When a blog gets recruited

It’s not Danny DeKeyser to the Red Wings, but I’m happy to announce I’ve accepted an offer to join the Western College Hockey Blog’s staff of writers.

From now on, the content you would normally read here will be posted there.

WCHB is widely read and respected by people in and around college hockey. It’s professional and polished.

I know, I know. Why would they want me?

Who knows, but a big thanks to WCHB editor Chris Dilks for this opportunity.

I look forward to missing deadlines and starting riots under his site’s banner this fall.

And thanks for reading.

I hope you’ll visit us over at the new spot.

Is Rossetti the design architect of new WMU hockey arena?

Compton Family Ice Arena, Notre Dame.

Rossetti is an architectural design and planning firm based in Southfield, Mich.

It has designed or helped re-design, among others, Van Andel Arena, Ford Field, The Palace of Auburn Hills and the Edmonton Oilers’ new $480 million facility that will break ground in early 2014 (see Rossetti’s full list of projects here).

Might a new hockey arena for Western Michigan University be one of the latest projects in Rossetti’s portfolio?

The firm has some range: in addition to sports venues large and small, it also designed WMU’s engineering campus. So there’s a business connection already. Rossetti also planned the new Compton Family Ice Arena at Notre Dame — widely considered to be a college hockey gem — and mapped out the renovation at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor. So there’s a college hockey connection, too.

The Yost renovation price tag was $16 million. Any new arena at WMU would obviously cost well beyond that and, admittedly, this blog wouldn’t have had to dig too much to figure out the original $16 million rumor was a mistake (so our bad on that).

But digging has confirmed: there are plans for digging on WMU’s campus.

Rossetti or otherwise.

WMU to build new hockey arena on campus

Western Michigan University has plans to build a new hockey arena, multiple sources have confirmed.

Details are still emerging, but it’s estimated the price tag will be well north of the $16 million that was rumored two weeks ago. It’s also believed construction could begin as early as 2014.

The new building will connect to Lawson Arena and be constructed along its southeast side in what is currently a parking lot the school’s marching band uses for practice. Lawson Arena will remain in use for community hockey and skating events.

It’s unclear when WMU plans to officially announce the project – a school official denied the recent report of a new $16 million arena – but it’s believed head coach Andy Murray is already using the arena plans as a selling point to potential players during recruiting visits.

Rumors also suggest the building will be similar in style to Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena, though the project’s architect remains unknown.

We also don’t know:

  • Who is paying for the project
  • If all the funds have been raised
  • The seating capacity
  • What the building will be named
  • If this project replaces plans for a new downtown arena
  • If other WMU teams and the Kalamazoo Wings will play in the arena

But we do know:

This would be another major step forward for a program that has risen to prominence since 2010. It would reinforce – majorly – the school’s commitment to hockey and position WMU among the nation’s elite, particularly in terms of facilities.

Also, the NCAA recently (and smartly) lowered its seating capacity requirement for regional tournament sites. One would imagine the new arena could give WMU a legitimate shot at hosting an NCAA regional.

More as it’s available…

Would London really be best fit for McCarron? Plus, new arena talk (again)

Michael McCarron

With the 25th pick of Sunday’s NHL Entry Draft, the Montreal Canadiens made Michael McCarron the highest pick ever to play at Western Michigan.

That is, if he actually reports to Kalamazoo.

The would-be freshman is apparently deciding this week between WMU and the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.

Which, when you think about it, maybe isn’t that tough a decision after all.

The argument for the OHL is that players play more games (80 instead of 40 in college), which better prepares them for the pros. It’s a valid point. But what players don’t get by going the junior route is extensive practice, video and white board time, and workouts led by full-time strength and conditioning coaches. When you’re 6-5, 227, 18 years-old and not a dead-lock for an NHL roster right away, these things matter. Especially when the coach leading the chalk talk and on-ice drills is Andy Murray.

If he goes to London, he plays a lot… and that’s about it. The Knights are a successful franchise — he’d learn how to win, which is valuable — but what would he accomplish in London that he didn’t with the U.S. National Development team?  Usually, 18 year-old first-round picks have used the OHL to get drafted. McCarron used the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor. Now, it’s about skill and strength development.

It also wouldn’t be in McCarron’s best interest (other than financially) to sign with the Habs and report to their AHL club in Hamilton (experts don’t expect he’ll actually make the Canadiens this season). He’d collect a signing bonus, make $80,000 a season and play 80-plus games… but wouldn’t receive the type or amount of individual development that he would at Western. And word on the street is he could use a little of it, particularly in the weight room.

Sure, McCarron might play in Kalamazoo for only a year or two.

