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Short turnaround: Northern Michigan University athletic director Rick Comley hopes to name new hockey coach in a few weeks

Northern Michigan University athletic director Rick Comley, left, watches current NMU President Brock Tessman speak during a news conference on Wednesday about the search for a new Northern hockey coach. Comley has also been named the Wildcats’ interim head hockey coach while the search begins for a successor to Grant Potulny, whose resignation was announced on Tuesday. (Journal photo by Steve Brownlee)

MARQUETTE — Despite running through a process that will include employing an advisory committee, Northern Michigan University athletic director Rick Comley hopes to have a new Wildcats head hockey coach named within just a few weeks.

“I understand the time element, but we want to go through the process of finding our new coach,” Comley said at a news conference held at the Superior Dome on Wednesday morning. “Ultimately, if we find the right people, then our program will be successful.”

The plural “coaches” alludes to a new coach having to also assemble a group of assistant coaches after not only NMU head coach Grant Potulny announced his resignation on Tuesday, but also associate head coach Byron Pool and assistant coach Nick Peruzzi.

The university reported that Potulny is pursing a job “at the professional level,” with some speculating it would be with a team at the National Hockey League’s top minor-league level, the American Hockey League, and others further narrowing it down to the Wilkes-Barre-Scranton Penguins in Pennsylvania, which is affiliated with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins.

In fact, an SB Nation website devoted to that NHL team, Pensburgh, listed under www.pensburgh.com, had a headline on a story dated Wednesday, “Reports: Grant Potulny to be named Wilkes-Barre coach.”

Potulny’s connection to this job is purported to be with Pittsburgh assistant general manager Jason Spezza, who is also listed as heading the Wilkes-Barre coaching search.

Potulny and Spezza were teammates for a season with another AHL team, the Binghamton, New York, Devils, during the 2004-05 season, according to the Pensburgh site.

Meanwhile, it was reported by College Hockey News on its website that Pool was a favorite for an assistant coaching job at Dartmouth, while Peruzzi was being looked at as an assistant coach at Connecticut.

Comley was accompanied at Wednesday’s news conference by NMU President Brock Tessman and NMU Sports Information personnel.

“Today is a big day for Northern Michigan University,” Tessman said at the start of the event. “My congratulations go out to Grant and Nick and Bryan. These are good opportunities for them.”

He went on to add that he realizes just in his relatively short time in Marquette how important the NCAA Division I hockey program is to the school and surrounding community, and that Comley with his years of experience in the sport is a good asset to have to “steer the ship.”

“It’s a tremendously challenging time,” Comley said near the start of his remarks. “We’ve already started this process (of finding a new coach). My phone has been buzzing at all hours of the day — and night.

“It’s a terrible time to find a coach, but it’s also a great time. It’s important that we bring in a coach who understands what the (Upper Peninsula) is all about and what NMU is all about.”

He said that the advisory search committee will have its first meeting on Monday, though at Wednesday conference, he didn’t yet want to divulge the names of the members of that committee.

“The choice of a new coach is my decision with the president’s approval,” Comley said.

Because of NCAA rules enacted in the past few years, all current players and incoming recruits and transfers have a new 30-day window as of the day of Potulny’s resignation to enter the transfer portal, meaning they have a month to decide if they want to play and attend a school elsewhere.

For most players in regular situations, the transfer portal closed on May 14.

Comley said he had heard of one player, either current or incoming, that was now looking at entering the portal.

Potulny’s recruiting class has been reported to be one of his best and even one of the best in the nation, according to the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Herald, with three NHL draft picks in Hampton Slukynsky, Vladislav Lukashevich and Rasmus Larsson.

As Potulny left his position on his own, NMU won’t be under obligation to continuing paying his $285,000-a-year contract that was signed in 2018 and was set to run through the 2025-26 season.

Comley also tamped down any speculation he could become the new permanent coach.

“I’d say it pretty close to zero,” the 77-year-old original Wildcats coach said of his chances of taking the job for next season. “I do still have my skates, though.”

Comley came to Marquette from Lake Superior State, where he played from 1967-71 and was head coach from 1973-76. He not only founded the NMU program in 1976, but was its only head coach until 2002, a span of 26 seasons with a record of 538-429-68.

He led the Wildcats to the 1991 NCAA national championship and a runner-up finish in 1980 while making four appearances in the Frozen Four.

During his NMU coaching tenure, he held the dual role of athletic director from 1987-2000, a position he returned to as a retired coach in August 2022.

After declining at least three offers to move elsewhere earlier during his tenure at Northern, Comley left Marquette for Michigan State University in 2002, coaching there 10 seasons until 2011 and winning a national title in 2007.

The Spartans job had to be attractive to Comley as his LSSU coach as a player, Ron Mason, was just stepping down from the MSU position and Mason became the Michigan State athletic director.

Overall in 38 seasons behind the bench at three schools, Comley had a record of 783-615-110, ranking him fifth all time in Division I coaching victories.

Among other honors, he was inducted into the NMU Sports Hall of Fame in 1998, the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame in 2013 and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2023.

Potulny, 44, was just the third coach in Wildcats’ history, following Comley and former Comley assistant Walt Kyle, who was head coach for 15 years from 2002-17 with a record of 265-263-68.

Potulny was with Northern for seven seasons, from 2017 until this year, compiling a 128-113-17 record, including 95-69-11 in league games in the WCHA and CCHA.

Last season, the Wildcats struggled to a 12-16-6 mark, including 10-10-4 in the CCHA, as Potulny finished with four 20-win seasons in his seven years and two appearances but no victories over the past four years in conference tournament championship contests.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 552. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.

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