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NMU defenseman Bretzman returned to Notre Dame

Northern Michigan University’s Tony Bretzman, No. 7 at left, plays against Alaska Anchorage in a game last month at the Berry Events Center. Bretzman returned to Notre Dame Nov. 27, and was presented with his Big Ten Championship ring from when he played for the Fighting Irish. (Photo courtesy of Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — Many of us around the Upper Peninsula took the time over Thanksgiving week to spend time with some extended family.

Tony Bretzman got a little late start on that as he didn’t see his “extended hockey family” until a couple days after the holiday weekend, but it didn’t mean it was anything less special. He even got an early Christmas present to take home to Marquette.

After spending four years at Notre Dame and playing in two different hockey conferences (the Big Ten and Hockey East), the Northern Michigan University senior returned to his former school on Nov. 27 as the Wildcats played a game against the Fighting Irish. Before the game, Bretzman received a Big Ten Championship ring from head coach Jeff Jackson after Notre Dame won the conference earlier this year.

Bretzman said it was a big surprise and that it was nice being back in South Bend to see his former teammates and coaches.

“When we showed up, it was a little weird at first because I did spend four years there, going to school there and all that,” he said. “I still talk to a lot of those guys on the team that are my friends as well. I felt good coming on with Northern though. I was confident in our team. We just have been playing better as of late. So I was confident going in there and it was good to be back. That (the ceremony) was a complete surprise to me. I didn’t know that was happening at all. I knew that there was some sort of ceremony after the national anthem, but that took me by surprise that’s for sure.”

NMU head coach Grant Potulny said he and the Irish kept the secret from Bretzman and that it was nice to see him get that kind of reception.

“They (the Irish) reached out two weeks ago and asked if I had any objections to it and obviously, I didn’t,” he said. “Tony had no idea and I didn’t share with any of the players or assistant coaches. I think it was a real raw emotional moment for him. He was excited and he kind took the team on a little tour and we saw the Basilica (of the Sacred Heart) and the Grotto (of Our Lady of Lourdes) and showed them Notre Dame. That was part of the experience also, which was enjoyable.”

As enjoyable as that was to walk around Notre Dame’s campus again, Bretzman is no longer a member of the Irish and is proud to be a Wildcat. He also talked about what made him transfer from a large Big Ten school to a smaller school in the U.P.

“It’s just a great opportunity for me, going into a place that’s really going in the right direction,” he said. “At Notre Dame, it was just time to move on for me as a player. I have nothing but good things to say about that program, but Northern represented an opportunity for me that I couldn’t pass up, both from an academic standpoint given that I’m a fifth-year student, but also from an athletic standpoint with the team.”

If there’s one thing that Bretzman does well is make adjustments. Not only on the ice, but just in the situation he’s in right now. He’s played in three different conferences and his daily grind is a bit different from his teammates.

“My classes are at night,” he said. “We have (weight) lifts in the morning and most guys will go to their classes during the day and come back to the rink for practice. For me, after lifts, I have a little bit extra time. I usually spend it either studying or any projects I have in my classes. Or just spending a little bit extra time at the rink taking care of my body and stretching or whatever. After practice is when I’m going to class, so it’s a little different feel. I try to make sure that I’m getting the right amount of sleep. I usually get home from class at around 9 o’clock so I’ve got to be disciplined that way. I might have some homework that I have to after class as well. It’s a little different. I’m used to doing the undergraduate way of doing things for four years, and now I’ve got night classes, which I’ve never had before. It’s all about time management. If you’re doing that wisely, it really shouldn’t be a problem.”

Making wise decisions has been what has helped Bretzman stand out in the roster. A two-way defender, he can guard the blue line well, but considers himself a “puck mover” and likes to join NMU’s offensive rushes when he can.

“I think he is playing the best of all of our defensemen,” Potulny said. “He’s a plus player. He generates offense and he plays in every situation. He’s doing the things now that we thought he could do when he came in here.

“He’s playing at a really high level.”

NMU may be struggling right now, especially on the offensive end, but after coming back to his old campus, Bretzman is feeling positive about the rest of the season.

“I think we’re starting to come together,” he said. “We’re definitely getting a better sense of who we are as a team and our identity. It kind of just goes back to practice and focusing on the small details in things and realizing that we’re all in this together. We’re working and focusing on the process. The day-to-day little details in the weight room and in practice are going to add up to much bigger things coming up.”

After already graduating and earning a Big Ten title last season, Bretzman might be the perfect guy to lead the Wildcats back to the postseason.

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