Looking forward to the challenge

Potulny talks about new schedule, new transfers

Northern Michigan’s Adam Rockwood attempts a goal against Minnesota State during the first period Saturday night, Nov.4, 2017, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University hockey team is eager to get going in the 2018-19 season after its schedule was announced Wednesday.

That’s especially true after a successful season under first-year head coach Grant Potulny that included a second-place finish in the WCHA and a berth in the league championship game.

The Wildcats open the year with road nonconference series at former CCHA rival Michigan State and 2017-18 NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed St. Cloud State.

Potulny said that it’s good to play a major program in the state and that St. Cloud will be an interesting battle since NMU and the Huskies both play on Olympic ice sheets.

“It’s important to play the teams in our state,” he said. “We need to get Michigan and Western (Michigan) on our schedule. It’s important to our community and that’s a blue blood of college hockey.

“They’re going to win some games and make some noise with the new coaching staff having a year under their belt. Our mindset is to just go down there and win the games. I think our program is at a place now where we feel we can go down and be competitive and hopefully be victorious against anybody we play at this point.

“I think the big thing is that maybe is lost a little is that the big ice sheet doesn’t bother us (at St. Cloud). There’s very few left in college hockey. That’s a major home advantage to any team that plays on an Olympic sheet.

“For us, it won’t be any different. When we go down there, we’ll have prepared for that rink and be comfortable in that rink. They’re a very quality program and they’ll have a great team next year and those will be some challenging games.

“They are going to win a ton of games and if you can go down there and win those games or tie them, that’s really going to help you in the Pairwise (rankings) at the end of the year.”

From there, NMU has its first WCHA series at home against Bemidji State, and after a road trip to Bowling Green State, the Wildcats have their final nonconference series hosting another NCAA No. 1 seed in Cornell.

“They’re another really quality program,” Potulny said. “Our style and St. Cloud’s style are similar, so it’s like you’re playing against yourself, but when you’re playing Cornell, they are very structured and big and tough and physical.

“We’re more of an offensive-minded team and it’s going to be completely contrasting styles. Hopefully, having them early in the year is going to be an advantage for us.”

The other major challenge in Northern’s schedule is playing back-to-back series in Alaska in January. The Wildcats face Alaska Fairbanks Jan. 4-5 and Alaska Anchorage the following weekend.

Some coaches hate the idea of staying in Alaska for two weeks, but Potulny thinks it’s a good idea as traveling twice to the Last Frontier can be a grueling experience for guys dealing with the drastic time change.

“The Alaska trips were tough going up there two different times,” he said. “This year with the back-to-back trip that really saves on wear and tear. The other side of it is you can do a couple things up there that are going to be life memories for the guys.

“So we’re going to be sure that we have a little bit of fun up there. Any time the schedule comes out, you’re like ‘OK, when am I going to Alaska and how many times am I going?’ That is the No. 1 thing.”

Potulny also likes the schedule being more split between home and away games during the season, since last year Northern spent a lot of the early season on the road.

“The home and away games … are much more balanced this year,” he said. “Last year, we had a bunch of road games to start the year and we were hoping to make sure to just kind of find our footing early. We won enough of those games on the road that allowed us to be right in the hunt at the end so we could come back and make some hay at home.”

In addition to a changing schedule, Potulny also discussed two incoming transfer students, both coming from successful programs. One is Notre Dame defenseman and graduate transfer Tony Bretzman. He joins former Wisconsin transfer Adam Rockwood, who had a breakout season with the Wildcats in 2017-18 as he led the nation in assists with 40.

The other transfer is Union defenseman Ben Newhouse. A native Minnesotan, Newhouse played two years with the Dutchmen, earning three points in 38 games. However, due to NCAA rules, Newhouse will have to sit out the coming season.

Potulny says that when it comes to transfers, it’s a process where you hear about kids who’d like to transfer and then wait for their release. He says that it’s important to find guys that fit into your style of play and that meet your character requirements.

“For us, we’ve had some success with transfers like Adam and he’s had an amazing first year with our program,” he said. “I expect him to be one of the best players not only in the league (but) hopefully in college hockey.

“If you do your work and meet the person, then you can feel good about taking transfers. If you find a guy that doesn’t fit because of style, those guys can work in other programs. You have to make sure you’re not taking a guy who doesn’t fit because of character. We’ve been very careful about that.”

When asked what he thinks makes his program enticing for transfers, Potulny said he thought it was due to the Wildcats’ style and program’s history.

“I think part of it is our style of play and players want to play on their toes and play offense,” he said. “I also think part of it is tradition. We do have great tradition here and part of that is success.

“When you blend those three things together, it becomes a good situation where if you have one or two years left, and it’s the second time around in the recruiting process, you put different importance on things that maybe had you committed to other places as a younger player when you weren’t wise enough to know that yet.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.