Mike Anleitner joined the Tech Hockey Guide team during the 2017 offseason as one of the respondents to our call for new contributors. He’ll be writing a regular column sharing his “Old Dog” perspective on the Huskies hockey program. Rather than introduce him from an editorial standpoint, I’ll just let him introduce himself. -Alex
I fell in love with the Huskies when I was eleven and read in the back of the Detroit Free Press sports section that Michigan Tech had won the 1962 NCAA Championship. Wow! National champion, in my own state—and an engineering school, too. As a young hockey fan who wanted to be an engineer, I was halfway to becoming a Husky. Or, as we were called in those days, a Toot.
By 1968, I started at MTU and soon I was standing against the railing at The Dee, freezing, and watching John MacInnes’ team do battle in the WCHA. After graduating, I followed the Huskies as best I could. The 1975 Championship was a high water mark, and my wife Carol, who’s also a Tech grad and a huge fan, and I attended every Great Lakes Invitational from 1974 until 2009. When we lost John MacInnes much too soon, both Carol and I suffered through the long dry spell. We went to Winter Carnival in 2002, and writhed through games in which our boys not only lost badly but were beat up, too.
John likely rolled in his grave.
When Tech hired Mel Pearson, we dared to hope things would get better. Slowly, and sometimes painfully, we watched on the internet and listened to Dirk Hembroff as the Huskies became relevant again. We went to Phoenix for the Arizona State tournament, and spent a weekend in Huntsville last season watching Tech sweep the Chargers. I even probed Pearson at the Alumni pasty dinner that weekend, telling him that my daughter, a Michigan grad, kept saying, “Mel should go back to Michigan where he belongs.” He laughed, and tried to say he wasn’t headed anywhere, but was vaguely non-committal. When Red Berenson finally decided he’d had enough, Carol and I strained to believe that Mel loved it in Houghton and wouldn’t leave, but the call of Ann Arbor was too great.
So, we’re now at the next inflection point (remember that from Calc?) in Husky hockey history.
After observing the last fifty five years, I’m hoping for the best. Joe Shawhan has been given the keys, hired his staff and has already added two high-level recruits who’ll suit up this season. For those of us who live and semi-die Friday and Saturday nights during the season, what do we think will happen?
On the hopeful side, Shawhan’s had a lot of success. His work as GM and head coach with the Soo Indians is Exhibit A. His record is still the best in NAHL history, and includes three coach-of-the-year awards and three championships. That’s first-rate work in a league where players turn over quickly and coaches have to connect with young men and build each year with uncertainty about how talent will develop. Jamie Phillips and Angus Redmond are proof of his goaltending knowledge. Then there are the testimonials from Ryan Miller, Jeff Blashill and Jeff Jackson. And he’s a life-long Yooper, which always creates a soft place in my heart and head.
What about the downsides? We all know Shawhan was passed over for the head role at both Lake State and Northern. Some of it may have been LSSU feeling they needed a big-school name like Damon Whitten and not some local yokel (hero though he may be in the Soo). Some of it may have been NMU’s desire for a hotshot young coach—Grant Potulny—with experience at a first-rate program like Minnesota.
The other worry is Shawhan’s public presence. While he won’t face the media scrutiny Pearson will in Ann Arbor, a D-I coaching gig increasingly requires sophisticated media skills. From what I’ve seen, Shawhan needs to grow in that area. As he admitted, he needs to learn to dress the part. The fact that Susan Sanregret had to tell him to dress better makes me wonder how savvy he will be if and when he’s subjected to national media scrutiny.
All of that said, his staff is first-rate. Dallas Steward is an up-and-comer who knows the WCHA from his playing career in Anchorage. He played five-plus seasons in mid-level professional minor leagues, where players are coached from a new angle almost every year. That teaches the X’s and O’s that play an increasingly important role in preparation and game day coaching. He’s got three USHL Clark Cup championships—one as a player, one as an assistant, and one as an associate head coach. And he has international experience with the 2015 U-19 USA world team.
Chris Brooks might even be better. While his big D-III success at Stevens Point, including a national championship, isn’t the same as success in Division I, it’s hard to ignore. And he had a nine-year stint as assistant and associate in Kazoo with Western Michigan—not to mention time as a player, player-coach, and head coach in the mid-level pro minors.
Those choices speak very well about Shawhan, too. Winners know how to promote winning, and Shawhan, Brooks, and Steward have all had that experience.
Any more downsides? To start, Shawhan, Brooks, and Steward all suffered through more than a few mediocre seasons along the way. Do they understand the “secret sauce” that separates a winning program from an also-ran?
Next, the college hockey world is dynamic. Anyone who thinks the Big Ten will continue to muddle along, or that the NCHC won’t remain a dominant league is suffering from wishful thinking. And the rest of the WCHA isn’t standing around, either. Is Tech’s all-new coaching staff up to this level of competition?
If you’ve ever seen the Marx Brothers’ movie Horsefeathers—a college football farce—you’ll remember when Zeppo says to Groucho, “You can’t have a good football team without good football players.” Good coaching isn’t enough. Good players aren’t enough. Even good players and good coaching can fall flat if the recipe isn’t mixed and baked properly. At this point, I’m going to say it balances out on the positive side. I’m gonna believe, until I see otherwise, that this is the opening of a new and bright era in Tech hockey history.
Sure, there are things to worry about. Sitting in the Van Braun Arena last January, squirming through the second game where UAH kept sticking it to Tech before the Huskies pulled it out, was an agonizing experience. I expect the next year or two are going to be a lot like that.
When all is said and done, I vote for the optimistic view of things. It’s easy to harp on the negatives, but being a True Believer requires an unrelenting positive view.
Go Youse Huskies.