Western Michigan about to get an idea of how far it can go this season

This weekend, Western Michigan opens its CCHA season and defense of the Mason Cup against Notre Dame. Even though the Broncos are 3-1 in nonconference play, second-year coach Andy Murray isn’t sure yet of what this year’s team can do.

“I really don’t know,” Murray said. “I think we need to play some games within our own league to get a real read on our team. I fully expect that our work ethic and that the things that we’ve been noted for are here. We’ve got some speed and some size on the blue line and our goaltending we expect to be our strength again.

“We had a number of seniors move on plus Matt Tennyson, so we don’t know the impact until we’re a little further down the road.”

WMU had four players net 10 goals or more last season, but of those four only Tennyson, the defenseman who opted out of his final year of eligibility, isn’t on this year’s roster. None of the other three — juniors Chase Balisy and Shane Berschbach and senior Dane Walters — has yet to find the net. In fact, Berschbach has yet to play a game because he was suspended at the start of the season for violating team rules.

Two Broncos players, junior Danny DeKeyser and sophomore Garrett Haar, have two goals to their credit with a handful of other players registering a single marker, including newcomers Josh Pitt and Nolan LaPorte.

“We’ll probably have five freshmen playing in their first CCHA games this weekend,” Murray said, “and that’s basically 25 percent of the roster you dress, so we’ll see.

“As long as our juniors and our seniors and our sophomores improve … that creates time and space for our freshmen to mature.”

One of the bonuses of the Broncos’ recent success is the program’s ability to recruit players who can take a little time to mature — or to recruit talent that can step in right away.

“We’re at a point where we lose a player now, we’re recruiting a like player,” Murray said. “We can be more selective than the program has been in the past. We have choices now.”

Although he’s not keen on giving early impressions of the Broncos, Murray did give up something that he’s noticed through the first four games of the season.

“We’re averaging 39-40 shots a game and averaging 20 against,” Murray said, noting that it’s an improvement over the 23.4 shots on goal per game WMU was giving up last season.

“It’s not because we sit back and play defense; we probably pressure as much as any team in college hockey. As much as anything, the shots are down because we had the puck quite a bit.”

Murray has made the transition from the NHL to the NCAA seamlessly. “I enjoy every single day,” he said. That’s because — according to Murray — there is no difference between coaching the pros and the college kids.

In the NHL, Murray said, just as in the college game, the players “want to have fun, they want to work hard, they want to play. The only thing is that … just because of the game schedule, some nights you just don’t have that energy.”

And the college kids? “They can do everything in practice and tactically that a pro player can do,” Murray said. “There’s a lot of talent at this level.”

It doesn’t make any difference, Murray said, that his current players are college students: “Every player in the NHL is going to the School of Hockey.”

As they open their league season against the Fighting Irish this weekend, the Broncos remember that they went 2-1-1-1 against Notre Dame last season. “We had a positive balance,” Murray said. And they know now that they can play with anyone.

“As I told our players, we’re going to be playing one of the best teams in college hockey this weekend,” Murray said. “That’s good news. The other part of the good news?

“Their coaches are telling their players the exact same thing.”

Brushes with quiet greatness

Last week I wrote about Aniket Dhadphale’s bad day, his last game in the miniscule Ohio State Ice Rink (now the Ice Arena). I was thinking about Notre Dame hockey, and whenever I think about Notre Dame hockey, I think about Dhadphale throwing his stick in that game against OSU.

As it turns out, writing about Dhadphale last week brought a lovely, long email message from Michael Wood, a long-time, diehard Notre Dame fan from whom I’ve heard occasionally through the years.

Wood was reminded of the 1981-82 season, “one of their then-rare very good seasons,” he said. Wood was 17 and had to beg his parents to let him drive himself and his 13-year-old sister to ND’s first home game of the season after an ice storm hit the area. When he arrived, he wrote, the Irish were already down 4-0 to Bowling Green, the No. 1 team in the country at that point. The game ended in an 8-7 loss for the Irish. Wood said that he thinks that Dave Poulin — the former Notre Dame coach and current vice president of hockey operations for the Toronto Maple Leafs — scored the goal for the Irish that sent that game to OT, but he isn’t sure and I haven’t tracked it down yet.

