Rich McKenna had a five-year plan in mind when he arrived as the new head coach of Wisconsin-Superior’s men’s hockey team in 2016.
Consider that plan executed to perfection. Even in a season where the COVID-19 pandemic presented added challenges to the fold, the Yellowjackets were able to navigate their way through them to win the WIAC tournament championship.
Last week on the road against reigning national champion Wisconsin-Stevens Point, UW-Superior rallied for a 3-2 win over the Pointers to claim their first title since 2011 and eighth WIAC crown overall.
“It’s icing on the cake,” McKenna said.
Indeed it was. McKenna remembers the beginning of this journey quite well and achieving the goal in a different kind of year makes the title that much more special.
“I put a five-year plan together in the interview process, and this (a WIAC championship) was the last thing we had to attain,” McKenna said. “In an unconventional year, where we had a lot of obstacles to get around, we were able to do it. I’m proud of the guys.”
It didn’t come easy. UW-Superior had to go on the road to play the last team to win a national championship. The Pointers won it all in 2019. A champ wasn’t crowned in 2020 because of the pandemic.
They lost 5-3 to the Pointers back on Feb. 17 after falling behind 2-0 in the opening period. And now the Yellowjackets found themselves down 2-0 again.
“The guys never wavered,” McKenna said. “Their belief never wavered.”
Goals by Coltyn Bates and Chad Lopez tied the score at 2-2 before Levi Cudmore scored the game winner.
“You can’t really measure mental toughness. It’s not a numbers thing,” McKenna said. “It’s something you have to develop. You’ve got to have it to be successful.”
It was mental toughness that helped carry the Yellowjackets through a season where games weren’t guaranteed.
“We had the mindset that every day was a gift,” McKenna said. “There were teams that weren’t playing this season, and our athletic director said we are going to play. We just have to figure it out. I told our guys let’s stay in the moment, and not just get through today, but thrive today. The guys embraced it, and that comes back to mental toughness.”
That didn’t mean it was easy. Players went to school and to practice, and of course played games, and that was the extent of how much they saw each other day to day.
“The mental health of our kids was always a concern. They didn’t get a chance to know their teammates on a more intimate level, but they made the best of what they could do and made the most of it, and that transpired to a WIAC championship.”
UW-Superior finished the year 7-3, winning its last four games. It’s the second consecutive winning season for the Yellowjackets under the direction of McKenna, who said the WIAC is a league he’s always wanted to coach in.
“When the job came up, I went after it and got it, and part of the reason I wanted to be here was because of the resources we have,” McKenna said. “We’re right there with the best of them with resources and with what the school provides us and what the athletic department demands of us. It’s the reason we’ve been able to continue to build every year.”
Ten players tallied five or more points, with Artur Terchiyev and Paul Mikhasenok leading the way with 10 points apiece. Terchiyev scored three goals to along with seven assists while Mikhasenok scored one goal and dished out nine assists.
Lopez led the Yellowjackets in goals scored (seven). Johnson ranked second in goals (five).
Oscar Svensson and Myles Hektor combined for seven wins, with Hektor winning in all four of his starts between the pipes.
“Our guys always responded and always took on the challenge that myself or my staff put in front of them and went for it,” McKenna said. “I’m really proud of the way they accepted the challenges, made the adjustments that needed to be made and stayed in the moment every day. You can talk about that all day long.”