First place … for now

While we wait until mid-next week for Adam Bodnar of WMU media relations to dig through reams of archives to find out how long it’s been since the Broncos were atop the CCHA this late in the season …

ALONG THE RAIL …

  • To hold the league’s top spot is certainly worthy of pause and reflection, given where this program has been the last decade.  Still, Andy Murray kept things in perspective when he spoke to the Kalamazoo Gazette: “To me, first, second, third (place), as long as we’re up there at the end of the year, that’s the only thing that’s important.”  Because, chances are, Lake Superior State will not shut out Ohio State again tonight.
  • Friday’s 4-1 victory was like watching a kid struggle to unwrap a present: the end result was inevitable; the process bulky, messy and, frankly, a little boring.
  • First period: knock off bow, tear away a few corners, shake box, stretch ribbon.  Props to Bowling Green goaltender Andrew Hammond, who made 17 saves to keep the game scoreless and add a little suspense.  The Broncos machine gunned the BG zone, but couldn’t crack Hammond despite a pair of power plays early.  And poor Derek Roehl.  The WMU forward had two point-blank chances that, upon video review, bounced off the clear sheet of plexi-glass that Hammond apparently screwed onto the front of the net.
  • Second period: strip away brown and orange wrapping paper, struggle with taped box top, finally bust it lose.  Welcome back, Dane Walters.  The junior forward, in his return from a separated shoulder, had two goals in less than six minutes to help make it 3-0.  Here’s a question: How does a guy who’s a little more than two weeks removed from a separated shoulder score on a wicked wrister from the top of the circle?  #bigupsbrianbauer.  Senior Greg Squires also scored for the first time since October.
  • Third period: pick away last bits of tape and paper, thrash tissue paper, glory.  Shane Berschbach’s seventh of the year into an empty net capped the scoring.
  • The Broncos were apparently in a hurry right after the game to pack up and head down to Ohio for tonight’s rematch.  Apparent quote from Murray: “We want to beat Bowling Green … then beat them back to Bowling Green.”
  • No NHL hockey operations people of note attended Friday’s game.  In fact, it was hard to spot a single scout on the concourse.  Figures, given the opponent was Bowling Green and most scouts and GMs have seen WMU multiple times this season.  Plus, we’re close to the NHL’s Feb. 26th trade deadline, so priorities may lie elsewhere — including Ottawa, where the league hosts this weekend’s All-Star Game.

 

Perspective helps after weekend sweep at Miami

Undersized, undisciplined Midwestern team.  Starved for structure and wins.

Think Hoosiers.

That was WMU hockey two years ago, minus the shorty-shorts and Chuck Taylors.

Jeff Blashill blows into town and does his best Norman Dale impression.  Works off the flab.  Knocks some heads.  Cleans out some closets.  Lifts team to new heights.  Gets players to believe in themselves and each other.

Tees it up for Andy Murray.

… and Murray, by all accounts, has been great.  Particularly in the communication department.

According to a source, Murray holds an individual meeting with each player every six games.  First, he simply asks them how they’re doing.  As people.  Sleeping well?  How’s your girlfriend?  Any trouble with nutrition?  Happy?  Sad?

Then the conversation switches to school.  Word is this team kills it in the classroom — one of the freshmen has a 4.0 and Chase Balisy and Dane Walters are within shouting distance of it, while many others are above 3.0.  Finally, the conversation switches to hockey.

Dan DeKeyser The Person.

Dan DeKeyser The Student.

Dan DeKeyser The Defenseman.

Priorities.

How Murray blends classroom results with on-ice results to determine playing time is unknown, but apparently every player is told during these meetings where he stands and why he’s playing or not playing.

This level — and frequency — of communication did not exist when Jim Culhane was at the helm in Hickory.

ALONG THE RAIL …

  • Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson watched Friday’s game in Oxford.
  • Lightning assistant GM Julien BriesBois was in attendance Saturday, thus extending Tampa’s streak of having a team representative at every WMU game this season.
  • How does a team that swept Notre Dame a week ago get swept by lower-ranked Miami?  Because, as we’ve seen repeatedly, rankings and standings in the CCHA mean squat this season.  The league is too good and too competitive for a team like Western to ride a game-by-game emotional roller coaster.  Just stay close enough to retain home-ice advantage in the first round of the tournament … and see what happens.
  • Which must be a sort of maddening thing for a group of people in an industry where every minute of every day is scripted and controlled for the sake of preparation.
  • But the standings do matter to basement-dwellers Bowling Green and Alaska — WMU’s opponents the next two weeks.  You could argue that beating those teams is even more critical for the Broncos than their results against Notre Dame and Miami.  Sweep Notre Dame, get swept by Miami.  Meh.  It’s a wash, really.  And you’re still in position to contend.  Get swept by the Falcons or Nanooks?  Doh.
  • Final Hoosiers reference: This weekend’s sweep at Miami was a reminder that, when it comes to the forwards, it’s still Whit, Rade and Strap out there with Ollie burying the occasional charity granny shot.  And that’s not an insult to Shane Berschbach, Chase Balisy, Greg Squires or any of the other Bronco forwards.  The point is, they’re good ol’ workin’ boys who do as they’re told and skate their bags off … but just don’t have that extra gear or size to really take control of games against certain opponents.  Western wins when its defense plays well and contributes to the scoring, and when the power play strikes to compliment the forwards’ hard work.

