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.
Andy Murray, that’s what.
Extreme Makeover: Hockey edition.
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.