Western Michigan a changed program, down to its ‘greasy-grimy’ roots

It was Saturday night, and Western Michigan had just lost its first game of the season.

“Last night, we didn’t play as well as we thought we should have,” said first-year Broncos coach Andy Murray. “Tonight, our game was actually better but the bottom line is it wasn’t good enough.

“I think the days of Western Michigan coming up here and being happy with a split are gone. There’s an upset group in there because we wanted to win the first game, we wanted to win the first period, the first shift and we came here on a mission and we didn’t get it done.”

“Up here” was actually Ann Arbor, Mich., and — like it or not — Michigan is still the litmus test against which many CCHA programs measure themselves. The mission to which Murray alluded was a sweep of the Wolverines in Yost Ice Arena, something the WMU program has never accomplished.

Before splitting with Michigan last weekend, the current Western Michigan senior class was 2-7-0 against the Wolverines, including three postseason games. It was a better record than many past classes of Broncos players had compiled in their first three seasons; after last weekend, WMU is 28-68-10 all-time against Michigan.

Last weekend, perhaps nobody wanted two wins over Michigan more than WMU’s captain, senior Ian Slater, a forward from Satellite Beach, Fla., who played three seasons with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders (USHL) before joining the Broncos. While a complete change of coaching transitioned the Broncos from bottom-dwellers to top tier last season — and the hiring of Murray to replace Jeff Blashill signals WMU’s continued commitment to the growth of the program — no one has been more pivotal in the overhaul of Broncos hockey than Slater, whom Murray referred to as an unofficial fourth coach before the start of the season.

Slater is clear that the desire to change the culture of hockey at Western Michigan preceded the changes the program saw in 2010-11.

“It goes back to the season before Coach Blashill,” said Slater. “You get to a point where you’re content where you are within an organization … content within your everyday life, or if you ask more from yourself, you ask more from your group of guys and not be satisfied with where you’re at.”

Slater said that in his first year as captain, he and assistants Max Campbell and Ryan Watson — both seniors last season — were dissatisfied with the status quo in Kalamazoo. “We knew we had a group of guys that could do it,” said Slater. “Blash came in with Coaches [Pat] Ferschweiler and [Rob] Facca and they were the cherry on top. They really implemented a winning mentality in us.”

This season, that winning mentality continues with the addition of Murray, said Slater, sounding as much coach as captain.

“It’s the mental makeup of the athletes I have in my locker room,” Slater said. “They want to win. We all came from winning programs. We know what it takes to sacrifice. We’re not from losing teams or losing organizations. We know what it takes to win — it’s whether or not you want to believe in the systems, believe in the people and place and yourself and you can do it. Self-sacrifice starts with putting others and school and your lifts — everything has to be put before yourself and what you believe in on and off the ice.

“That’s what it takes. Those guys [coaches] implemented a system, absolutely provided us with structure. We’ve continued that process, we’ve continued that mentality. It’s businesslike. It’s nothing new. Every day we show up at the rink with the same common goal, with the same mentality.

“It’s our roots now. It’s nothing else. We are individuals. We don’t think the same, we don’t work out the same, we don’t train the same, we don’t eat the same, we don’t go to bed at the same times [but] we sacrifice. To everyone else, that makes us a bunch of weird individuals.”

Those weird individuals play “in your face” hockey, said Slater, and that elevates their game from the kind of hockey that earned WMU six overall wins and a last-place finish in 2009-10.

“Greasy-grimy,” said Slater. “Blue collar. I’d say we do the little things, and that is defensive. Making that sharp chip off the boards, taking a hit to get a hit, taking a hit to make a play. It might not be the prettiest, it might not be the most finessed, but it works. We didn’t invent the wheel. We stick to hard-playing hockey. It gets done. You go to work every day. Punch in, punch out.”

This week, the Broncos punch in at second in the CCHA, one point behind league-leading Lake Superior State, and are fifth in the USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll.

All that and personality, too

When I first talked to Murray by phone this summer, I was immediately impressed. He was sharp, unpretentious, direct and he laughed easily.

When I met him last Saturday night for the first time, I was immediately delighted. “You picked us to lose here, didn’t you?” he said. Ha.

Even though Murray clearly was upset about dropping the second game to the Wolverines, he never dropped that sense of humor. When a student reporter from Michigan — someone who admittedly had never traveled to Kalamazoo for a college hockey game — asked Murray what he thought of the famous Yost atmosphere, Murray replied, “It’s great. It’s what college hockey’s all about. You been to Lawson Arena yet? Come there. You’ll see what a crowd’s all about, too.”

A few moments later, the student reporter asked Murray how college hockey had changed since Murray last coached it. In the 1980-81 season, his second year of coaching at his alma mater of Brandon University (Manitoba), Murray led the squad to the championship game of the Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS), the Canadian counterpart of the NCAA.

“That was back in 1978-79, ’79-80,” said Murray, “so players that I coached back then would be a little bit slower than these guys are on the ice right now because, like me, they’d be about 50 years old or so.”

Players of the week

This week, Miami earned its first player-of-the-week honors after it recorded its first league wins of the season with two 2-1 victories at Alaska. Through six weeks last season, four Miami players had received weekly honors — all for offensive player of the week. Times have changed.

Rookie of the week: Miami forward Tyler Biggs, who had an assist in each of the first goals that Miami scored against Alaska.

