It was an improbable run when the Wildcat hockey team made it to the Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA Championships.
Then again, improbable might be an understatement.
The Wildcats defeated Ohio State in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, then went on to play a heavily-favored – and defending national champion – Michigan State Spartans team.
Hopefully the dramatic run by this year’s team will quiet the critics of head coach Walt Kyle – including those frequenting the USCHO message board with user names such as “boot_walt_kyle” and “fire_walt_kyle.”
During Kyle’s press conferences at the Joe, there were a couple things he said that made clear just how important he is to the NMU hockey program:
“It’s not the 20 best guys, but it’s the best 20 guys together. These guys found that. They found a way to grow.”
The brand of hockey that Kyle preaches is a team-first mentality. It’s the same type of hockey that Kyle’s collegiate coach – and current Michigan State coach – Rick Comley taught him while Kyle was wearing the green and gold.
So how has Comley fared with the team-first philosophy? He’s done well for himself – to the tune of two national championships (in 1991 with NMU and 2007 with the Spartans). Kyle hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament yet, but he has had success; only once in Kyle’s six years at NMU has the team not made it to the Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA Championships.
The reference point for success at NMU is the 1991 championship team. That NMU team wasn’t full of NHL superstars; only one went on to become a household name – Dallas Drake. The 1991 team won the national championship with grit, determination and a feeling that you can’t let down your teammate.
This year’s Wildcat team had a lot of in common with that national championship team.
This year’s Wildcat team didn’t have a load of NHL players. In fact, only four players on this year’s team had been drafted: Andrew Sarauer, Matt Siddall, TJ Miller and Matt Butcher. And even though those players will probably be headed to professional hockey once their collegiate careers are over, not once did you see them on the ice playing for themselves and not the team.
Siddall, who Kyle said during the press conference was “one of the classier guys to coach,” may leave Northern known as a brawler because of his two fights against Michigan Tech. But, what should be pointed out is that Siddall was coming to the aid of his goaltender this year when he dropped the gloves.
As far as the determination of this team goes, you only have to look at the playoffs, where NMU lost the first game of a three-game series twice (against MSU and Ohio State), only to come back and win the series.
“You talk about a group of guys turning the page. I’ve talked about the national championship team that we had in ’91. Prior to that, we’d struggled against good teams.We didn’t win the national title, but it catapulted us into winning a national title the next year.”
The 2009 Wildcats certainly won’t be looked at as favorites to win the national championship, nor am I implying that NMU will take home the hardware.
Now with Kyle having built this entire team, it’s easy to see that the NMU hockey program is buying into the coach’s philosophy, and responding with success.
The 2008 season will be a season that’s remembered for putting Northern Michigan hockey back in the limelight – and a season that took the NMU hockey program a step in the right direction.