I’ve been a fan of college sports for about 55 years. I’ve seen changes I never would have believed possible when I was younger. In my teens, college sports were covered largely in newspapers, and there was a heavy regional emphasis. There might be one or two college football games broadcast nationally on Saturdays, and radio play-by-play was strictly local. Basketball wouldn’t get much coverage until the NCAA tournament, and other sports were never on TV, never on radio and, at most, would just have scores reported in tiny “agate type” fonts on the last page of the sports section (Agate is equivalent to 5.5 pt. typeface size, and is the smallest used in most print newspapers – Ed.).
That started to change at the end of the 1960’s. Like everything else in society, the landscape for college sports rumbled and began erupting into new and brasher displays. (Those of us growing up at that time like to say “if you can remember the ‘60’s you weren’t really there.”) More than anyone else, one man led the charge to the world we experience today: Don Canham of the University of Michigan.
Canham was a quintessential “Michigan Man.” He was a standout on the Michigan track and field team, winning an NCAA championship in the high jump in 1941. After serving in the Army Air Corps in WWII, Canham returned to Ann Arbor to coach the men’s track and field team. His squads won 7 indoor, 4 outdoor and 1 cross-country Big Ten team championships in 20 years.
In 1968, he became Athletic Director—and his first major move was to hire Bo Schembechler. He also hired Dan Farrell away from Tech to revitalize the Wolverines’ hockey team, and when Dan decided to move on, he persuaded Red Berenson to give up his NHL coaching career and return to Michigan.
More to the point, Canham was the first AD to aggressively market anything and everything relating to college athletics. He started with a focus on football, but expanded that to every sport. He also was the first AD to move into licensing, featuring maize & blue athletic gear—souvenirs of all kinds, clothing for adults, for kids and anything else he could attach to the Michigan Wolverine brand.
Soon, winning teams plus selling the brand equaled filled stadiums and arenas. Cash that flowed in led to better coaches, better facilities, improved recruiting, more winning, and more selling. It was a closed-loop system, and before long other major colleges were following Canham’s formula. And that’s really how we’ve arrived at 2017, where top-line football coaches are paid multiples of anyone else on a university staff, including university presidents.
That’s the face of “The Big Time” in college sports today.
At some point in the past dozen years, Michigan Tech’s leadership team realized they would have to step up to that level if they wanted to remain relevant in Division I hockey. After more than twenty years trying to merely wade in the waters that Canham pioneered, the Huskies, under Suzanne Sanregret’s leadership, recognized they’d have to get into the deep end if they wanted to continue at the Division I level in hockey. Maybe it was the near-failure of the football program, maybe it was President Glen Mroz’s insight that Tech had to reach for world-class excellence in nearly every aspect of the university’s activities, or maybe it was Sanregret’s vision.
It doesn’t matter. The Huskies are now in The Big Time. However, they’ve had a relatively easy ride in many ways. In particular, they haven’t been exposed to the often brutal and unfailingly critical assessment of the ever-hungry college sports media circus.
In some ways, Tech is a better place for student-athletes by avoiding that spotlight. It’s easy to forget that college athletes are not really prepared for the media attention they sometimes get. The intensity of coverage—and associated criticisms—that accumulate in the college football playoff system suggests where things are heading for other sports.
Now THG may need to venture into that territory. With the Huskies stated objective of being a regular in the NCAA tournament, Tech is certainly exposing its teams and players to greater scrutiny. If you think about it, with Huskies moving on to pro hockey nearly every year, it’s also reasonable to say that preparation for that sort of career should also expose young players to a less sympathetic level of public scrutiny.
Watching Tech’s play this year has been like riding a defective emotional elevator, up and down at unexpected times, with jerking starts and bewildering stops. After watching this past weekend series with Ferris State, THG needs to step into The Big Time, too—and raise the issue of The Goaltending Controversy.
When Angus Redmond left after one year, there was certainly concern about Tech’s netminding. For reasons I’ve never understood, Devin Kero never showed (at least in game conditions) that he was ready for the starter’s role, and no one knew how this other guy they recruited, Robbie Beydoun, might be able to perform.
Into this gap stepped Packy Munson. His decision to join the Tech program seemed like just what the doctor ordered, an experienced DI goaltender with one strong year at Vermont, and another year backing up the Richter Award winner Tanner Jaillet on the NCAA Champion Denver squad. Munson got all of the early starts, and after Tech surprised everyone with the Icebreaker trophy, the picture looked bright.
However…there were some less than ideal things anyone could see in almost every game. Munson gave up big rebounds. While he played the puck reasonably well, he would also scare us with sloppy puck handling from time to time. His statistics are fairly decent—a .904 save percentage and 2.82 goals per game average—but some of his miscues had been costly game-changers.
Kero stepped in for two starts against Bowling Green and played very well, but got no offensive support and was promptly injured in practice the following week. Beydoun had two abortive starts and was pulled in both of them—and it wasn’t hard to imagine that those two games could break a freshman’s confidence.
And then came Friday’s game against Ferris State. Tech came out and dominated the first period, but they let up in the second. Munson looked shaky on the first goal, even though there was an odd bounce that set up the Bulldogs nicely—but it was a shot that should have been stopped. Two more softies followed, including another puck handling giveaway. With Kero still not dressed, Joe Shawhan turned to Beydoun. The freshman played well, and even though he yielded a late power play goal that gave FSU the win, he kept Tech in the game with big saves as they fought back to a third-period tie.
Saturday rolled around, and it was no surprise that Beydoun might start. What was a surprise was that Kero was dressed, and Munson wasn’t—and we were told that Munson was injured. Fortunately, Beydoun was on fire—just one puck handling miscue that led to FSU’s early goal—and looked unbeatable the rest of the game.
Kero wasn’t OK on Friday, but OK to play on Saturday. Munson, who didn’t seem to have any issues on Friday other than a lack of concentration, wasn’t OK on Saturday. While Shawhan treated all of this as a routine situation on his Monday show, the whole thing seemed odd.
Maybe it was just a set of coincidences. Maybe not.
So what’s next between the pipes? The way a team skates can be heavily influenced by goaltending. When players see bad goals are going in, they sag on defense and don’t press as much on the offensive end. When a goalie is standing on his head, skaters feel free to push the puck, to be aggressive on defense, and play the kind of game that’s all about winning instead of playing to “not lose.”
Perhaps this is all just as normal as Shawhan suggested. But there might be more going on that we can’t see. The one thing we can see is simple. When the Huskies get strong goaltending, every aspect of their game is better. When they don’t, they are much more likely to play below their potential.
To get home ice in the WCHA playoffs, this team needs to be on top of their game every night. As Shawhan also said Monday, when the Huskies are really rolling they can play with anyone in the country. If the goaltending merry-go-round continues, it might be time to start pushing for better answers about the whole situation.