If he’s unsure about that, perhaps he can ask Danny DeKeyser how it worked for him.

ALONG THE RAIL …

  • Ineligible: Defenseman Garrett Haar will miss at least the first half of the 2013-14 season because he’s academically ineligible. This is a big blow for a team that lived and died by its defense last season, and that was counting on Haar to pick up whatever slack he could after the departures of Danny DeKeyser and Luke Witkowski.
  • From the We’ll Believe It When We See Shovels In The Ground Department: A source, citing a “heavy hitter” in the community, said there could be an announcement coming from WMU in the next month about a new $16 million arena that will — get this — connect to Lawson Arena. This rumor is on the heels of last season’s report that Andy Murray engineered an idea to build a new arena where the school’s track currently sits, not to mention the never-ending downtown arena drama. But let’s imagine this $16 million idea is true for a minute… where do they build it? Behind the existing arena? In the band’s practice parking lot to the southeast? Add a second story, ala Madison Square Garden? Pull off an imminent domain permit to build it partially on Stadium Drive?
  • Confirmed: Lawson will feature a new scoreboard and video boards this season. Here’s hoping the scoreboard is nothing like the semi-trailer hanging at Wings Stadium.

DeKeyser to Detroit: Soooo… what took so long?

Hockey super agent Don Meehan

Newport Sports is the top hockey player agency in the world, and its office in Mississauga, Ontario, has been the scene of many FBI-like free agent standoffs in recent years.

Brad Richards ran negotiations out of Newport’s office two summers ago.

Last summer, reporters crowded the sidewalk as GMs and other executives filed in to woo Zach Parise.

This week, it was Danny DeKeyser’s turn to bunker down and let his agents work over some of the most esteemed men in hockey and, in the process, commence a week of foreplay that climaxed Friday with the announcement that DeKeyser – as everyone expected – has signed a two-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings.

Which begs many questions:

- Why let the Maple Leafs wine and dine him at the Air Canada Centre earlier this week?
– Why force Nashville head coach Barry Trotz to skip practice with 15 games left and his team struggling for a playoff berth to fly north with Predators brass?
– Why take the calls from Edmonton’s owner, head coach and brightest young defenseman?
– Why allow Flyers owner Ed Snider and his closest hockey advisors to charter a jet to Ontario for a face-to-face meeting?
– Why do any of that if, all along, DeKeyser knew he wanted to be a Red Wing?

Trades and free agent deals are like live coverage of murders the way they play out in the media these days. There’s the initial call or hint something is up. There’s the confirmation that something has happened or is in the works. Then the people who are actually involved shut up while the media stands outside and swirls rumors and analysis while it waits for the blinds to raise and the player to walk out the front door, new contract in pocket.

It’s kind of comical, really.

Still, what took DeKeyser so long?

Like these crime sprees, we likely won’t find out the blow-by-blow recap for a while, if ever. Agents and GMs and players will only talk so much, even after a deal is consummated. After all, they’re always working with the next deal in mind.

Which, to me, probably explains why this took so long.

Don Meehan and Ed Ward and the entire Newport team works for Danny DeKeyser. But they also work for Zach Parise. And dozens of other hockey players at varying stages of their careers and in various contract situations.

There wasn’t much they could negotiate for DeKeyser – the money was the same wherever he signed. And while they could likely negotiate for other things (spot on the roster, depth in the organization, playing time, perhaps even other intangibles), it’s likely DeKeyser’s agents used their fresh faced client for the air time it got them with Ken Holland and Kevin Lowe and Doug Armstrong and a slew of other big fish execs.

“Hey, Doug, while I have you … about that other deal…”

This is not to imply that Meehan or Ward or any other Newport reps acted without integrity. That’s how this business works. And, sure, it’s possible an entirely different reason held this up.

Maybe DeKeyser really wasn’t sure about Detroit. Maybe the nice guy in him wanted to give each of these teams a fair shot. Maybe the fear in him warned to slow down and be cautious with every offer, regardless of how airtight it seemed.

Maybe.

But you can bet this entire thing was orchestrated and played out exactly as the men who represent DeKeyser wanted it. Like a real estate deal or any other negotiation, silence, due diligence and a little gamesmanship – for sport – trump time.

Even if it drives the Twittersphere nuts.

In motion

The sleek, sterile chairs of a corporate Toronto office.

Men in tailored suits flanking a boy in his, the collar loose.

Across the table, Sharks and Predators.

Wings and Hawks.

With promises of brightest tomorrow, they stalk.

KO’d: Broncos go bust in CCHA quarterfinals

Welcome to this blog’s first ever video post.

