With Northern Michigan, it’s a little soon to say

Wednesday evening, I had a rare opportunity to catch Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle as the Wildcats were preparing to leave for Oxford, Ohio, to face Miami this weekend. Given that NMU is 0-2-1 to start the season, I wasn’t sure what Kyle would say about his team.

“I like our team,” he said. “I don’t know how it’s going to be when it all shakes out, but I like our team.”

Northern has been a slow starter in recent seasons, having to play catch-up to make it to the CCHA championship tournament in Detroit, sometimes having to play through road series to get to the Joe. Last year’s start was less bumpy — 2-3-1 through the first six with a shutout win over Michigan — and the Wildcats surged toward the end to give Kyle his first trip to the CCHA championship game and the NCAA tournament.

The 2009-10 team, though, had tested upperclassmen and a genuine superstar in Mark Olver. “We had a good team,” Kyle said. “We had a lot of veteran guys that were good, good players and now we have to find out who’s going to emerge with this group.”

One of the things that I really like about Kyle is his deceptively laid-back manner. He’s a very relaxed, personable, likable guy … and absolutely as intense as they come, like caged energy. I’m sure that with his team still discovering its identity, Kyle is working a skillful balancing act.

“At this point, I try to be level with everything,” Kyle said. “You work hard and teach guys and you have to understand that guys are going to grow into spots. You need to be sure that you’re level-headed with them.”

With eight freshmen on the roster — seven of them skaters — and a total of 15 rookies and sophomores, the Wildcats are facing one of the best teams in the country in the Miami RedHawks. “I hope it’s interesting,” Kyle joked. “That’ll mean we’re in it. They’re really good.”

The trip will take NMU 650 to 685 miles, depending on the route — the bus driver wasn’t sure if he was going to go through Lansing or Ann Arbor — broken into days on the way south. This kind of trip can be “a good chemistry builder,” said Kyle, who added that he likes a long road trip early in the year for that reason.

A trip to play such a high-level opponent so early in the season, with such a young team, is an added bonus. “This is a good barometer,” Kyle said.

No matter the Wildcats’ fate this weekend, Kyle said, “There’s just this belief that we’re going to get better and better.”

I believe him.

There are other, interesting, too-soon-to-tell things going on in the league, like the league’s performance in nonconference games last week. The CCHA went 9-2-4 against non-league opponents Oct. 12 through Oct. 16, including no losses against Hockey East. OK, so MSU played Maine twice and Michigan played New Hampshire once, and the Spartans and Wolverines amassed an 1-0-2 record in those games, but given how poorly the CCHA performs against HEA teams, it’s hard not to grin a little about it.

(For the record, Michigan Tech — the team that the Wildcats tied Oct. 12 – will “surprise some people,” Kyle said. In case you’re interested in such things, the Huskies are off to a 3-0-2 start, their best since 1972-73.)

In other too-soon-to-tell news, it’s hard to say how Bowling Green, Ohio State and Western Michigan will end up this season. These teams with new head coaches went 3-2-0 last weekend, all against non-conference opponents. The Falcons split a pair of shutouts with Clarkson on the road, the Buckeyes lost one game at home to Robert Morris(!) and the Broncos swept St. Lawrence.

And will all those guys off to a fast start remain hot?

Way too soon to say.

Since I had him on the phone …

… I asked Walt Kyle about two new developments in the CCHA. About the new icing, Kyle said, “I think it’s a good rule. It keeps the games going.”

A question about the new television timeouts — the standardized media timeouts, three per period regardless of whether the game is, in fact, televised — elicited a more complex answer.

“I wish there were not TV timeouts at all,” Kyle said. However, he likes the way it evens the field, so to speak, for teams that don’t have the luxury of broadcasting all of their home games.

“I’m not a fan of that, but … think about it this way, for example. Mark Olver led the league in scoring last season. How much would he have benefitted from television timeouts? Red [Berenson] gets to come back with his first line every time” there’s a television timeout, Kyle said.

“That’s nine shifts times 20 home games. That’s some portion of rest that our guys aren’t getting. I kind of look at it from that perspective, too. With those TV timeouts, everybody comes back with their first line after the break.”

I’m no fan of anything that lengthens my commute to Flint postgame, but I absolutely see this in a new perspective now.

Ah, the interwebs!

Michigan coach Red Berenson is as savvy — and as interesting — as they come. This week during his radio show on Sports Talk 1050 AM WTKA, Berenson was asked about a program’s inability to discuss players it’s recruiting.

“You know what happens,” Berenson said. “As soon as we’re recruiting a player, it’s all over the Internet. As soon as a player makes a verbal commitment, it’s all over the Internet. Everyone else knows, the paper writes about it, The Daily writes about it, everyone talks about it, but we can’t talk about it.”

It’s just another Red-ism that makes me think about the nature of collegiate sports and why the NCAA is sometimes targeted for being hypocritical.

All this thinking is hard …

… so let’s do some easy math. According to Michigan, 105,585 tickets have been sold for The Big Chill in the Big House, the Dec. 11 game scheduled between the Spartans and the Wolverines in Michigan Stadium.

This will shatter the hockey attendance record of 77,803, set May 7 in Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, at the 74th IIHF World Championship. Germany beat the United States 2-1 in that game, in case you’re wondering.

Of course, the highest attendance at a college hockey game was at the Cold War game between the Wolverines and the Spartans, Oct. 6, 2001. That game, a 3-3 tie, drew 74,554 spectators.

Too easy

This week, Michigan released a list of things prohibited in both Crisler and Yost arenas. In addition to the usual suspects — alcohol, large bags, weapons — several specific items are listed that are giggle-inducing, when considered en masse. Strollers? Flasks? What kind of crowds do the good folks at Michigan anticipate? Should we also ban Birkenstocks and scent blocker, just to be on the safe side of reaching every possible Ann Arbor demographic?

My favorite item on the list: irritants. These are further explained as “noisemakers, airhorns, etc.”

Sometimes, one doesn’t even need a punch line.