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Wildcats' Kyle taking hard look in mirror after blown opportunity

March 20, 2012
By MATT WELLENS - Journal Sports Editor ( , The Mining Journal

MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University's Walt Kyle has suffered a number of tough losses in his 10 years as head coach of the Wildcat hockey program, including one to Michigan in the 2010 CCHA tournament championship and an upset loss to Alaska-Fairbanks in the CCHA quarterfinals at Joe Louis Arena.

Then of course there is any loss to the rival Michigan Tech Huskies.

Of all those defeats, none of them compares to this season's Game 3 loss to Bowling Green State in the first-round of the CCHA playoffs.

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Northern Michigan University head coach Walt Kyle talks with senior captain Justin Florek of Marquette against Michigan Tech on Jan. 21 at MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton while junior Austin Handley, left, and Ryan Daugherty, center, look on. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette file photo by David Archambeau)

"This is my biggest playoff loss, in my opinion, since I've been here," Kyle said.

"If we would have got through the first round, I would have a good taste in my mouth (about this season). That's a bad loss and the way we lost, in my opinion, we imploded big time."

For the second-straight season, Kyle's 'Cats were ousted by last-place BGSU in a best-of-three first-round home playoff series, and while both left a bitter taste in the Wildcats' mouth, this one was extra bitter because it potentially cost NMU an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.

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As a result of the loss, Kyle is not only giving the forwards, defenders and goaltenders a closer evaluation this season.

He's also taking an extra look in the mirror to figure out how his program blew a golden opportunity to return to the big ice dance for the second time in three years.

"We're going to have to step back and look at why two years in a row we ended up going down here at the end," Kyle said. "A year ago I understood why. I didn't think we were good enough. This year we were certainly good enough."

Kyle said depth was a major issue for the Wildcats this season and the flaw became exposed as players not only left the lineup, but the roster.

Two freshmen left NMU before the holiday break, most notably freshman Dylan Walchuk.

The at times first-line forward had two goals and six assists through 19 games when he decided to leave school and return to the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL. After six games with his old junior team, he made the jump to Canadian major junior and the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL.

Prior to Walchuk's departure, freshman defenseman Eric Walker - who didn't appear in any games for NMU - was dismissed from the team and university for disciplinary issues and he too made the jump to major junior's Vancouver Giants of the WHL.

"I made a couple decisions and I'm not going to get into it," Kyle said. "Everything comes back to me. I made a couple decisions on playing some guys that came back and hurt us. I made a couple decision on guys. I brought Walchuk here."

Walchuk and Walker were two of six players, plus another student, originally charged in an incident that began in September and carried over in the December involving stolen bicycles on campus. Six were charged with misdemeanors of receiving and concealing stolen property while Walker received the most serious charge of stealing. His charges were dismissed when he left the country and returned to Canada.

Walker's charges were dropped while freshman defenseman Jake Baker, freshman defenseman Mitch Jones, freshman forward D.J. Vandercook and sophomore forward Stephan Vigier pled no contest and agreed to delayed sentencing.

"You can't underplay as well the whole bike deal," Kyle said. "That absolutely had an impact on us for a stretch in there.

"These guys are going to court. They are getting bombed in the papers. Some of the guys absolutely deserved it, and some of the guys it probably was a lot less than what it was. It affected everyone. We brought that on ourselves."

Northern went through an eight-game winless streak during the scandal that included five losses and three ties against it toughest foes - Michigan, Western Michigan, Ohio State, Notre Dame and Michigan State.

Kyle said the off ice issues carried over onto the ice as he was required to put the team on lockdown for over a month.

"One of the great things about college and college sports is the ability to go socialize with 10,000 other college students. We did not have that," Kyle said. "We couldn't afford to have anything else go wrong and that effected our chemistry in my opinion."

Kyle said it's up to him to strengthen the Wildcats depth, as well as decide whether people are the proper fit.

As Kyle put it, he's the general. He's the captain of the ship and it's his job to right it.

"There are some guys who have had a couple years to show they can play without taking penalties and they can't," Kyle said. "That's the reality of it and that's just the way it is. We're going to have to make some decisions there on people."

Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.



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