So many story lines came to mind following the Wolverines’ weekend waylay that a regular post would’ve taken forever to write (and read).

Thus… this.

(Yes, I’m wearing sweat shorts with the dress shirt. It’s Sunday.)

Extreme Makeover: Hockey edition

Dane Walters (courtesy USCHO.com)

Brett Beebe, Nick Pisellini, Mike Leone, Dane Walters, Ben Miller, Luke Witkowski, Trevor Elias and Ben Warda were skating their darkened, departed senior laps Saturday night when a friend turned to me.

“These guys didn’t sign up for this.”

What he meant was, did these seniors ever, in their wildest dreams, imagine two coaching changes in three years and an almost instant rise to success that now has them playing for a top-ten program led by a veteran NHL coach whose goals – legitimate goals – are to win the CCHA and challenge for an NCAA title?

The Broncos are all about forward momentum these days. But considering this weekend’s double-header against Notre Dame were the final regular-season CCHA games ever in Kalamazoo after nearly 40 years, it seems appropriate to take one more long, good look in the rear view mirror to four years ago.

Back to the era of single-digit win totals.

Back when crisp, tape-to-tape passes through the neutral zone to players in motion were the exception instead of the norm.

Back when an occasional NHL general manager might pop in to see a player, but usually from the visiting team.

Back when victories against Michigan or Notre Dame or Miami were unexpected causes for jubilation, not battles between equals.

Back when some of North America’s most coveted junior prospects wouldn’t even take WMU’s calls.

Back to when Lawson Arena’s dominant in-house color was yellow because the bleachers were empty.

Back when the aforementioned seniors were freshmen (with the exception of Leone) and did not win 28 of the 36 games they played in 2009-10.

Finally, miraculously, Western woke up prior to their sophomore seasons.

Jeff Blashill replaced Jim Culhane as head coach.

Suddenly, the Broncos weren’t just winning games – they were in the NCAA tournament.

Then the Red Wings plucked Blashill out of Kalamazoo. Smiles turned to spooks.

What now?

Andy Murray, that’s what.

Extreme Makeover: Hockey edition.

Boom.

Now?

Ticket scalpers.

Fans standing two rows deep on the concourse, craning their necks over the people in front of them to watch games.

A school that finally put its money and time and voice where it deserved to be all along.

And a senior class — the last class recruited by Culhane — reaping the rewards.

It must be a bit melancholy for Beebe, Pisellini, Miller, Walters, Leone, Witkowski, Elias and Warda to know they’ll soon leave all this.

Then again, it’s better to have won and lost then to never have won at all.

ALONG THE RAIL …

  • In fairness to Culhane and his assistants, Marc Fakler and Scott Robson, they did recruit two of this team’s lynchpins (Witkowski and Elias). And Beebe is just a stand-up guy.
  • Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock attended Friday’s game with his wife and son, Michael, who was on an official WMU recruiting visit. He’s currently a senior at Detroit Catholic Central High School, which turned out NHLers David Moss and Don McSween and former WMU forward Brett John (in addition to Major League Baseball’s Chris Sabo and the author and journalist Bryan Gruley).
  • Most creative play Saturday night: Bronco freshman Josh Pitt, while tangled in a puck scrum along the boards, flipped the blade of his stick onto its toe and, with just one hand on the shaft and his arm extended, stabbed the top of the puck and slid it out of the chaos to an open teammate in the middle of the zone.
  • You can see Pitt’s confidence grow with each game. He goes into the tougher areas of the ice more often and handles the puck with authority. Have to believe there is NHL interest, particularly because of his size and speed. If he develops a scoring touch, look out.
  • Weird as it sounds, the shootout split with Notre Dame this weekend really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The Broncos can still win the CCHA’s regular season with a sweep at Michigan State next weekend and a pair of Miami losses (unlikely), but the bigger picture of the CCHA and NCAA tournaments — the picture that matters — already has WMU in it.
  • In 2003, a guy named Jason Cohen wrote a book called Zamboni Rodeo. If you were at either game this weekend, that title has an entirely different meaning. Prior to the shootouts both nights, Lawson’s usually-precise Zamboni drivers were forced to double-back to fix dry scrape mistakes. Saturday’s scene, where the Zamboni actually went into its garage before being called back onto the ice for another two laps, was one of the most bizarre ever.
  • Speaking of bizarre, the sequence in the second period Saturday when Elias was hauled down on his way to the net during a shorthanded rush was quite the odd turn of events. What could have been a penalty shot and most certainly should have resulted in a man-advantage for WMU actually turned into a Notre Dame power play after referee Marc Wilkins teed up Murray with a bench minor for, shall we say, extending the King’s English.
  • Wilkins never skated over to Murray to give him an explanation, which on the surface seemed cowardly on the part of Wilkins. But this isn’t the first time Murray has chewed on a referee (and been bitten for it), and you have to wonder if Wilkins would have granted an explanation had Murray’s ref-ripping reputation not preceded him.

