Fresh Horses

“I was always told that when you go to a school you’ll know when it’s right. I thought it was just cliche, hearing it over and over, but in reality when I came here it felt right.”

That’s not the kind of sentiment college hockey fans might expect from a freshman playing for last year’s last-place team. But Ian Slater and his Western Michigan rookie classmates may not be the kind of freshmen anyone would expect to commit to last year’s last-place Broncos.

Slater, a forward from Satellite Beach, Fla., was a three-year captain for a Cedar Rapids Rough Riders (USHL) team that featured many players familiar to college hockey and CCHA fans in general, such as Miami’s Andy Miele and Tommy Wingels and Northern Michigan’s Phil Axtell and Ray Kaunisto. As the second-oldest member of WMU’s freshman class of eight, Slater’s leadership skills — from both age and experience — are evident in his seasoned perspective about his new hockey home.

“Nobody likes to lose,” says Slater. “Nobody wants to lose. That leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. Everybody here knows what it’s like to win. We’ve all come from established programs. We want to keep the legacy here of Bronco hockey, starting with our class and keeping it going for the next four years.”

After the 2007-08 series, which was worst season in Western Michigan hockey history during which the team registered just four league wins and eight overall, maybe the Broncos aren’t looking to rebuild so much as they’re looking to build something entirely new.

And maybe that’s why head coach Jim Culhane brought his entire team, including the newbies, back to Kalamazoo more than three months before the 2008-09 season began.

“We’ve been together here since the 24th of June,” says Culhane, now in his 11th year as the Bronco skipper. “We continue to grow and connect with each other. I think Chris Frank, our senior captain, has done a nice job with this group and I think there’s a good bond and team chemistry with all the guys — the accountability, responsibility you need to play for each other.”

This is the first time that Culhane has required his team to spend the summer on Western Michigan’s campus, and he did so in an effort to create a new culture of Bronco hockey.

“Typically, the guys are here spring session, take their classes, then go home for the summer, July and August,” says Culhane. “This year, they went home in the spring, and returned back to campus [in June] to go to summer school. The incoming freshman class came in, too.

“It helped in the sense not only in their readiness to play physically, but you talk about team chemistry and creating a bond and a brotherhood — you eliminate a lot of that anxiety and not know about your teammates in the summer months.”

The win-loss column may not yet show the positive results that Culhane and the Broncos desire from this year’s preseason work, but the team that was outscored 126-82 overall last season and on which CCHA opponents doubled up in goals (100-53) has a win and a tie with two of its four losses decided by a goal. In six games this season, the Broncos have 15 goals to 21 opponent markers, a much closer margin versus a year ago and a hopeful sign — and an early indication that Culhane may be getting a little bit of what he wants so far this season.

“The word that comes to my mind how we want to play is relentless,” says Culhane. “We want to be relentless on both ends of the rink, every night. With that, we’re going to give ourselves a chance to be successful in hockey games. It’s a work in progress.”

A big component to that work in progress is this rookie class, bookended in experience by Slater and in age by Kevin Connauton, an 18-year-old true freshman. Players that young are a luxury for the Broncos, who often have to rely on older, more tested players because of the inequity of recruiting against their powerhouse neighbors, Michigan and Michigan State. Connauton, a defenseman from Edmonton, Alb., was slated to begin his WMU career in the 2009-10 season, but came early when the Broncos learned they would be without Jesse Perrin, who would have arrived this fall.

“We had committed Jesse Perrin, who, unfortunately for him and for us, with his academic score could not come in,” said Culhane. “So he elected to turn pro once that decision was made late this summer.

“Kevin’s come in and done a real admirable job. He has an older brother who’s playing at Brown, a good brother who’s educated his younger brother on what it takes to be successful. Kevin came in in fantastic shape. Sometimes these guys come in without the level of physical strength that’s needed to be successful. That’s helped him make a smoother transition.”

Connauton, who has four assists in six games, says that he’s felt welcome from his arrival in Kalamazoo, even though it came later than that of his classmates.

“We all gel pretty good. It’s just us living in the dorms together, so we’ve got a little brotherhood going on there.”

“They’re bringing a lot of energy to our team,” says Culhane of the newcomers, including junior transfer Jared Katz from the now-defunct Wayne State Warriors.

“The excitement to be here to play for the Broncos, to play for the CCHA … it makes coaching so rewarding,” says Culhane. “With the older guys, it keeps them filled with enthusiasm, too.

“There are some characters in there. There are some guys that — you know what? I love their free spirit.”

“We bicker like family,” jokes Slater. “Everyone calls us little girls, because we all bicker back and forth. I borrow [Greg] Squires’ shoes and he says my feet smell. He steals my blanket.” Squires, a winger from White Plains, N.Y., is Slater’s roommate.

With a new cast of free-spirited characters committed to Bronco hockey and each other, and with just the right mix of hockey drama and dorm-room hijinks, should someone be calling MTV for some new reality programming?

“I don’t know if they could handle us,” says Slater.