Taste of NCAA tournament whets Northern Michigan’s appetite

Walt Kyle once joked that he had taken Northern Michigan to the CCHA third-place game so many times that the contest would probably be named for him. In late March, however, Kyle and the Wildcats were proverbial bridesmaids no more. NMU finally got the chance to play for the CCHA championship.

It was just the Wildcats’ luck, however, to have to play Michigan for the title, and the Wolverines were not to be denied last season. When the teams met, Michigan was on a mission to return to the NCAA tournament for a 20th consecutive season, and with their first title game appearance in Kyle’s eight years as head coach, the Wildcats became a footnote in someone else’s story.

“It was gratifying,” Kyle said. “You get to the game and you’d like to win it, that’s for sure. It was also good to get into the NCAA tournament.”

After losing 2-1 to Michigan in Joe Louis Arena, NMU earned its first NCAA appearance in the Kyle era. The Wildcats lost their West Regional semifinal game against St. Cloud State 4-3 less than a minute into the game’s second overtime.

The CCHA championship game and the NCAA appearance were hard-won accomplishments, Kyle said. “We’ve had real good runs over the last several years at the end and we’re real proud of that, but you’ve got to be good throughout the entire course of the year to get into the tournament and we were able to do that last year,” he said

And all of it was great preparation for the 2010-11 campaign. “Getting in and getting the experience … can do nothing but help some of these young guys,” Kyle said. “Getting a taste of it will, I think, whet their appetite for more in the future.”

The Wildcats were led by an excellent group of seniors last year — “real solid competitors and guys that really added a lot,” Kyle said — along with two juniors who will be difficult to replace.

“When you couple that with losing both Mark Olver — who was an All-American and a Hobey Baker candidate — and Erik Gustafsson — who was a two-year All-American and a top defenseman in the league — we really lost a ton of guys who were impact players.”

But the ‘Cats return Gregor Hanson, Justin Florek and Andrew Cherniwchan, three players responsible for 40 goals.

“Hanson has been a real solid player and a real solid offensive contributor for us throughout his career,” Kyle said. “He’s probably the one guy that we have that has some dynamic offense to his game, the one returning player.

“I think Florek is a guy who really came into his own last year, started to put up numbers, started to make himself dangerous. He was a true freshman when he came in and he’s only getting better every day.”

Kyle said he expects Cherniwchan and Tyler Gron to “pick up the slack offensively.”

Last year, goaltender Reid Ellingson looked good behind senior Brian Stewart. “He’s a good kid and I’m really excited that he’s going to get a chance to come in and prove what he can do,” Kyle said.