MINNEAPOLIS — St. Cloud State got its first taste of the Frozen Four last season.
That’s not enough for the Huskies.
“Great teams are expected to make the Frozen Four every year, and it’s whether or not you come out with the national championship that matters,” senior forward Nic Dowd said Thursday at the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s media day. “Once you get to the Frozen Four and you’re successful at a high level, it gets in your blood and it’s something you need to fulfill.”
St. Cloud State won the MacNaughton Cup as the WCHA’s regular-season champion last year, then bounced back from an upset loss to Wisconsin in the WCHA semifinals to reach the national semifinals. The Huskies lost 4-1 to Quinnipiac.
They are picked third in the NCHC.
“We only lost four players, but they were some critical pieces,” St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said. “But we do have some good players returning.”
Foremost among the losses was Hobey Baker Award-winning center Drew LeBlanc.
“We return a lot of offense, but how much of that was created by a couple of guys who left our program?” Motzko said. “When you see the two freshmen who had 22 (Jonny Brodzinski) and 15 (Kalle Kossila) goals, and he was their center ... that’s pretty telling. But the fact they did score, and can score, bodes well for us. I like our offense.”
LeBlanc had 37 assists in a 50-point season. And, while Dowd (14 goals, 25 assists, 39 points), Brodzinski and Kossila are back, the Huskies also have to replace forward Ben Hanowski (17-14-31). And, Motzko said, the biggest impact loss might be the departure of defenseman Nick Jensen.
“You go into every season hitting the restart button a little bit,” Motzko said. “All of us have something we’re building off. For us it’s the success we’ve had. Every team has its own heartbeat, its own pulse.”
Big changes for Denver coach
Think every team in the NCHC is entering a strange new world?
Consider Denver coach Jim Montgomery. He’d spent the past three years as head coach and general manager for Dubuque of the USHL. His college coaching experience includes four years as an assistant at RPI and one year as a volunteer assistant at Notre Dame.
“I feel like a freshman player,” Montgomery said. “Everything is new to me. I know the conference is new to everybody, but campus life is new to me, living in Denver is new to me. But it’s a great opportunity, the institution is elite, and it provides the opportunity to provide student-athletes with a great career.”
Montgomery is a former Hobey Baker Award finalist — it went that season to his Maine linemate, Paul Kariya. Montgomery also played in six NHL seasons.
Denver hired him after surprising many in the college hockey community when George Gwozdecky wasn’t retained after a 19-year stint that included two national titles. Denver had reached the NCAA tournament the past six years.
“There’s a lot of excitement, but at the same time there’s a lot of trepidation from the fans and boosters and people at the university,” Montgomery said. “Because with change, there are always question marks. But the reason I wanted this challenge was because of the great tradition of winning and producing great student-athletes.
“I’m looking to add to, and carry on, that great tradition.”
Broncos want redemption
UNO isn’t the only team to have suffered a late-season fade that cost it a potential NCAA tournament bid last season.
Western Michigan was flying high after knocking off Miami in the first game of a key CCHA series on Feb. 8. But the Broncos went 1-5-3 the rest of way, getting swept by Michigan in the first round of the league playoffs.
Despite finishing 19-11-8 overall and placing third in the league, Western Michigan’s season was over.
“We wish those nine games could have been different,” said Bronco forward Chase Balisy, the team’s leading returning scorer after posting 11 goals and 14 points last year. “It’s motivating. Everyone on the team knows what happened. Everyone knows we have to improve moving forward.
“I don’t think you can look back, but you have to learn from the mistakes you made last year and continue to get better.”
Former CCHA teams adjusting
The six WCHA teams that form 75 percent of the new NCHC are all-too-familiar with one another.
But the two CCHA teams entering the league — Miami and Western Michigan — aren’t complaining about having to start from scratch and build new game plans.
“There’s a little bit of anxiety, but we’ve played most of the teams in this room in tough situations (in recent seasons),” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “We’ve always been a program that’s focused on what we do best, and then we’ll adjust and do what we need to do to win a game.”
Not counting Western Michigan, Miami played only one of its new conference foes last season, losing 4-1 to St. Cloud State in the national quarterfinals. Western Michigan didn’t play any of the WCHA teams now in the NCHC.
“Your first three years, you kind of get used to playing teams, you know their defensive structures,” Western Michigan’s Balisy said. “Now the coaches have to game plan and get it to us to give us the best chance for success. It’s going to be a little different getting used to it. But it’ll be fun. Playing against new teams is always a fun challenge.”
The old WCHA teams aren’t claiming any advantage either.
“With today’s technology, we all know quite a bit about the programs we’re going to be playing against,” North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said.
A ‘miserable’ matchup
Preferred style of play questions are standard operating procedure at media day events.
Western Michigan coach Andy Murray has a firm grip on what he likes to see from his team.
“We’re a competitive, hard-working team that tries to be miserable to play against,” Murray said. “We’ll show up for the games.”
Conference awards revealed
In his first state of the conference address, NCHC Commissioner Josh Fenton revealed two of the league’s end-of-season awards.
The league’s coach of the year will receive the Herb Brooks Coach of the Year Award, after the legendary coach who, among other things, coached at St. Cloud State and led the United States to its unlikely 1980 Olympic gold medal.
The league’s regular-season champion will play for the Spencer and Julie Penrose Memorial Cup. The national coach of the year award is already named for Spencer Penrose.