Catch up with coach: Northern Michigan University Wildcats’ head coach Grant Potulny discusses team’s progress, new players
“It’s kind of the old adage like, ‘Life is gonna happen, it’s how you react to it.’ I think our guys have done a great job of that.” — Grant Potulny, head coach, NMU hockey
MARQUETTE — As it was for pretty much every college hockey program, 2020 has provided the Northern Michigan University team with a roller coaster year.
The second half of last season started off great in January with four straight wins in January, but then plummeted with a rough February.
The Wildcats did just enough to earn home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs before being quickly dismissed by rival Michigan Tech, the final game coming in triple overtime at the Berry Events Center.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country — really, the world — grinding the college hockey season to an abrupt halt and ultimately forcing the cancellation of the Frozen Four.
Throughout the summer, the Wildcats, as was the majority of the country, wondered if they’d even get to play this season, but conditions have cleared up enough where Northern and the rest of the WCHA will begin play just before Thanksgiving.
That’s been a big relief for Wildcats head coach Grant Potulny.
In a recent interview, Potulny talked about his captains, his incoming players and what has been going on with his program.
At the time of the interview, the Wildcats had been allowed back on the ice as a team, but split up into groups. Potulny said that because the players had spent varying amounts of time on the ice during the offseason, they’ve been focusing on the basics to start.
“When we got back on the ice, there was such a varying array of what players had access to ice,” he said. “Some guys had been skating all summer; some guys who were in town, we didn’t have ice here.
“So what we did is we kind of took it right down to basics and took the first two or three weeks just to work on some stick skills and work on some edges and give the guys some time to get their soft-tissue muscles in shape — hips and groins and adductors and ab muscles.
“So that when you start ramping it up a little bit, you can feel confident that the guys can handle it. And we had time. So it wasn’t something that we were in a time crunch.
“So that was good for the first couple weeks and then we’ve used the next couple weeks to slow practice down a little bit and do a lot of teaching, because you have to go through some of these things anyway. You have to go through your systems and you have to go through penalty kill and you have to talk about these things.
“We’re kind of using this time right now as we’re not sure when we’re going to start and some of those things, and do a lot of teaching, so that when we get into it, we can get the engine revved and we don’t have to slow it down as much because we’ve already gone through a lot of those areas.”
The good thing is the Wildcats have two experienced captains to help the newcomers get started — seniors Joe Nardi and Ben Newhouse. When asked why he thinks the tandem will be beneficial to the team this year, Potulny said it’s for many reasons.
“I think, No. 1, when you talk about guys that you want to have that could be an extension of the coaching staff, they have to be great people to start,” he said. “Both of those two guys carry themselves so well.
“Kind of the next box you want to check is every day that they come to work. You’re not worried if it’s a Tuesday and is Joe and Ben going to practice hard today. That’s never a concern.
“And then, No. 3, they’re obviously very good players. They’re able to handle that load of it’s a tie game and we need somebody to make a play. They might not make that play every time, but they’re going to be on the bench saying the right things and doing the right things to get your team confidence to be able to make that play.
“Both of them are gonna be great representatives of our program.”
Potulny also thinks it won’t be as difficult for Nardi and Newhouse to lead the team compared to what the professionally bound Phil Beaulieu had to deal with last year, since the Wildcats were quite young last season.
“Last year, I felt our youth,” Potulny said. “There were a lot of freshmen and sophomores last year. They had to play really important roles. Those four D (defensemen) played a lot. Andre (Ghantous) played a lot and those guys are freshmen.
“Then the class in front of them are sophomores and those guys, with the exception kind of of Griff(in Loughran), they weren’t in those roles because we had a huge senior class ahead of them who took a lot of that ice.
“So last year, I think having the opportunity to grow as much as those guys did, even though those defensemen are only sophomores and Andre will be a sophomore, they seem like they’ve matured so much in a year that I don’t feel our youth.
