Rud and Scanlan search for new paths to the top of the WCHA

Clarkson may have charted a new course in March to NCAA supremacy, but through the first 15 years of the WCHA, all roads to the championship of that league, regular or postseason, originated in Duluth, Madison, or Minneapolis. Until North Dakota’s recent rise to prominence yielded a second-place finish in the regular season and two trips to the conference final, other than Minnesota-Duluth, Wisconsin, or Minnesota, only Ohio State way back in the 2001 WCHA tournament could claim even as much as a WCHA runner-up.

Bemidji State and St. Cloud State are two of the programs still looking to bring home league hardware for the first time, and to date, they haven’t come all that close. SCSU’s third-place finish in 2010 was the highest either has finished in the standings, and that edition of the Huskies was defeated on home ice in the quarterfinals by none other than the Beavers, giving BSU its only taste of the semifinals. Ultimately, it proved to be a bitter taste, as the Beavers surrendered the first five goals while falling, 7-3 to Minnesota-Duluth.

The Huskies can top that Brazil-like, semifinal train wreck. Their only forays into the second round, in 2006 and 2008, culminated in identical 9-0 drubbings by Wisconsin and Minnesota-Duluth, respectively.

However, at least St. Cloud State has been able to experience playing, and even winning, on home ice in the playoffs. Bemidji hosted postseason action for the first time in March as the predetermined site of the WCHA Final Face-Off, but the Beavers didn’t advance to be an active participant.

Checking that off of the program’s to-do list is one of the first objectives of new head coach Jim Scanlan.

“Yes, securing home ice for the WCHA postseason will be our expectation, as it should be for every program in the league,” he said.

Scanlan followed that up with a quote from his coach back in his playing days at Bemidji State, Bob Peters. Peters said, “Shoot for the moon, if you miss, you land amongst the stars. Shoot for the barn door, if you miss, you land in the cow manure.” The metaphor may be better suited for another WCHA rival, the Minnesota State Mavericks, but we get the idea.

Scanlan’s opportunity to direct the Beavers came when Steve Sertich retired in March after eight seasons at the helm.

“I have followed the women’s WCHA and women’s college hockey since becoming the head girls hockey coach at East Grand Forks Senior High School,” Scanlan said. “I know that the WCHA is about as good as it gets when it comes to the overall quality of a conference. It is the home for some outstanding programs and very successful coaches, and it will be a tremendous challenge.”

One of the challenges will be coming up to speed on his own roster.

“I did follow the Beavers women’s program in terms of how they would do each weekend, but really have no familiarity with the players other than a few that we played against in the past,” Scanlan said. “I do know they were well-coached and played hard!”

Sertich was well-regarded around the WCHA and was recognized as league coach of the year in 2009-10.

“Coach Sertich and his staff did a great job of improving the women’s program overall, and it is certainly in a much better place then it was when they started,” Scanlan said.

Sertich’s assistant coaches return. Shane Veenker has been a member of the staff for seven seasons, and Amber Fryklund, like her new boss, played her college hockey at Bemidji State.

“I would say that I prefer to play an aggressive style of hockey in that we want to always be pressing,” Scanlan said. “We want to pressure the opponents when we don’t have the puck and we want to be attacking when we do.  It would be an up-tempo style predicated on everyone moving their feet and good puck movement. We will play ‘Beaver Hockey!'”

Many a coach would choose to play a similar style in an ideal world. The problem comes when opponents regularly enjoy greater benefit from an up-tempo game. Thirty players in the conference reached double digits in goals scored last season; none of them were Beavers. Scanlan and his assistants will look to leverage the perks of the Sanford Center, which opened in 2010.

“There is no question that the Sanford Center is a top-notch, first-class facility,” Scanlan said. “The locker room, training facilities, video and tech equipment are second to none. Bemidji State University has always been an outstanding academic institution located on a beautiful campus. The addition of the Sanford Center to this setting would be attractive to any student-athlete looking for a degree that will prepare them for the rest of their lives, while at the same time playing hockey at the highest level in the country.”

