The fire lighting NMU’s hockey program

BACK+TO+THE+DRAWING+BOARD%E2%80%94The+Wildcats+lost+five+out+of+six+games+against+Michigan+Tech+this+season%2C+including+an+8-4+loss+in+Marquette+on+Friday%2C+Feb.+28.+NMU+Head+Coach+Grant+Potulny+said+he+feels+like+he+owes+it+to+the+community+to+not+let+them+down.+Travis+Nelson%2FNW

BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD—The Wildcats lost five out of six games against Michigan Tech this season, including an 8-4 loss in Marquette on Friday, Feb. 28. NMU Head Coach Grant Potulny said he feels like he owes it to the community to not let them down. Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson

NMU Hockey Head Coach Grant Potulny sat at the podium on Tuesday morning inside of the Izzo-Mariucci Video Room with a stone cold look on his face. Three days had passed since his Wildcats team was swept in its first round WCHA Tournament series with Michigan Tech University (MTU) on Saturday, March 7, but his disappointment enclosed the room.

“Three days later, I’ve never been more determined or focused on anything as I am right now. I am evaluating everything- everybody, and every situation how I handled it,” Potulny said. “I’m going to get inside and out of this program because it doesn’t sit well with me right now.”

The ‘Cats earned the third seed and home ice in the first round of its conference tournament by beating MTU in the last game of the regular season, but the Huskies came into the Berry Events Center and won both match-ups. MTU won on Friday, March 6 in game one by a score of 4-1, and took the second game on Saturday 4-3 in a triple overtime thriller. The Wildcats dropped five of six games against Tech this season, MTU simply had NMU’s number. 

Northern’s 2019-20 campaign was a rollercoaster, with the highs of knocking off Minnesota State-Mankato at home, and the lows of falling to Alabama-Huntsville on the road. Looking back at the Wildcats’ 18-16-4 year, Potulny wasn’t concerned about the inconsistency as much as he was about the frustrating penalites and end of the season. 

 “If you look at the season, going into the year, you have to replace four senior defensemen, your first line, the goalie of the year and the player of the year. You have all kinds of unknowns,” Potulny said. “I thought we’d be able to get a home ice spot (in the WCHA Tournament), and then the way we finished is what bothers me the most. The finish of the year is what I remember, and that’s what sits with me right now.”

Things were out of Potulny’s control as the season came to its close, he had no extra players to put in the rotation due to injury. Potulny said ice time is the only currency that he has as a coach, and that he had to play with who he had. That shouldn’t be a worry next year for the Wildcats, as the team returns the majority of its production after losing seniors defenseman Phil Beaulieu, and forwards Darien Craighead and Luke Voltin.

“There’s no certainties in sports at all. All you can go by is the history of what your players have done. This year, we returned 54 goals, it’s tough,” Potulny said. “Going into next year, we return 90, and that number is probably over 100 if AJ (Vanderbeck) plays. You’re looking at 100 goals coming back, lots of teams score 100 goals on the year. You’re only losing three players, now they’re valuable players no doubt, but that’s a big difference from losing 10. So there’s a lot of good things going on.”

Despite the potential of next year’s team, Potulny didn’t get any more chipper about the way that NMU’s season shook out at his press conference. He said he feels like he let the community down, and that he’s going to do whatever it takes.

“I’m as focused as I’ve ever been on getting this thing right because the community support in this town, the president, to the Board of Trustees, to the athletic director, to everybody in this community. What they do to support our program, I’m devastated that we’re done for them because they’ve given us all of their effort and all of their energy and they both begin with us,” Potulny said. “So we are not going to let them down again, I will not let them down again. We will not take a break, we will not take our foot off the gas.”

That focus is what Potulny will carry with him through this offseason to get the Wildcats back to where the team needs to be in his mind. There is work to do, Potulny said.

“We are not taking time off, in my opinion the hockey season is not over. We might be done playing, but it’s not over. There’s areas that I have to make us tougher in,” Potulny said. “I understand we probably overachieved for what the reality of 15 freshman and sophomores is. To me, that doesn’t matter, this is an area where you’re expected to win, and we didn’t do that enough. That falls directly on my shoulders and I’m going to flip over every rock to fix that.”