This Week in the CHA: Nov. 29, 2007

Tom Balog says he’s “just” the Wayne State public address announcer, but he’s one of a small handful of people that has been involved with the Warriors’ hockey program since its inception back in 1999.

He’s seen the ups and downs, the championships and the rash of recent downfalls that concluded with the program shutting down at the end of the season.

Matt Mackinder (MM) recently sat down with Tom (TB) to discuss the nine-year history of the Warriors, the positives and negatives from his perspective and what he plans on doing next fall when the lights will no longer be lit (those that actually work) at the Michigan State Fairgrounds Coliseum.

MM: Back in 1999, how did you come to be involved with the WSU men’s team?

TB: I was working at a fascinating all-news AM radio station and we got a tip that Wayne State was adding hockey. I was doing on-air sports at the time and had graduated from WSU just a few years before, so I thought, “Why not give it a shot?”

I made a few calls and was eventually connected with the legendary Costa Papista who was helping the school set up their program. I had a quick interview, started doing the games and the rest is a long, nearly frozen history.

MM: What do you remember most from that inaugural game at the Coliseum against Western Ontario?

TB: The first game was incredible. For the only time in school history, all 5,500 seats were full and the place was vibrating with excitement. Gordie Howe dropped the first puck and signed autographs of his book “And…Howe!”

I also remember vividly that there were holes in some of the windows in the ceiling and a flock of pigeons had taken up residence in the Coliseum. Every time the music played or someone scored a goal, the pigeons would dive bomb from the rafters and occasionally drop bombs on the ice, fans, etc.

MM: What stands out as your fondest memory (good or bad) about the early years of the program (1999-2003)?

TB: There are so many great memories in the first four years, but the culmination of the team playing in the NCAA regionals against Colorado College at Yost Arena was probably the best. People who go to the “bigger schools” like Michigan, Michigan State, or even Ferris State or Northern Michigan for that matter, have seen their teams in big games many times. I wasn’t expecting the sense of pride and emotion as I watched the ol’ Green and Gold hit the ice put a scare into the Tigers. It was a fantastic feeling I’ll never forget and, sadly now, will never be able to duplicate.

MM: How have you seen the program progress (or regress) from that first sold-out game to where it is now?

TB: It seemed to me that after the first wave of guys left, reality set in. They went so far, so fast, where could the program go now? I honestly got more and more disillusioned every year after that. The team still fought their tail off every night and dropped some big names like the Spartans at Munn. The coaches and staff kept up all their hard work, but where were the fans now and the fabled arena?

If a team could have all the success that they did over the first four years and not get the backing that a program needed to survive, then I guess the writing was on wall back then. I guess I was too optimistic or oblivious to see it.

MM There were always the rumors that the men would fold, but what went through your mind when that became reality?

TB: My reaction was one of “you’ve got to be kidding me.” Eight years in and a new season is just about to start and you’re pulling the plug now? I was mad about it then and honestly I still am. I’m just the PA announcer and I feel horrible every time I walk into the Coliseum and realize that this is it. I can’t imagine how the players who have literally bled for the school, the terrific coaches who never gave less than 100 percent and the parents who trusted the program with their boys must feel about it. It’s a sick feeling.

MM How will you fill your time next season with no WSU men’s hockey?

TB: I’m still a proud WSU grad and I hope to keep working with the women’s hockey team. Coach [Jim] Fetter and his staff have put together a great program with outstanding athletes and I’ve had the honor of doing play-by-play for a large portion of their games for the last three years. I’m hooked on college hockey, though, so I’ll be making the drive to Yost and Munn to see some games, too. I’ll also be spending time tracking all the former Warriors who will hopefully be scattered around college hockey.

MM Being a Wayne State grad, was hockey always something you hoped to see at the school?

TB: Yes, I always thought it would be a great addition in our area. The lack of a permanent arena did more to kill the program than anything else. If WSU had even a small, 2,000-seat barn on campus then I really don’t think we’d be having this conversation. Adrian managed to put one up in less than a year. How can you argue that a major institution like Wayne couldn’t do it in nine?

MM Any other thoughts about the program?

TB: It’s been a great ride and lots of fun working with the team over the years. Coach [Bill] Wilkinson has been fantastic since Day 1 and it would be a shame if such a great coach has his career end like this. If he wants to, I certainly hope he gets a spot somewhere else.

I’ve also made so many friends doing this that it’s going to be hard to step away when this is done. I don’t want to get too melancholy, but it’s sad to see it all come to an end.

