Changing the culture.
When coaches take over from the recently-released regime, that is the phrase you often hear.
It is very valid, and very true. Most of the time a coaching change is made, something had gone terribly wrong in the season or seasons prior. Did the coach lose the dressing room? Did the players stage a revolt like they did at Merrimack last season?
It reminds me of the line from the movie “Cocktail,” when the older woman says to Tom Cruise, “I’d hate for this to end badly.” Cruise retorts, “It has to end badly or it wouldn’t have ended.”
The exception, according to new Huskies head coach Bob Motzko, is his program in St. Cloud. He replaces 18-year veteran bench boss Craig Dahl, who resigned after last season shortly after the hiring of Motzko as assistant coach. Dahl has moved on to pursue business opportunities in the St. Cloud area.
In talking with Motzko earlier this week, one gets a different vibe regarding “changing the culture.”
“These kids really weren’t mentally beaten up,” said Motzko prior to the Huskies’ practice on Tuesday. “Roles had been established prior to Craig stepping down. The kids had a good summer and worked hard to get ready for this season before any of this happened.”
St. Cloud is in a great spot because it entered the season with a clean slate and no expectations. Picked low in the WCHA rankings, the Huskies realize that they have a golden opportunity to establish an identity, rather than change the culture.
“We won’t win a WCHA title this season,” laughed Motzko when discussing the building process. “However, we’ll do some things to open it up more and be entertaining.”
That process is what has made the WCHA so successful in recent years, and more importantly, so entertaining. Big rinks, fast teams that play loose, and an exceptional skill level have elevated the conference to elite status in college hockey. That is evidenced by the all-WCHA Frozen Four in Columbus last season, and the fact that the last four national titles belong to the conference (two for Minnesota and two for Denver, who match up at DU’s Magness Arena November 18 on CSTV).
Motzko is imploring his team to go out and have fun. Open it up, make plays, and play with speed and passion. They are not a run-and-gun team because they don’t have the gunners to win 7-6. However, with Providence transfer Bobby Goepfert in goal, they could win 4-3, or 3-2 — or 3-0, for that matter — on any given night.
Watch for them to activate their defensemen a lot and have them in the rush, much like the philosophy Motzko recently partook in as assistant coach with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. There, one could watch a defense that could be said to be among the best forechecking defenses in college hockey with the amount of time they spend up in the play.
“[Power play] and offense will challenge us, you’re right on there,” said Motzko. “However, we are improving and, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know how high the ceiling is regarding our improvement.”
Motzko is in an adjustment period also. He is learning a new program, a new set of players, and a new arena. Like fellow WCHA head coaches Dave Hakstol and Scott Owens, he polished his bench skills in the USHL as a head coach before advancing to the college game as an assistant. Other than a lot more administrative paperwork, Motzko feels the adjustment to head coach has been smooth.
Looking ahead, Motzko wants to see how this season plays out on the ice. Whether you are Colorado College or Michigan Tech, there are no easy weekends on the schedule. Everyone has to play Minnesota, Wisconsin, CC, Denver, Minnesota-Duluth (which just went 1-0-1 against Minnesota), and North Dakota, the perennial powers. Michigan Tech, Minnesota State, St. Cloud, and Alaska-Anchorage are not easy outs.
This is really the conference where you just worry about next weekend.
For Motzko to be successful, he has to get that team mentioned with the likes of Minnesota and CC when it comes to national contenders. The good fans in St. Cloud have been close but have not smoked the cigar when it comes to the Huskies being a big-time WCHA team. This is where the culture will change. It has to for the Huskies to land the recruits that the Badgers, Gophers, or Bulldogs are wooing.
New regimes are expected to produce, especially one being run with the impressive background of its new head coach. St. Cloud takes the road show to Michigan Tech this weekend. It is another chance for Motzko to evaluate where his team is, though he feels they are way ahead of the curve at this point. The record isn’t great: however, that record has come against the Gophers, Badgers, and Tigers in the past three weeks.
“We had a good team at Minnesota. Now, at St. Cloud, where the talent level is not the same as at the ‘U,’ you really get an appreciation of how good some of the teams in this conference are,” said Motzko.
And beating those teams in a couple of years is the goal. Change the culture. Go into Minnesota and sweep the Gophers, go into Wisconsin and sweep the Badgers. To do that, St. Cloud must win some recruiting battles. To win those battles, they must show kids they can compete with the elite.
Mike Eaves rebuilt the Badgers in three seasons, and should see light at the end of the tunnel this season with a veteran team that is all his. Rick Comley at Michigan State is in the same boat.
Motzko expects to be in that situation in three years or so.
Bet on it.
Dave Starman is national columnist for USCHO.com, and the analyst for CSTV’s broadcasts of college hockey. Previously, he coached in both the minor leagues and in junior hockey for 15 years. He is currently the associate coach for the EJHL’s New York Apple Core, as well as the Northeast scout for the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks.