Over the weekend—a weekend without much Husky joy on the ice down in Big Rapids—The Old Dog managed to catch up with one of Michigan Tech’s all-time great hockey figures: Dan Farrell. Dan, who played for Tech from 1957 to 1960, and was a key cog on John MacInnes’ first NCAA finalist team, has been a long-time supporter of the Huskies.
After completing his degree in Geology in 1960, Dan returned to Houghton as the assistant and junior varsity coach with MacInnes from 1968 to 1973. During that period, he started the summer hockey school program at Tech. Then, in 1973, he was given the reins at the University of Michigan, and led the Wolverines to the NCAA title game in 1977. In 1980, Dan decided to put his education to use, and left coaching for a wide-ranging business career. For a short stint in the mid-eighties, he served as a part-time assistant for the Oshawa Generals, and helped that storied Ontario Hockey League franchise to the Memorial Cup finals in 1987.
I was a bit surprised to find that Dan remains very active in business at this point, and is still applying what he learned at MCM&T. He’s involved in two major natural resource development programs, and one of them is the Copperwood mining project near Gratiot Lake in the western UP. That project is in the final feasibility stage, and could produce as much as 100 million pounds of copper from high-grade chalcocite ore. He is also part of a group that is developing a complex petroleum field in Guyana in South America. In fact, in trying to set up this interview, I had to work around Dan’s travel schedule.
I started by asking him about this year’s team. Like most of us who follow the team closely, he’s seen some good things and some things that aren’t so good. “I have to say I think the fans are disappointed. They’ve outplayed a lot of teams and still lost a number of games.” He cited three major factors that he sees this season:
- The Huskies don’t have any big scorers. “All the top teams have a 20-goal scorer and some have another guy with 15.” (After this weekend, Gavin Gould and Jake Jackson lead the Huskies with 9 apiece.)
- The defense lost three very good players (Shane Hanna, Matt Roy, and Cliff Watson). They’re not as good as last year’s team.
- And, they lost the freshman goaltender (Angus Redmond). They’re not getting the big stops they got last year.
The bottom line for Dan is talent. “Mel (Pearson) left them very skinny,” said Dan. “They have no depth up front,” he added, but also noted that this year’s roster is filled with terrific kids with good character that work hard.
“Years ago, we had great players like Mike Zuke and Bob Lorimer who made the other players better.” But since losing Tanner Kero and Alex Petain to graduation and pro hockey, Dan noted that the Huskies haven’t had the kind of forwards who elevate the game of their teammates.
“My real question now is how did we get to this point? (The University) spent a lot of time and money on the program and we’re not getting that big recruit.” But then Dan pointed to a major dynamic that works against Tech—and most of the other schools that aren’t in big media markets.
“The agents are a big factor in where kids go to school. And the top teams all have a lot of top-round NHL draft picks.” At Tech, the Huskies currently have two NHL picks—Dan Birks (a sixth-round Penguins pick) and Jackson (seventh-round Sharks selection). In contrast, Minnesota has 13 picks on their roster, Boston University has 12, Michigan has 9, and even Connecticut has 6.
Some background is in order at this point. In the recent past, NCAA players were not been allowed to contract with agents. Instead, “family advisors” aided prospects to help them sort out the college hockey scene. However, these “advisors” were agents in all but name, and, this month, the NCAA Division I autonomy council approved a proposal that would put agents on the same basis in hockey that exists for college baseball, allowing a formal contractual obligation that hinges on NHL draft status.
While the agent rules are a bit complex, the bottom line is simple. Agents want to represent bonafide professional prospects, and they want those prospects to head to a school where they will play with the best teams, get the most exposure, and, by playing with and against other players who’ve been selected in the NHL draft, improve their pro stock the most. The WCHA and the Huskies have an uphill struggle in that competition, even though the league sends players to the NHL on a regular basis.
As Dan noted, “You have to sell the agent as much as the player.” And, in discussing this, he seems to feel this isn’t always in the best interest of the young players and college hockey in general. It’s hard to disagree.
I then asked Dan what it was like to play college hockey in the late ‘50’s. “Oh, it was night and day different (from today),” he noted. “The off-ice training, strength and conditioning is so much better. And nutrition and diet—our diet was a couple of beers after the game,” he chuckled.
“We had no preseason training. Practice was usually just an hour long,” Dan noted. “The atmosphere (for games) at The Dee (Stadium) was awesome. You couldn’t wedge another person in,” he added. “By my senior year, we were highly skilled. It was very exciting.”
I tried to probe Dan a bit about what it was like to play for MacInnes. “John was very basic. He was very low key. The skill sessions are much more advanced today. John had a very basic style of checking. All he asked the guys to do was to stick to that. He very seldom changed that. We didn’t have a formal power play, but the thing that made our program so good was that we played very fundamentally.”
It was clear that he could tie his experiences 60 years ago with his views on today’s program. “We always had some skilled guys who brought everyone to a higher level. That made everybody better. My senior year, I played on a line with Jerry Sullivan and had my best year.” Sullivan was one of Tech’s All Americans who led the ’62 NCAA championship team, and was team MVP three years in a row. In 1960, Sullivan’s first MVP season, Farrell scored more goals and more points than he had in the rest of his career at Tech.
“John was always able to recruit the best talent. We should be out there recruiting the best. If you get one or two 5-star recruits a year, you start making things happen. I don’t think Tech has a ‘top six’ forward. At best, they have quite a few bottom six forwards. You get 2-3 (top six prospects) and you can lift some of the others.”
Dan wrapped up our discussion with a big thumbs-up for Joe Shawhan, as well as a note of caution about the program’s future. “I think Joe Shawhan has done a great job, though. He has a very good background, and I think he’s going to be very successful. Glenn Mroz and Les Cook have been huge supporters of the hockey program. I am very concerned about the next (University) president. The administration has been very supportive, and I’m concerned if they bring in a high end academic who doesn’t care much about athletics.”
I first met Dan in 1971, when he and his wife Jolayne hired me to watch his two young boys after school during the week. He then gave me another job to clean the common areas of a student rental property he owned on College Avenue. The money I earned from that work kept me at Tech through my senior year and was a big help in getting me to graduation.