College hockey tends to be a small world, but it’s rarely more apparent than it will be this weekend at the NCAA Midwest Regional in Green Bay, Wis.
Rensselaer head coach Seth Appert will have a familiar opponent, no matter what, should his Engineers upset WCHA champion North Dakota. If RPI was successful against the Fighting Sioux, Appert would find himself matching wits with either Western Michigan head coach Jeff Blashill – his closest friend and former teammate at Ferris State – or Denver head coach George Gwozdecky, whom he assisted under for seven seasons before taking the reins at RPI.
“It’s interesting for us to get out to a regional and then to have those programs and those people that you have great connections and really close friendships with,” Appert said. “Jeff Blashill is my closest friend, and we were in each other’s weddings. We’re thrilled with the job he’s doing at Western Michigan. I’m so happy for him. My ties at Denver start with Coach Gwozdecky, and the fact that he’s my mentor in this profession, but they go much deeper into the alumni, the kids that we recruited and coached there, to [assistant coaches] Steve Miller and David Tenzer, and Derek Lalonde, Erich Bacher, the media relations director. They’re all still extremely close friends of mine to this day.”
For his part, Gwozdecky is no stranger to Blashill in his own right, having gotten to know the first-year head coach of the Broncos both through Appert and through Miami head coach Enrico Blasi. Blasi, who played for Gwozdecky at Miami and later assisted him at Denver, brought Blashill to Miami as an assistant in 2002, working with him for six seasons before he left to coach the USHL’s Indiana Ice.
“They’re extremely close,” Gwozdecky said of Appert and Blashill. “Because of that friendship that they have, myself and our staff here at DU has gotten to know Jeff pretty well, and obviously, with Jeff being on Rico’s staff and my relationship with Rico, it was just natural that we’ve gotten to know that whole group pretty well.”
For Blashill, the presence of good friends enhances the excitement of bringing Western Michigan to the tournament for the first time since 1996, but having ended that 15-year drought, he’s eager simply to get started.
“It’ll be good to see each other before we compete,” Blashill said. “Ultimately, the players will decide who wins and who loses.”
Indeed, while there will likely be a few moments for pleasantries before the regional kicks off on Saturday afternoon, once the puck drops, it will be all business. Appert has a particularly stern challenge in front of him, as North Dakota enters this weekend’s regional ranked No. 1 in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls, with the No. 2 scoring offense and No. 5 scoring defense in the country. Senior forward Matt Frattin leads the nation in goals with 35, and is a leading candidate for the Hobey Baker Award, while redshirt senior defenseman Chay Genoway has averaged nearly a point per game from the blueline while anchoring a defensive corps that has been the stingiest in the WCHA. RPI has its own Hobey Baker finalist in senior forward Chase Polacek (21g, 27a in 37 games), but there’s little doubt that the Engineers will have their work cut out for them on Saturday.
Having coached against North Dakota three times during the season, there’s probably a lot that Gwozdecky could tell his former assistant about the Sioux, but Appert hasn’t asked.
“I don’t think it would be fair for me to do that,” Appert said. “At the end of the day, I feel confident that he wants us to do well, but at the same time, that’s their league. If they were playing somebody in the ECAC, I think he’d have enough respect to not call me, because I wouldn’t want to share information on a league opponent. You want to be strong for your league. You don’t want to help other teams beat members of your league. I wouldn’t call him and put him in that position.”
Rather, the fifth-year coach of the Engineers has focused on getting his own team ready to play for the first time in nearly three weeks, a long layoff that began with a loss to Colgate in a first-round ECAC Hockey playoff series, and involved a series of practices that could have easily ended in the tournament bubble bursting.
|N. Dakota||Dave Hakstol||30-8-3|
|W. Mich.||Jeff Blashill||19-12-10|
“The first week was miserable,” Appert said. “We were angry. We were bitter. We didn’t practice. We gave them the whole week off. They skated on their own a little bit towards the later half of that week, but I didn’t spend any time with them that week. I told them to clear out of town that weekend, because we were on spring break as a school, and then we reconvened late Tuesday afternoon, and at that point, we knew that our prospects of getting in were pretty strong, and the odds were certainly in our favor. We had a very good week of practice. The guys were intense, they were energized, and we tried a few things to simulate game situations. Then, this week has been good, because of the excitement of getting the opportunity.”
Gwozdecky, meanwhile, will be focused on his team’s game with the Broncos, and bouncing back from an overtime loss to North Dakota in the WCHA title game on Saturday. And, while it might be tempting to look ahead to a potential rematch with the Sioux, Gwozdecky said his team has been focused on the task at hand.
“They knew that they gave themselves a chance to win that game on Saturday,” Gwozdecky said. “Once they found out on Sunday, it’s really been a focus about Western Michigan: what they do well, what they give their opponents, things like that. There really hasn’t been any talk about North Dakota.”
The Broncos also lost a championship game on Saturday night, falling to Miami in a hard-fought CCHA title contest at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, but have bounced back hard and are ready to make the most of the opportunity they have in front of them.
“I think our guys, through the course of the season, dating back to last summer, they worked very, very hard to put themselves in a position to be more successful,” Blashill said. “As we’ve moved through the season, we’ve had opportunities to have success, and through that, we’ve gained confidence. Our guys are enjoying the experience for sure. They were disappointed on Saturday, but they were quick to put that behind them and look to the new challenge of the NCAA tournament.”
For two teams, this weekend’s region will bring a brand new challenge, while two others are looking to return to the Frozen Four after absences of three years (North Dakota) and six years (Denver). Who will get it? It’s almost time to find out.