UAH Take Consolation Game at RPI Tourney

Alabama-Huntsville held ninth-ranked Notre Dame off the scoreboard for more than 37 minutes, but the Irish advanced to the finals of the 57th Annual RPI Holiday Tournament with a 4-1 win over the Chargers last Friday afternoon in Troy, N.Y.

The Chargers rebounded to win the consolation game against American International, 5-3, on Saturday night.

Freshman netminder Cameron Talbot turned away 37 shots while Joe Federoff scored the lone UAH goal against Notre Dame.

Andrew Coburn collected his first collegiate point with an assist on the goal.

“When you run into a really good goaltender, you just can’t lose your patience,” said Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson. “That’s what I stressed between periods, to be patient and just play our game. Sometimes you have to sacrifice your ego and just go win the hockey game.”

For some on the Irish, the game brought back memories of last season’s double-overtime first round game in the NCAA regionals, a game Notre Dame eventually won.

“I think last year was in the back of our minds a little bit before Ian [Cole] scored,” said UND center Kevin Deeth. “Credit their goalie, he really played well. Coach just kept telling us to be patient.”

Tom Train scored twice to lead UAH past AIC. Coburn (first NCAA goal), Kevin Morrison and Matt Sweazey also tallied to back Talbot’s 31 saves and first collegiate victory.

“We played really well Friday,” UAH head coach Danton Cole said in the Huntsville Times. “[Saturday] we started out slow, there wasn’t a crowd, the players were flat.

“But they picked it up and we saw good things.”

Wayne State Finally Wins at St. Lawrence

WSU gained its first victory in four trips to Canton since 2000 with a 3-2 win over St. Lawrence last Friday.

Freshman Jordan Inglis made his first career goal a memorable one in netting the game-winner at 7:05 of the third period.

The Warriors earned their first road win of the season despite being outshot, 44-15.

Senior captain Mike Forgie and freshman Tyler Ruel also scored for Wayne State and Jeff Caister set a career high with three assists.

Brett Bothwell made 42 saves, his third career game with over 40 saves and his highest total since posting 53 saves in his second career start last October at Alabama-Huntsville.

Saturday night, WSU got third-period goals 1:37 apart from Matt Krug and Stavros Paskaris to come back and tie the Saints, 2-2.

Saints defenseman Zach Miskovic had the puck in the faceoff circle and attempted to send it down the ice, but his stick snapped in half and the puck hopped to Derek Punches, who walked in with Jared Katz and Paskaris. Katz set up Paskaris right on the doorstep of Saints goalie John Hallas for the game-tying goal.

“Wayne State played a very solid game defensively and blocked a lot of shots,” said St. Lawrence head coach Joe Marsh. “They are really coming on and are a good young team.”

Before the game, WSU head coach Bill Wilkinson, a former Saints captain and assistant coach, was presented a game jersey by the St. Lawrence coaching staff in recognition of his contributions to the sport as a coach at both Wayne State and Western Michigan.

Kyle Funkenhauser stopped 37 shots for the Warriors.

The WSU power play, which went 1-for-8 against St. Lawrence, currently ranks third in the CHA at a conversion percentage of 15.3%. The Warrior penalty-kill, which held the Saints scoreless on all 11 power plays they had, currently ranks tied for third at 78.1%.

Dowd to Niagara — 3 in 3

For Chicago Steel forward Brian Dowd, when he steps on to the ice at Dwyer Arena next fall, it’ll be his third team in three years.

Two seasons ago, the Williamsville, N.Y., native played at Thayer Prep Academy in Braintree, Mass., and is currently in his first season in the United States Hockey League.

Next season he’ll don the colors of Niagara.

“We are happy for Brian that he has gotten his commitment,” Steel head coach and general manager Steve Poapst said. “It was a school that has been interested since day one and it is our job to make sure he is ready for Niagara next year.”

RMU Ready for Colgate

Robert Morris has never played Colgate in their brief four-year history — until this weekend when the Colonials head to Hamilton, N.Y., for a Saturday-Sunday dip.

“Colgate has done a great job in the past few years in the ECAC by being well coached and having some high level skill players,” RMU head coach Derek Schooley said. “This year is no different. They have some excellent offensive talent with solid senior goaltending. This is a team that is going to be a very difficult opponent and we are looking forward to playing at Starr Rink.”

Robert Morris is 2-6 all-time against ECACHL teams. Last season, the Colonials lost to Quinnipiac and Cornell, but did defeat Princeton.

No Update on CHA’s Future

CHA commissioner Bob Peters commented this week on the seemingly slow-moving process of determining the future of the league.

“We continue to work on the issue and, as you might expect, it takes time to visit and discuss all the aspects that are involved in the operation of an athletic conference,” said Peters.

Essentially, nothing new, just different words.

Stay tuned.