Editor’s note

Actually playing hockey is the only thing that can keep this blog from writing about it, and that’s what we did this weekend at the MLK Day-inspired “I Had a Dream” tournament in Chicago.

We had a blast with friends and a few former Blackhawks at Johnny’s Ice House downtown, despite the fact our “Red Wings” finished dead-last at 0-3-1 and yours truly earned a five-minute major for high-sticking a guy in the mouth.  (And, I must say, it was great timing and a colorful touch on that guy’s part that he just happened to have one of those fake Hollywood blood capsules in his mouth.  Man, those things really gush!)

Thankfully, it wasn’t a former Blackhawk.  Had it been, this post would be brought to you by Rush Memorial Hospital.

A cool sidebar: Greg Holland, son of Red Wings GM Ken Holland, played goal for the “Bruins” — and beat us Saturday to put his team in today’s bronze medal game.  Uh, Greg, did you not notice the logo on our chests?  Where’s the love?

So, anyway, four games in three days and a late return to Kalamazoo on Saturday means no post about the Notre Dame games this weekend.

Then again, a sweep of the country’s third-ranked team sort of speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

But if you were there, please share your thoughts, opinions and impressions in the comments section.

And don’t forget your mouthguard.

Andy Murray’s new arena idea

Leaders of the proposed $81 million downtown Kalamazoo arena say their high-profile project has not been abandoned, despite the Kalamazoo County Board’s refusal to put the issue on last November’s ballot for taxpayers to, judging by public opinion, annihilate.

Since then, things have been quiet.

But perhaps not on the Western front.

According to a source, Andy Murray likes the idea of a new arena — particularly if it were built on the site that is currently WMU’s Kanley Track.

“A lot of deep pockets have been going in and out of his office lately,” the source said, which means either two things: Kalamazoo’s big economic fish love to talk power play strategy, or they’re watching the hockey coach draw up via whiteboard how, exactly, he would spend their money to put an arena along Stadium Drive in the heart of campus.

Minus any further details at this point, the idea holds some intrigue.

Constructing a 9,000-seat event center for WMU hockey and basketball — and for our good friends, the Kalamazoo Wings — in the corridor where the rest of WMU’s major athletic complexes are located seems like a natural fit.  Parking would be a bitch unless they tore down University Arena or built a ramp in the parking lot next to the women’s softball field, but no parking is also the (weak) argument of many who oppose the downtown arena.  So forget the parking issue.  They’d figure that out.

A campus arena would allow students to easily walk to games — a big plus for a hockey program that relies so heavily on its students for attendance and marketability (although, the argument that students would be less likely to venture downtown to Water St. and Westnedge Ave. for hockey and basketball games doesn’t carry much weight considering the relative locations of  Monaco Bay and Wild Bull.  But, anyway.)

A big reason why the arena project’s leaders might like Murray’s idea is because building an arena on WMU property — particularly if it were with private money — would probably make the project a public non-issue.  No votes.  No sell job.  No bad press, at least not like the kind associated with a pure tax ballot issue.  On the flip side, however, not building the arena downtown also removes from scope the crown jewel of the Arcadia Commons West expansion project, which is planned to include residential and commercial development and possibly even a culinary school (which, for the record, would be really cool).  So what would happen to that project?

Of course, none of this answers the big question: Who pays for the arena?

Kalamazoo’s economic superclass could have written a check three years ago and transplanted Lawson Lunatics would already be chanting “UG-LY PAR-ENTS” in a sleek new downtown barn.  Smartly, the superclass tried to see if taxpayers would foot the bill, first.  They won’t.  At least not right now.  Of course, the superclass could always just go ahead and build the downtown arena with private money now, but if you think the public fallout the first time around was bad …

Then again, what do they care?  If they want to build it, they’ll build it.

And, apparently, Murray thinks he has just the spot.

More to come on this topic if and when it emerges.

Loss to Duluth partly stars, mostly stripes

To complain about the referee is the diehard’s reality, the player’s duty and the coach’s in-game therapy.

It’s also cliche, which is why coaches or players don’t often rant about that night’s officials during post-game interviews.  Well, mostly because they’ll get fined.  But also because they realize there were 300 other things that impacted the outcome.

But, damn it, sometimes the referees do matter.  And to deny their influence on a game is unfair to the events as they actually happened.  Yes, the Broncos lost to top-ranked Minnesota-Duluth, 4-1, on Friday mostly because they struggled with the Bulldogs’ speed and three-man forecheck, but the mark that referees Stephen McInchak and Barry Pochmara and linesmen Bruce Vida and Charles Elder left on the game was painfully evident.