Until higher caliber talent can be coaxed to Bemidji, the success of the Beavers will be determined by how well Scanlan can do with the players already in place.

“When I say we want to raise the bar, I am referring to what our expectations will be and what we want to achieve as a team,” he said. “When a group of athletes can come together and become a team, when they can put the team’s needs before their own, the results can be pretty special. This group has that potential!”

Another team will be trying to find answers to very similar questions roughly 150 miles to the south in St. Cloud. Eric Rud takes over for previous Huskies coach Jeff Giesen, whose contract was not renewed. Rud has WCHA experience, most recently as an assistant to Scott Owens at his alma mater, Colorado College.

“I worked at St. Cloud State for five years on the men’s side, so I was around the women’s program quite a bit and got a chance to watch that program in action and see how hard the women worked,” Rud said. “I was always very impressed with their intensity level and where they were at.”

Given none of his current charges were at St. Cloud State when Rud last worked there back in 2009-10, it begs the question of how much does he know about his new team?

“Not much, which is kind of nice,” Rud said. “Obviously, the program is in search of a change and a new identity, and I’m perfectly happy going into the season and when practice starts, it’s a clean slate and everyone is going to get a chance to show what they can do and prove where they’re at in the landscape of where the team is at.”

During his playing days in the 1990s and for two separate coaching stints at Colorado College, the Tigers were known for a style that emphasized skating and skill.

“It always has been,” Rud said. “I like to coach that way; I like to watch the game that way. I think athletes really want to play that way. They want to get up and down the ice and make plays and get after it, so that’s the way we’re going to coach. That’s the way we’re going to recruit athletes that want to play that way also.”

Playing on an Olympic-sized ice sheet, the SCSU women do fine as far as skating goes, but in recent years, they’ve languished near the bottom of the national rankings in goalscoring. With the graduation of top scorers Molli Mott and Julia Gilbert, the top returning scorer is Abby Ness, who has tallied a total of 12 goals and 33 points in her first three college seasons.

“It’ll be interesting to see when we get started where we’re at offensively and what we need to improve on and try to find ways to score goals,” Rud said. “I’m the type of coach that when I watch video, I see the game as trying to create offense and not trying to stop the other team. That’s the way I want our staff to be and I want our women to play, to get up and down the rink and make plays. We obviously have a lot of work to do in trying to create offense, but I’m really excited for the challenge.”

Facilities will be a major selling point at St. Cloud State moving forward, thanks to a recent expansion and remodeling of the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

“I’ve been around a lot of locker rooms in college hockey and everywhere, and I’ll put our locker room up against most men’s programs in the country,” Rud said. “It’s a beautiful arena, our whole lounge and complex. Once the weight room gets finished, it’s really going to take a whole another leap. Our technology is second to none, so we really think we have a lot to offer for athletes that want to get better and improve.”

The difficulty of the Huskies’ schedule, which presents so many games versus nationally ranked teams, can be a blessing as well as a curse.

“I think that’s the challenge of coaching in a great league,” Rud said. “That’s one of the things that really got me enthused about taking this job. You want to coach against the best coaches and play against the best teams, and we want to recruit athletes that want to do the same, that want to play against the best and compete against the best. Obviously, we have our work cut out for us, but I think that’s the challenge of coaching. It’ll be fun to watch the process evolve.”

For a St. Cloud State team coming off of a last-place finish, there is nowhere to go but up.

“Really, it’s just going to be a work in progress,” Rud said. “Once we get started, we’re just going to see what we have, what we need to improve on. So I don’t have a blueprint right now. I think that’s part of coaching is seeing what you have and taking the best of whatever it is. The one thing I know is that ever since taking the job, our women are really excited to go. I can say this, they’re excited, they want to work, and we’re going to be a very competitive, hard-working team, and we’re just going to have to get as good as we can, as fast as we can.”