Tip your cap: These RedHawks are good

We in sports love to overanalyze.

It’s fun.

It makes us feel like we’re part of the action.

Sometimes, though, sports are as simple as the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Miami was better than Western Michigan on Saturday night.

And the sun will come up tomorrow.

Plain and simple.

There’s no reason to speak of panic or concern.  The No. 3 team in the country beat the No. 6 team in the country.  The night before, the reverse was true.  And given the shot total in Friday’s game (32-23 Miami), one could argue the RedHawks should have won that game, too, had it not been for the other-worldly play by WMU goalie Frank Slubowski in the 2-0 win.

Could the Bronco power play, which went 0-for-5 Saturday, have been better?  Absolutely. (By the way, the stat about Western winning when it scores a power play goal and losing when it doesn’t bore itself out again this weekend). But an accurate postmortem of Saturday’s game shouldn’t include exaggerated observations of what Western did wrong. To pin Saturday’s defeat on the power play would be shortsighted and, frankly, unfair to the RedHawks.

Miami was just better. Better out of the gate in the first period. Better in its own end. Better along the boards.  Better in puck battles.  Remember, this is a program that’s made the NCAA tournament the last seven years in a row, has the nation’s top-ranked defense (allowing just 45 goals in 30 games) and has won five of its last six contests.

The RedHawks — who looked more like a red wave — didn’t budge Saturday.  Their freshman goaltender, Ryan McKay, was stellar in his third shutout of the season.  Their defense prevented Western from doing anything of significance around the net.  And their forwards buzzed and pestered Bronco defensemen who’ve grown used to otherwise timid opponents giving them room to operate in their own zone.

Miami wasn’t scared.

And Western shouldn’t be ashamed.

Fans who have gotten used to basking in the glow of WMU’s 13-2-1 record at home this season just aren’t used to seeing the Broncos “take it on the chin,” as defenseman Danny DeKeyser described it Saturday night.

Alas, this is what happens sometimes when two heavyweights collide.

ALONG THE RAIL …

  • Speaking of heavy, Kenney Morrison has a monstrous slap shot.  When the Broncos are on the power play, everyone in the building knows where the puck is going: to number 7 at the left point so he can wind up and crank it.  Morrison is quite capable of torching goalies from 60 feet away, but the next step in the freshman’s evolution will be the ability to judge when to let it rip and when to pump fake the oncoming defender and pass or pedal, find a clear lane, then shoot.  Right now, it appears his only setting is SHOOT. He tried multiple times Saturday to blast the puck through the approaching defender’s shin pads (hey, if anybody could do it…) and it resulted in the puck skittering onto a Miami stick or ricocheting out of the zone.
  • Coach Andy Murray said after the game that the insertion of backup goaltender Lukas Hafner to begin the third period was the result of Slubowski not feeling well.  “Frank just wasn’t well,” Murray said. “It had nothing to do with his play or special motivational tactics. He was getting worse so it was just time to take him out.”  Mind you, that was only the fourth appearance for Hafner this season. Slubowski has started all 30 games.
  • Which begs the question: does Slubowski and his career .918 save percentage have a shot at the NHL? Your comments welcome below.

Western grants Berenson’s wish

Back in 2009, I bumped into Red Berenson outside of the Red Wings locker room at Joe Louis Arena.

It was CCHA Tournament weekend and Berenson’s Wolverines had just finished practice.  Players, half out of their gear, milled around while equipment managers and trainers tended to post-practice needs.  It resembled a military brigade setting up camp for the night.  There wasn’t much for their buzz-cut general to do but stand there with a cup of coffee, which is Berenson’s norm after practice and during post-game press conferences and pretty much anywhere else, it seems.

We started talking hockey.

Western Michigan was on his mind.  The Wolverines had swept the Broncos with ease in the quarterfinals in Ann Arbor the week before.  Berenson said it was a “shame” that WMU’s program wasn’t better.  He talked about what a great hockey town Kalamazoo was and how the fans deserved better.  He said there was absolutely no reason why the school shouldn’t have a great team, why Lawson Arena shouldn’t be sold out every weekend.  And he meant what he said, as if he was genuinely frustrated by it.

Well, Berenson’s wish came true Saturday night.  His Wolverines were on the business end of a 5-1 bulldozing that was more than just a victory over Michigan.

