Just talking about hockey

WCHA coaches discuss upcoming 2017-18 season

Northern Michigan University sophomore goaltender Atte Tolvanen stands ready to take on Alaska-Fairbanks skaters on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. On this night, the Finland native tied the all-time NCAA record with five consecutive shutouts and is less than two full periods shy of the all-time consecutive scoreless minutes mark. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — With the WCHA season beginning this weekend, the college hockey league that includes all three Upper Peninsula schools kicked things off with its annual media day on Monday afternoon.

The main storyline mentioned by not only WCHA Commissioner Bill Robertson, but by every coach in the league, was three new head coaches — Grant Potulny of Northern Michigan University, Joe Shawhan of Michigan Tech and Lance West of Alaska-Fairbanks.

In a bit of a surprise, it was Potulny who had the longest segment as he fielded several questions on a variety of topics.

Potulny talked about some of the players who could contribute at a high level, like forwards Zach Diamantoni and Darien Craighead, and made sure to mention the Wildcats’ strong goaltending tandem of Atte Tolvanen and Mathias Israelsson. The new coach also discussed his coaching staff and the league’s overall strength.

One of the more specific things Potulny talked about was how his style of play was catching on with the Wildcats.

In an interview with the Journal earlier this year, Potulny talked about emphasizing speed and players improvising on the ice and going with their instincts, which was something that wasn’t common in previous years.

He said the Wildcats have responded well and he likes what he sees.

“There’s a lot of different ways to play the game to be successful at any level,” he said. “The only way that I know how to play the game is to be on your toes and play like (NHL teams) Chicago and Pittsburgh. They’re always putting pressure on people and our guys have done a really good job with that.

“Whatever style you play, you design your practices to go that way. Our practices have been at a frenetic pace to this point and the guys have really responded well.

“There’s always going to be a learning curve and there’s going to be things you’re going to work on, but I’ve been really impressed with the energy and the attitude that they’ve brought every day.”

In his segment, Shawhan talked about the Huskies’ losing much of their defensive corps and that the forwards are a bit of a question mark. But he also felt adding goaltender Patrick Munson from Denver provides depth at the position and should help his young defensemen.

Shawhan also mentioned how his coaching style won’t differ much from former head coach Mel Pearson, who helped rebuild the Huskies and is now the head man at Michigan.

“I appreciate that style of game that was played,” he said. “It was strong defensively, yet Mel wanted to score goals as well. I appreciate that philosophy and that’s the way I like to play.

“So as far as changes, we aren’t really going to be doing anything that different. We’re not looking to complicate things. We’re just looking to keep things as simple as we can.”

Lake Superior State head coach Damon Whitten was also on the call and felt positive about the state of his program. The thing he seemed most excited about was finally having some seniors.

“The big thing that jumps off the page for us is that we have four seniors,” Whitten said. “Some might shake their heads at that, but we’re really excited because we only had one senior last year. We’ve got some leadership in-house that we haven’t had the last couple of years. They’re going to provide a strong leadership base for our program.”

The opening segment of the conference call was Robertson providing insight on the state of the league. Robertson talked about how pleased he was with the success of the some of the programs and how each of the 10 teams had a player invited to an NHL development camp over the summer.

He also mentioned that scoring increased last year and fans have reacted positively to the overtime system, points structure and on-campus playoff system.

Another positive for Robertson was stabilizing the league now that the two Alaska schools, Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks, are back on solid footing with the future of their programs.

Robertson was most concerned about league teams improving their non-conference records. Three years ago, the WCHA had two teams make the NCAA Tournament — Minnesota State and Michigan Tech — and Bowling Green State almost made it three. But the league has managed just one bid each of the past two seasons.

In addition to Robertson and the 10 league coaches speaking, the WCHA preseason media and coaches polls were announced. Minnesota State is the frontrunner in both, with Michigan Tech picked third, Lake State sixth and NMU seventh.

Northern opens its season with a home-and-home series against LSSU on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 6-7. The opener will be at 7:07 p.m. in Sault Ste. Marie with Saturday’s 7 p.m. encounter in Marquette at the Berry Events Center.

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