The Northern Michigan University Men’s Ice Hockey team closed out their historic season at home with a loss to rival Michigan Tech University in the WCHA Championship Game. This was the first time in eight years that the Wildcats made it to a conference championship game, and their first since rejoining the WCHA conference.
The Wildcats were forecasted to place seventh in the WCHA at the start of the year. They exceeded projections, hitting 25 wins for the first time since the 2001-02 campaign. The squad finished 19th in the country and second in the WCHA regular season standings. Northern had an overall record of 25-15-3 and a record of 19-7-2-2 in conference play.
The Wildcats started the 2017- 18 season with a new head coach. Grant Potulny came to Northern Michigan University after eight seasons as an assistant coach at the University of Minnesota.
After a week of speculation regarding the head coaching vacancy at the University of Minnesota, Wildcat fans can breathe a sigh of relief. Rumors of the departure of Potulny leaving for his alma-mater can be put to rest. The University of Minnesota hired Bob Motzko from St. Cloud State University, and Potunly will remain with Northern Michigan University.
In his first season at NMU, Potulny led the Wildcats to 20 wins for the first time since the 2009-10 season. Potulny’s success earned him WCHA Coach of the Year honors. It is the fifth time in Wildcat hockey history that the head coach has earned league Coach of the Year honors. Rick Comley did so four times, twice in the WCHA and twice in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA).
Potulny wasted no time when he got to NMU, quickly changing the team’s culture and mindset. The success was not created from players alone.
“First and foremost it was the new coaching style and the effort they put in,” junior forward Adam Rockwood said. “They implemented new things that proved to be really successful.”
Potulny changed the culture in the Wildcat locker room, and that lead to a successful season.
“With the passion that he has for the game, and striving to make us the best we can be, we really believed in ourselves,” senior forward Robbie Payne said. “Potulny changed how we viewed playing the game here at NMU. We really focused on making great plays and having lots of creativity in our game. Guys really bought into what Potulny was bringing to us.”
Payne in his senior year led the team in goals with 24, and totaled 34 points.
With offensive freedom, Payne was able to use his creativity to score.
“Last year we focused on defense, and this year with Potulny we focused on offense,” Payne said.
Payne was a Hobey Baker Award nominee. He also earned Third-Team All-Western Collegiate Hockey Association honors. Two of his four WCHA Player of the Week awards came during the 2017-18 season.
During his career as team captain, Payne put up 94 points in 158 games. His 158 games played is tied for 11th most in school history. In his final season, Payne became the 25th NMU player to surpass 50 career goals and he ranks 30th in Wildcat history with 54 goals. Additionally, Payne recorded a pair of hat tricks and 21 multi-point games in his four seasons.
Soon after the campaign, Payne signed with the Texas Stars. The Stars compete in the American Hockey League and are the top affiliate of the National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars. Payne joins the Stars on an amateur tryout agreement for the rest of the 2017-18 season.
Payne was not the only NMU player to have a record-setting season. Junior goalie Atte Tolvanen ended his season with a goals-against average of 2.22, tied for fourth-best in program history. Tolvanen’s 23 win season is tied for fifth-most by an NMU net minder in a single campaign, while his 41 career wins are seventh best in Wildcat history.
Rockwood led the nation in regular season assists with 40 which is 13th-most in NMU history.
“The chemistry this year was better with the teammates, the power play and lines were really clicking,” Rockwood said.
Sophomore defenseman Philip Beaulieu finished the season with 11 goals, 31 assists, totaling 42 points, putting him in the top-t10 for a defenseman in all three categories in NMU history.
Fan attendance was higher than previous years, which contributed to the success of the team. It was great for the team to have the support of the fans, and it gave them energy leading to better play.
“We would hear all the time about how people enjoyed coming to games this season and enjoyed the way we were playing. That helped us get to where we were at the end of the year,” Payne explained.
Potulny was a standout athlete with the Gophers, amassing 116 points, including the overtime winning goal against Maine to win the 2002 NCAA National Championship. Late Wednesday night, Potulny inked an eight- year contract to remain with the Wildcats. The contract is reportedly worth $285,000 per season and runs through the end of the 2026 season.