It was an all-out embarrassment in front of a regional TV audience — Michigan’s regional Fox Sports Detroit audience — with a packed and insane full-moon Lawson Arena crowd taking every opportunity to remind the Wolverines of who’s driving the CCHA car in its final season.

And this is new territory: the victories this weekend marked the first weekend sweep of Michigan since 1986 and the first ever in Kalamazoo.  But beating Michigan isn’t new.  The Broncos have now defeated the Wolverines at least once in four of the last five years, including a 2-1 victory in Ann Arbor earlier in that 2009 season.

In each of the last two years, Western has beaten Michigan where it counts: on championship ice at The Joe, just down the hallway from where Berenson stood four years ago lamenting the lack of a stiffer West Michigan opponent.

But if those victories were tone-setters, Saturday’s was a culture-shifter.

And remember: this was supposed to happen.

Western is in first-place, the ninth-ranked team in the nation.  At 8-16-2, Michigan is tied for ninth-place.  It wasn’t all that long ago when those standings were reversed.

Skill, swagger, stability: Slubowski

Western’s defense is its best asset, and many would list Luke Witkowski and Danny DeKeyser as exhibits A and B.

But let’s not overlook the man behind the men.

The Broncos possess a sense of calm that has helped them stay focused in crazy situations this season, including Saturday’s first period, and the zen master is goaltender Frank Slubowski.

He plays with a rhythm and coolness that nobody and nothing seems to interrupt.  Michigan scored first both nights this weekend.  So what?  Doo-do-do… Slubowski simply made the next save.  And the one after that.  And the one after that.

He’s unflappable, especially mentally. You see it in his between-whistle routine, the way he loops in and out of the crease with his 100-yard stare fixated on the glass; you see it in the way he attacks shots and calmly steers away rebounds.  He’s almost robotic.  Like one of those cordless vacuum cleaners that methodically scans your living room (only Slubowski is better at sucking up debris).

You could argue that he also influences the Broncos’ unwillingness to retaliate when things go overboard, physically — which has proven to be one of their most valuable assets.  When you’re the team on top, everyone else wants a piece of you.  Opponents hack and poke and goad and try to intimidate.  Ask Michigan.

But the Wolverines found themselves in the unfamiliar position Saturday of being the hacker and poker and goader.  Thinking little brother was still little, the Wolverines turned to physical intimidation as a method for reinforcing their name and tradition and status.  There was the pair of dustups during the first shift of the game that had a staged feel to them.  When those didn’t work, the Wolverines slashed and hacked and tripped, especially defenseman Kenney Morrison with the hope that the freshman would be fragile and afraid.

Then Morrison whistled a blinding wrist shot into Michigan’s net to give Western the lead for good.

Later, when the score grew to 3-1 … then 4-1 … Michigan stood around dumbfounded, like square-jawed fraternity brothers who just had their girlfriends stolen by the calculus team.

Hey, calculus is cool.

And we’ve seen Western’s cool side all season.  In fact, it’s not a side.  It’s who they are.  Northern Michigan tried to bait them into undisciplined penalties in December, but the Broncos didn’t bite.  Credit the coolness to coaching, but don’t underestimate the calming effect Slubowski radiates from his crease.

And don’t expect any further idealistic waxing from Berenson.

ALONG THE RAIL…

  • The Wolverines looked defeated from the beginning.  Their body language reeked of insecurity — and it’s been this way all season.  At the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit last month, I predicted they’d lose to Michigan Tech before the game even started because of the body language both teams displayed while skating warm-up laps before the national anthem.  Tech was hungry and excited and buzzing.  Michigan looked entitled, arrogant and almost bored.  Same was true Saturday night.
  • Credit Berenson for his success: 22 straight NCAA tournament appearances is no small feat.  But there’s something different about that program now.  The luster has worn off.  The foam number-one finger is pock-marked and droopy.  Berenson signed a contract extension last summer that will keep him behind Michigan’s bench until 2015-16, but you have to wonder if he’ll stay that long.  This team plays like it’s not paying attention to its coach.
  • Colton Hargrove, hello.  Three goals this weekend, including the game-winner Friday, is the kind of production WMU has needed from its underclassmen all season.  If this keeps up, scoring may not be a problem, after all.
  • Speaking of upper and underclassmen, Berenson said the following after Saturday’s game: “You can always say you are as good as the senior class. If your senior class is not strong, then you are not going to have a strong team.”
  • We’ve waited for Josh Pitt (freshman) to bust out his speed and skill all season, and it arrived in a big way Saturday.  His soft saucer pass to Hargrove (freshman) for the 3-1 goal in the second period was deft, while his third-period goal when he skated wide on the Michigan defender showcased his extremely fast first stride.