Offensive player of the week: Ferris State senior Jordie Johnston, who had two assists in Friday’s 4-0 win over Bowling Green plus the opening goal and winner in Saturday’s 5-3 decision. Five of Johnston’s 15 career goals have come this year.

Defenseman of the week: FSU senior Brett Wysopal, who matched his offensive output of the entire 2010-11 season with a goal in each game against BGSU. Wysopal also blocked six shots in the series against BG and finished the weekend plus-5.

Goaltender of the week: Northern Michigan senior Reid Ellingson, who in two ties with Notre Dame had a 1.58 goals against average and .958 save percentage. He stopped all six shots he faced in the weekend’s two shootouts.

My ballot

1. Boston College
2. Michigan
3. Minnesota
4. Western Michigan
5. Ferris State
6. Colorado College
7. Notre Dame
8. Merrimack
9. Minnesota-Duluth
10. Lake Superior State
11. Union
12. Quinnipiac
13. Michigan Tech
14. Northern Michigan
15. Denver
16. Nebraska-Omaha
17. Boston University
18. Ohio State
19. Yale
20. Air Force

“I can’t even figure these rankings out,” Murray said. “How can they rank teams so early in the season? I think the only time I’d be worried about rankings is the end of March.”

It’s a mystery

For the first time since we released our preseason poll, Yale has lost its lone first-place vote. Apparently, when the Bulldogs weren’t playing — or when they were 1-0-1, as they were after their first week of play — they were first-place worthy. Now that they’ve lost their first game of the season and “dropped” to 2-1-1, their days of glory are over.

Well, for one voter, at least.

Follow, if you dare

My Twitter feed is as exciting as you’d expect from a divorced, middle-aged college English professor who lives alone with her three cats, but follow if you think you can handle it: @paulacweston.

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  1. Thanks for a great article! I disagree with you on one point, though. Having watched Western since their only hope of winning a game was to be “gritty,” I can say that their puck handling, movement, and passing have all lead to a much prettier, more fluid game, too. Western’s fully capable of winning games with skilled offense as well as chippy defense.

    My other question is why you, and so many other voters, seem so intent on keeping BU near the top. They’re a two loss team now, with their most recent loss coming to unranked umass, and yet even in the overall USCHO poll they dropped only one spot, which is the same punishment that UM and WMU recieved for splitting with each other. Colorado college did the EXACT same thing over the weekend, (one loss) and you dropped them to sixth. I know polls are meaningless this early, but it still sends a message about the expectations of certain teams, and how future wins/losses will be treated. 

  2. Paula, nice article but WMU is more than a grinding team. They have take talent too.

    Your bias remains fairly disgusting. Michigan #2??? Ferris State #5??? You don’t really believe that do you?

    • I’m not the one who said that WMU is a grinding team.  That’s what their captain, Ian Slater, said.  It’s a direct quote.

      • Slater said that, but what did you say?  Are you a columnist or a reporter? 

        But like I said it was a nice read, I just can’t believe your ballot every week.  Michigan could be a .500 team and you’d vote them in the top 3.

  3. Michigan loses at home… Minnesota sweeps NoDak.. Minnesota has played a MUCH TOUGHER schedule… and you rank Michigan as the 2nd team in the nation.

    Someone should take your vote away. That’s just embarrassing.

        • minnesota has only played 2 games against tuc oppents, i believe.  whereas um has played 6 games against tuc teams.  they started off easy but has since got a way harder schedule than minnesota.  take out that game against bentley with 10 goals and they look more pedestrian.   

          minnesota is a great team–they’ll go a long way this year–and i don’t even know why i’m arguing with you, i hate michigan and i can kind of see what your’e saying, but go back to the wcha blog and babble this heresy there.

          great ice fishing out there though!

          • Minnesota is 9-1 and playing really well. I think they can make a case for #1, but it really doesn’t matter. They don’t hand the trophy in April to the team with the most poll votes. 

  4. I think people just love BC because it is like the only east coast team that has a chance of winning a national championship. It’s like those Red Sox fans that view it as them, New York and everyone else. Besides KAW if wasn’t BC it would be BU. Even last year with Yale, everyone knew in the playoffs that number 1 rating meant little. That number 1 rating is just a big bulls eye, WMU can hang out in the top 10 all season for all I care if it means less injuries at the end of season, but beating MSU is always quite nice..and we need some more home wins.

  5. Why isn’t there more interconference play between the big schools? I would really like to see more marquee games between conferences, take the sport from regional to national.

    I agree that Western has changed their culture, they have really done a good job of adding talent and attitude to the grinding ways that they feel define their team. It was a good series last weekend.

  6. Paula,
    Nice read — It seems like we’re incapable of letting writers and columnists say something without hacking on this and that.  I’m a Western fan and I have no problem with your current rankings — having Michigan ahead of Western.  We split, case closed, neither team dominated the other, so your positioning is plausible.  I’m growing kind of tired of these constant attacks.  Everyone getting charged up about the rankings right now is somewhat silly to begin with.  I agree with our coach in this regard, let’s get excited in March when the rankings will mean something.  Also, I must say I don’t take offense at anyone saying Western is “gritty” whether it was you or Slater, because I don’t see this as some kind of passive “slap” as other readers apparently do.  I don’t care how or why, I just want us to win.  


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