maybe with a lot more kids than some other programs. We might have to deal with 15 or 20 kids, but it all comes back to one thing with us, does the kid want to be in Duluth?”

Rohlik isn’t looking for any sympathy, and he definitely won’t get any from fellow recruiters. After all, UMD can offer some things that most other schools can’t. Included among those are exposure from last year’s Frozen Four berth, last year’s national coach of the year in Sandelin and four Hobey Baker Award winners, including last year’s recipient, Junior Lessard. All of these are reasons why Rohlik refuses to lay off a possible superstar.

“We feel we have a lot to offer and that’s why we’re going to get involved with [the best players],” he stated matter-of-factly. “Yeah, people might think ‘What’s Duluth doing wasting time dealing with him?’ We don’t look at it that way. Maybe Brett Hull is his all-time favorite player. He might like a town like Duluth. He might like being the difference-maker instead of being just another guy in a program.

“If we can get that kid, great! If he doesn’t come to us, we’ll go to the next guy.”

Following this season, UMD will graduate 11 players, nine of which were members of that first recruiting class by the Sandelin staff. While acknowledging that it has probably been his most challenging year since 2000, Rohlik’s efforts have helped ink nine future Bulldogs for next year. He knows he’s not done yet and he’s well aware of the importance of next year’s highly-touted class, which will be counted on to produce immediately.

Included in the Bulldog class of 2009 is star forward Mike Gergen of Shattuck St. Mary’s and playmaking defenseman Matt Niskanen of Virginia High School, a player that Rohlik admits excited the staff probably more than any other past signing. Of course, that feeling of excitement is short-lived when a “big fish” snaps Rohlik’s line and heads elsewhere.

“I think every kid that we get, we’re excited because we know that kid wants to be in Duluth. But, we’ll hear from a kid who says, ‘You guys have done the best job, I love your staff and I love the area, but I’ve decided I’m going to go [somewhere else], it’s just a gut feeling.’ It’s always the one that you lose that makes you think, ‘What could we have done better?'”

Many would say that Rohlik could not have done any better than what he and his colleagues have already accomplished. Rarely does a team improve its win total from seven to 28 in a four-year span. Yet, Rohlik isn’t satisfied, and he won’t be until the players he’s enticed to make four-year commitments are hoisting a trophy after the final game of the season.

Said Rohlik, “We love what we do and we love working harder to get the ultimate goal, a national championship.”

That’s when you realize that Rohlik isn’t uncomfortable at the Xcel Center because of the posh surroundings. As a recruiter, he’s never going to find comfort until he slides a national championship ring around his finger.