When I got divorced in 1998, my ex showed up at a Notre Dame-Ohio State hockey game wearing a game-worn Steve Brent OSU jersey. (Brent is a former student of mine, a three-year captain of the Buckeyes and a former assistant at OSU.) Upon seeing this — my ex in the stands wearing the jersey and me in the press box covering the game — Poulin quipped, “I guess we know who got the jerseys.”

This week, I’m thinking about Western Michigan hockey. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of WMU is Bill Wilkinson, who coached the Broncos from 1982 through 1999. I think of the awful 8-0 loss to Ohio State on Jan. 30, 1999, that was the beginning of the end for Wilkie, as he’s affectionately known.

I also think of an elevator ride during one of Minnesota’s Frozen Four runs. Everyone on the lift was silent — and some hung over — when Wilkinson broke us up with, “Hey, does anyone here know how to spell Minnesota?” For those of you unfamiliar with Minnesota hockey, Golden Gophers fans are fond of spelling out the state’s name during games.

These days, Wilkinson sends out emails to a lucky bunch of us with updates of his international coaching career. For a while he coached Club Hielo Jaca of the Superliga Española de Hockey Hielo, Spain’s professional league. This past summer, he spent some time with the Melbourne Mustangs of the Australian Ice Hockey League, and now he’s recruiting for the Goderich Jr. C Sailors of the Ontario Hockey Association.

Wilkinson is a class act, a true friend of our favorite sport — but he’s not the only former leader of the Broncos I remember when I think of WMU.

I think of Jim Culhane, who succeeded Wilkinson as the Broncos’ head coach (1993-2010), and his great stories about playing pond hockey with his family in northern Ontario during Christmas breaks.

Of course I think of Jeff Blashill, whose one season as Western Michigan’s head coach turned the entire program around … and thinking of Blashill reminds me of his whole wonderful family and of his time as a mediocre goaltender at Ferris State … which reminds me of Bob Daniels, who is perhaps the most underrated coach in NCAA Division I men’s ice hockey.

Thinking of Blashill also makes me think of Rob Facca, an assistant at WMU that Blashill hired. Thinking of Facca makes me think of his shoes. There is nothing quiet about Facca’s shoes, although a few pairs of them border on greatness.

But most of all when I think of Western Michigan hockey, I think of Ian Slater, the unassuming captain who helped lead the Broncos to the CCHA playoff championship at the end of last season. I met Slater after his first game with the Broncos, a 2-1 loss to Rochester Institute of Technology on Oct. 11, 2008, a game in which Slater scored the Broncos’ goal. I remember that he was a kid who had whatever “it” was — leadership, charisma, whatever — and I remember saying as much to Culhane at the time. Culhane said, “Yeah. He’s not going to score a lot, but he’s one to watch.”

Turns out Culhane was onto something. Slater had 46 points in 151 games for the Broncos — 23 goals, 23 assists — but there is no way that WMU hockey could have made the transition from Culhane to Blashill and then from Blashill to Murray and a Mason Cup without Ian Slater.

In the 17 years that I’ve been covering the CCHA, I’ve seen some great games — some involving Western Michigan, to be sure. To me, though, this gig is as much about the people as the hockey, maybe even more so.

I’ve been saying goodbye to people I’ve met through the CCHA for the past 17 years. I really don’t know why it seems harder to do this season than before.

Players of the week

Something strikes me as odd about this week’s picks. I’m not criticizing. I’m just saying.

Rookie of the week: Bowling Green goaltender Tommy Burke, who made 48 saves in a loss and overtime tie — with a shootout point — against Ohio State.

Offensive player of the week: Alaska junior Cody Kunyk, who had a goal and three assists in the Nanooks’ split with Ferris State.

Defenseman of the week: Lake Superior State junior Zach Sternberg, who had three assists in the Lakers’ split with Michigan State. He blocked four shots as well.

Goaltender of the week: OSU senior Brady Hjelle, who made 25 saves in a 1-0 shutout over BGSU Friday night

My ballot

This is how I saw things this week.

1. Boston College
2. Minnesota
3. Denver
4. North Dakota
5. Notre Dame
6. New Hampshire
7. Michigan
8. Miami
9. Union
10. Cornell
11. Western Michigan
12. Massachusetts-Lowell
13. Boston University
14. Minnesota-Duluth
15. Ferris State
16. Northeastern
17. St. Cloud State
18. Northern Michigan
19. Colorado College
20. Lake Superior State