“Obviously, you’ve got to play the games and there’s gonna be some growing pains and stuff like that. The other thing is no one had played a college hockey game yet.
“All of those things kind of go into feeling your youth and having to lean a little bit on some of your older players. Phil maybe had to burden more responsibility than was probably fair for him.
“This year, I don’t get that sense. I feel like they’ve been through it and we’re way better equipped for whatever adversity comes at us.”
One group that should be able to handle adversity is Northern’s forwards, a group that Potulny can see quite a few positive things.
“No. 1, a ton of depth,” he said. “And again, last year, we started out the year in a position where I felt like if we get to Christmas, we’d get A.J. (Vanderbeck) and Schultzie (Brandon Schultz) and I thought it would give us some depth.
“All of a sudden, A.J. plays eight games and gets hurt. Going into this season, I’d always kept kind of a smaller roster for practice purposes and different reasons. This year, we made a conscious effort to go out and get extra players to grow our roster so that if we run into injuries, No. 1, then those players aren’t going to be available, but No. 2, there’s still gonna be enough quality players that there’s going to have to be competition for ice time. Those players have come in, and a lot of them are two- or three-year junior players so they’ve kind of been through it a little bit.
“Obviously, college hockey is at a way faster pace and a way harder game than what they’re used to. These guys have acclimated very well and some of them are gonna play pretty important roles for us.”
When looking at the defensemen, Potulny said he notices three things right away with his incoming class.
“Length, ability and some steadiness,” he said. “With the length, you’ve got Colby (Enns) and Noah (Ganske) and James (Miller). James is still working through some eligibility things, but Colby is 6-(foot-)2 and Noah is 6-7. They’re long and they skate well. Colby is really explosive and has a ton of quick twitch. Noah is just long and smooth.
“We have the ability to make plays and if you look at our ‘D’ corps, you go 6-1, 6-2, 5-10, 6-3, 6-2, 6-7, 6-1, 6-3. So you have some size back there now and all those guys can make a play.
“I feel it’s the best ‘D’ corps we’ve had by far. We’ve had elite players back there, but I don’t know as a group of six or eight that we’ve had as much depth as we have right now.”
Then there’s the goalies. Last year, NMU switched between Nolan Kent and John Hawthorne frequently before Kent emerged as No. 1 during the second half of the season.
This year, though, Potulny said the starting job is up in the air as Kent will be dueling with newcomer
“That job is definitely up for grabs,” he said. “John ended up having some surgery in the offseason, he’s actually much farther along than I think that we were expecting. We were hoping he’d get healthy by the end of the year in practice. He’ll probably be in a position where he’s practicing by January. So right now, he’s kind of out of it.
“Obviously, Nolan has played and for stretches, has played very well. So he’s got the experience of that and the guys have played in front of him so they understand what it’s like to play in front of him.
“Then you have Connor, and Connor is a goaltender with very good hockey sense. He’s very talented and he’s won. He’s kind of won at every level.
“So going into it, it’s pretty wide open and with the truncated season, once you kind of figure out who your guy is, it’s going to be hard to play them both because you only have 18, 19, 20 games or something like that.
“And the hope is maybe we can play a few games before the conference schedule starts and if that does come to fruition, we can kind of play them both then.”
Potulny has been kind of going with the flow the last few months, and although that may have frustrated others, he said he’s used a positive attitude to get him and his team through a tough situation.
“I feel great about what’s going on,” he said. “It’s kind of the old adage like, ‘Life is gonna happen, it’s how you react to it.’ I think our guys have done a great job of that. I think our university has done a great job. I think our president and our athletic director, everybody has done such a good job of reacting accordingly and taking this situation and this pandemic head on and being responsible.
“You can control your attitude and I think it’s bled through our university. I do. I think you see it even in the (Upper Peninsula), the success that we’ve had tackling this, and part of that is attitude. So I think we’ve just got to stay with that.”
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.