If you were there, you saw it.  Missed calls.  Blown calls.  The choosing of just one player to serve a penalty after a goalmouth battle during which arms and legs and sticks flew everywhere.  How do you pick just one?  You know it’s bad when a pseudo hockey fan says to you, “Boy, it seems like they’re getting in the way of the puck a lot.”  If players can have poor performances and be criticized for it, so, too, can referees.

And Friday was a bad night, which Western coach Andy Murray told the Kalamazoo Gazette:

“I don’t disagree with the penalties, but Ian Slater goes to clear a puck on our penalty kill in the third period and they (UMD) hook him so he can’t clear it out and the puck goes to the other side and Luke (Witkowski) takes a penalty and they get a five-on-three and score. We have to have those calls.”

That 5-on-3 power play goal, a low-angle snipe by Travis Oleksuk with just under 12 minutes left, was the game-winner and mood-killer on an otherwise electric, packed-house night that deserved to evolve to its finish untouched by whistles, arms and — in the case of Vida and Elder — legs, asses and ankles.

So what about the actual game?

Hey, Duluth is really good.  No doubt.  The Bulldogs are more undersized than you might imagine the number-one team in the country would be, but they are ferocious along the boards and in the defensive zone.  They skate, they hit and they wore Western down until a few power plays afforded them an opportunity to take control late in the game.  In a way, they play like the Broncos.  They just played the Broncos’ game better.

ALONG THE RAIL …

  • So, that contest to win an all-expenses-paid trip to the Frozen Four?  Turns out it was a patsy.  The original “major announcement” WMU planned to make was that the National Collegiate Hockey Conference had struck a national TV deal with CBS Sports Network.  And Friday’s stage was set: center ice carpet, lights, cameras … hold on a second.  According to sources, the announcement hit a snag late in the week because the University of North Dakota hadn’t yet informed its current TV partner that it would jump ship to CBS when the NCHC begins play in 2013-14.  Kudos to WMU’s marketing department for pulling out the credit card to create a last-minute diversion, but how is every aspect of that deal not in the bag before you say anything?
  • And why does it seem like everything is a “major announcement” at WMU lately?  A television contract, although nice and certainly a sign that the hockey program has progressed, is not a major announcement (particularly when your games are going to be on channel 223).  A $100 million anonymous gift to a start a medical school?  Now that’s a major announcement.
  • Next time you’re at a game, listen to Danny DeKeyser and Luke Witkowski as they move the puck together on defense.  They have their own language.  It’ll probably sound like muffled yells, but if you pay close enough attention you can hear one player shout instructions to the other when he has the puck and the opponent is pressuring.  It’s like they’re each other’s side and rear-view mirrors.  For example, DeKeyser had the puck in the left corner facing the boards as two UMD defenders bore down.  Witkowski barked “HIGH! HIGH!” so DeKeyser new the safe play was to bank the puck high off the glass and out of the zone.
  • Edmonton Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini watched Friday’s game with a member of his staff.  The Oilers played in St. Louis on Thursday night and have a 2 pm EST start in Dallas today, which Tambellini said he would attend.  Such is life of the road for an NHL general manager — Kalamazoo really can be on the way from St. Louis to Dallas if you need it to be.
  • Tampa Bay Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman will scout Saturday’s game from the Lawson Arena press box.  It’ll be Yzerman’s third time watching the Broncos this season, and apparently Tampa has sent at least one of its staff members to every WMU game this season.  Yzerman will be the sixth NHL general manager to watch a game in Kalamazoo this year.
  • The Lightning want DeKeyser bad, even though the Red Wings apparently have the inside track.  But a source said Friday night that Detroit wants DeKeyser to stay for another season at WMU — potentially a huge point of negotiation and a major source of temptation for the 21 year-old defenseman when no less than 29 other NHL teams will likely offer him a contract after this season.  If he wants to be a Red Wing, he’ll have to do it the Detroit way — and that means stay.
  • Former Michigan State coach Rick Comley now scouts for the Chicago Blackhawks and was in attendance Friday.  He sat near former Detroit Red Wings coach Barry Smith, he of the bright white hair and square jaw.  Pat Verbeek, the former Red Wing who now scouts for the Dallas Stars, also watched Friday’s game from the concourse.  In all, 11 NHL clubs were represented Friday night.
  • Here’s a blast from Kalamazoo’s hockey past: former K-Wings Jason Herter and Derek Plante are Minnesota-Duluth’s assistant coaches.  Herter played in Kalamazoo from 1993-95, when the Wings were International Hockey League affiliates of the Dallas Stars and Ken Hitchcock was head coach.  Plante played 13 games with the K-Wings in 1999-2000 and finished his career with 450 NHL games played.  Herter played one.