After nearly three decades of losing hockey, Michigan Tech is riding a winning streak, thanks to a new coach and a new attitude.
There was a time when a little technical school in the quiet hamlet of Houghton, Michigan, was a legitimate power in the college hockey landscape. But alas, the glory days of Michigan Tech hockey are a distant, faded memory. The school that reached nine Frozen Fours and won three national championships in the 1960s and ‘70s has posted just two winning seasons among its last 29. It hasn’t qualified for the NCAA tournament since 1981.
So when alumnus Mel Pearson took over as coach of a team that managed just four wins last season, the expectations weren’t high. Still, it couldn’t get much worse.
“We had a meeting before the season, and the big thing was we wanted goals that raised the bar, but were still attainable,” said senior captain Brett Olson. “Some things that we hadn’t done in a while, like a winning season, yeah, but small things like winning the Winter Carnival we host or the Great Lakes Invitational.”
As the Huskies travel to Bemidji State for a weekend series, they have at least this going for them: under Pearson, Michigan Tech has rattled off four straight victories to match last season’s total. Any victories from here until March will signal an improvement.
The fast turnaround has a lot to do with the approach Pearson learned as an assistant under Michigan legend Red Berenson – a style of play that’s, well, fast.
“We’ve really improved our pace of play,” said Olson. “We’re getting pucks out of our zone a lot quicker, moving it up the ice and getting to our forecheck a lot sooner. We’re just using our speed and skating ability to push the pace.”
That’s what one coach called “bunny rabbit hockey.” The players just keep hopping up and down the ice and are difficult to line up or catch. Michigan Tech’s resurgence, though, is due to a lot more than schemes. Pearson, possibly the only person who can understand both the culture of Michigan Tech and championship-caliber hockey, has been a huge motivating factor.
“It’s just a case of Coach giving us the confidence to be the type of player we can be," Olson said. "The guys are really buying into it. A lot of guys have stepped up and everyone’s pushing each other right now.”
Senior goalie Josh Robinson has stepped up, posting a 1.31 goals-against average and .950 save percentage entering Friday. In his previous three years for the Huskies, Robinson hadn’t posted a GAA below 3.09 or a save percentage better than .889. Olson, Jordan Baker, Blake Pietila and Stephen Seigo are all averaging at least a point per game.
And while it is hardly a microcosm of the season still to come, the early success has the Houghton faithful buzzing. Crowds of over 3,000 jammed into the arena for last week’s sweep of Wisconsin.
Recalling a summer event where fans could meet the new coach and this year’s players, Olson said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many people for one of our functions. There’s a little more excitement at our games now.
“We have the opportunity to be that team, to really change the culture and start a new era of winning here. And that’s something we can really all wrap our heads around.”
After closing the decrepit Joyce Center Ice Arena last weekend against Ohio State, Notre Dame opens its shiny new Compton Family Ice Center against Rensselaer on Friday night. The grand opening comes on the heels of the announcement that the Irish will move to Hockey East after the CCHA closes shop next season. … Minnesota offered coach Don Lucia an extension through 2015. The Gophers have missed the NCAA Tournament for three years, but a 4-0 start has renewed hope in the Twin Cities. … With Michael Dorr joining Tyler Elbrecht, Eriah Hayes, Max Gaede, Danny Heath and J.P. Burkemper in Minnesota State’s trainers' room, the Mavericks will travel to Denver this weekend with just 20 players available to play. … First Winnipeg gets the Jets back, and now they’ll get college hockey, when North Dakota plays Clarkson in the U.S. College Hockey Classic on Jan. 12.