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Coach Grant Potulny talks Northern Michigan University hockey season: Even with campaign potentially delayed, 4th-year coach ready to play

Northern Michigan University’s Brandon Schultz, front left, leaps and is hit with the puck as he tries to redirect it toward Ferris State goalie Roni Salmenkangas, right, in the third period of their WCHA game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Feb. 1. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“There’s a reward for trying to do all the things the right way and that’s you get to keep playing.” — Grant Potulny, NMU head hockey coach, on athletes following pandemic protocols

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MARQUETTE — To say it’s been an up-and-down year for the Northern Michigan University hockey team might be an understatement.

The Wildcats were eliminated by rival Michigan Tech in the WCHA playoffs back in March and have been stuck playing the waiting game ever since, wondering if there would even be a season this year.

Eventually, practices resumed again and the league announced its conference schedule in late October, so it looks like things are climbing back into the right direction for NMU.

Northern Michigan University defenseman Ben Newhouse, top, with teammate Joe Nardi watching, looks up ice as the Wildcats attempt an offensive rush during the second period on Jan. 10 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

Now things are endangered again with a halt to just about all sporting events in Michigan for three weeks that won’t end until the second week of December.

There’s been no indication if the schedule will start up right away, but either way, things haven’t been easy for Northern and head coach Grant Potulny.

He discussed what the most difficult thing has been for him after the WCHA media Zoom meeting last week.

“I guess for me, it probably would be not being able to know what to tell the players,” he said. “The uncertainty of it. You’re at the mercy of a lot of things that are outside of your control. That’s probably the number one.

“And for me, I always say it’s just an inconvenience because there’s people that have had this really affect their life much more than it has anybody in my immediate circle or any of our players.

From left, Michigan Tech's Jake Crespi and Northern Michigan University's Mitchel Slattery and Michael Van Unen line up waiting for a faceoff during the first period of their WCHA game played at the John MacInnes Student Ice Arena in Houghton on Feb. 29. (Photo courtesy Cara Kamps)

“We’ve got to be careful just to make sure that we understand this is just an inconvenience for us and be mindful that there’s lots of other people that this has affected much more than us.

“So we have to do our job socially to make sure that we’re not part of the problem, we’re part of the solution.”

Potulny also said he supports the WCHA’s decision to test student-athletes a minimum of three times a week and also said that the team has stayed healthy compared to other programs and that the Wildcats are doing everything they can to stay safe.

“We’ve been really healthy for the most part,” he said. “You never know. There’s a lot of teams in our league who have almost their whole team has had it and that’s not the case with us by a long shot. So we’ve been very healthy.

“We’re just trying to continue to do everything in our power to continue to be able to practice and that’s the thing for athletes is that there’s a reward for trying to do all the things the right way and that’s you get to keep playing.”

In addition to testing protocols, the league also implemented some new rules having to do with faceoffs and overtime, with the biggest change being the elimination of 5-on-5 overtime and going directly to a 3-on-3 session. That would be followed by a three-person shootout and then a sudden-death shootout if an outcome has yet to be determined.

“I like the faceoff rule on icing and power play,” he said about the option coaches have to choose which faceoff circle the puck will be dropped at. “I do like that. I think it gives you a little more of an advantage and it helps create a little bit more offense.

“The 3-on-3 rule, it’s an interesting rule because I bet, not that I’d know, the body of coaches was against going to 3-on-3 for a win or a loss, but that’s the decision that was made. So as coaches, we’re gonna have to spend more time on 3-on-3 than we probably ever typically had. At least, we’re going to.”

As far as the schedule goes, it’s a little wacky as NMU will play all of its nine nonconference games — all against WCHA foes — before Christmas along with one conference game at Lake Superior State on Dec. 2. The remaining games after Christmas will all be conference battles.

That all came about before the order announced by the governor and came from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in all likelihood canceled or at least postponed the start of the season.

“It’s just interesting because if you look, everybody is doing something different,” Potulny said. “The (National Collegiate Hockey Conference)

is going to a bubble, the Big Ten’s playing big-league games and keeping teams on the road.

“I think to be honest, I do think our league’s done a good job. Is it gonna be perfect? No. I don’t think anybody feels that their schedule is gonna be perfect. But I really like the idea of playing everybody once. There’s just not enough games to have somebody on your schedule for two separate weekends because the imbalance of the competitive nature of our sport doesn’t allow for that.

“So especially in our league, there can be a fairly big difference between one program to the next. So I do think they’ve done a good job with it.

“We had to move one league game, the game with Lake State, we had to move it to December due to the fact that there’s no hotel rooms in the Soo that weekend. They have a snowmobile race, so there’s not, within like a hundred miles, there’s not a hotel.

“So instead of driving back and forth for two games, we moved one to December and then we’ll drive over there for one game in February.”

There has been some concern about traveling by air to long-distance sites like Alaska, but Potulny thinks everything will be OK.

“You’ve got games to play and you have to find a way to get there,” he said. “A little concern with Alaska. There was some league concern that they weren’t allowing nonresidents to stay without some of these parameters with tests and tests at the airport.

“We’ve been able to meet those requirements and there is conversation about a quarantine period for people coming into the state of Alaska. But I do think there’s a waiver maybe that’s gonna be cleared for athletics.”

Not surprisingly, another concern has been about canceled games due to COVID-19 issues, but Potulny said that’s just something teams will have to deal with.

“I think just with how everything has gone since this has started, I think people have just learned to, for a lack of a better term, roll with the punches,” he said. “You adapt on the fly. You’re used to what’s kind of been the daily existence for a lot of people. Work gets canceled, school is canceled. Sure, there might be some games canceled.

“I think there’s been precedent with Major League Baseball and the NBA and the NHL and how they’ve handled it. Now, the NFL. I think it’s become something that is not as crazy as it once seemed. If they’re canceling NFL games and different things, then we’re not any different than them. It doesn’t cancel the year.

“Game’s off, your team tries to get healthy and your opponent tries to get healthy and then you play that game again at a different time.”

Overall, Potulny said his team was just eager to get the season underway, when last week it was thought the opener would be next Wednesday at home against LSSU.

“Guys have been so good,” he said. “The only thing you can control is your attitude. There’s gonna be things that are going to be so out of our control. I do think part of it, to be honest, is we have more numbers than we’ve ever had. So if you’re not competitive in practice, there’s other guys that can go there. There’s not a disparity in a lot of the talent level on the team.

“I like our team a lot and that’s pushed practice to be more intense and practice is at a high level. Guys feel accomplished because they’ve gotten something done. So they’ve been really good.”

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

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