Tech Stock Rising
by Virg Foss/Staff Writer
GRAND FORKS, N.D. It's been a race in Houghton, Mich., for the last 13 years to see which gets buried first — the city itself under its average winter snowfall of 180 inches or the Michigan Tech hockey team in the WCHA standings.
Not since 1992-93 have the Huskies finished with a winning record in the WCHA. You have to go all the way back to 1975-76 to find the last time the Huskies won the MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular season champions, a painful reminder since it is a storied trophy that originated in Tech's neck of the woods.
It's been more than 30 seasons since the Huskies last won an NCAA title under the legendary coach John MacInnes, who won three of them (1962, 1965 and 1975) in the glory years of Huskie hockey.
With the Huskies currently in eighth place (3-7-2 WCHA, 6-8-2 overall) in the 10-team WCHA and riding a four-game losing streak into a weekend series against North Dakota in Grand Forks, there's no serious plans being made to hang a championship banner in MacInnes Arena in Houghton this year, either.
But under the coaching of former Tech defenseman Jamie Russell, in his fourth year heading the program, there's definite signs of brighter days ahead.
The Huskies rank No. 2 nationally in least shots on goal allowed per game (22.4), No. 8 in goals-allowed (2.25 gpg) and No. 9 nationally killing penalties. Those are positive signs of an improving program.
A strong recruiting class coming in next fall may speed what Russell hopes will be a rise to the top half of the WCHA standings. He points to prize recruit Casey Pierro-Zabotel, who ranks second in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League in scoring with 31 goals and 36 assists in 30 games for Merritt, as the type of player he hopes will jump-start the struggling program.
"I think we have one of the best recruiting classes coming to Michigan Tech in many, many years," the 40-year-old Russell said of next year's recruits.
He also sees progress now. "We climbed up a few spots in the (WCHA) standings last year," Russell said, "so we're heading the right way. But you've got to claw and scratch for every inch in the WCHA."
It may be tough for Tech to gain any inches in the series with North Dakota. Although the Sioux are struggling themselves and will be minus star sophomore Jonathan Toews (with the Canadian World Junior team) for the series with Michigan Tech, the Sioux are the one team Russell hasn't beaten in the WCHA, going 0-12 against them in his first three full seasons.
"I remember last year we got outscored 10-0 in the series here," said Tech senior forward Tyler Skworchinski. "In my four years, we've never beaten North Dakota. We're definitely looking to change that this weekend."
The Huskies have two of the top goalies in the WCHA in sophomores Rob Nolan and Michael-Lee Teslak, who are benefiting from Russell's emphasis on strong team defensive play.
"Our success comes from how hard the guys work in front of us," Nolan said, "and how committed they are to the team. Our stats reflect how good the team is playing in front of us."
Yet, victories have been hard to come by for the Huskies. They started the season by opening eyes, winning five of their first six, including an impressive road sweep at Vermont.
But in the last 10 games, the Huskies have won just once. The last two weekends, they were swept at home by two of college hockey's hottest teams, St. Cloud State and Minnesota.
While one might think that Tech's string of losing seasons might be a heavy burden, it isn't apparent from talking to the players.
"I don't think there's different expectations among us," Skworchinski said. "We expect to win just like every other team expects to win. I think we may have more challenges than schools like Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota do, because we're a smaller school and where we're located. But we put in the time every day, and at the end of it, we expect to win."
Russell said he wouldn't have taken the Michigan Tech job if he didn't think he could build a winner in Houghton.
He left a strong Cornell program, where he was the lead assistant, to answer the call from his old school in 2003.
"I left Cornell when we were the No. 1-ranked team in the country in the last poll of the year my last season there," Russell said. "If I didn't think we could win at Michigan Tech, I never would have left Cornell."
He also realizes the challenge is great at Michigan Tech. The landscape of college hockey has changed dramatically since Russell last played at Michigan Tech in 1989, and it's certainly far different than when MacInnes had Tech's program on a par with any in the country.
More colleges have added the sport, adding to recruiting pressure. The WCHA itself has seen big, beautiful new rinks sprout at Colorado College, Denver, Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin since Russell last played in the WCHA.
"I think a program like Michigan Tech, there's more of a cyclical affect," Russell said. "Our job as a coaching staff is to make the highs very high and limit the lows. We don't want to take a big dip."
Michigan Tech has some built-in advantages. It's an engineering school with high academics. While Michigan Tech is absent from the national hockey polls, the school is ranked No. 7 nationally on the latest list of "most wired" colleges, attesting to its academic advancement.
"I don't know if we recruit a different type of player than some others schools do, but I think there's a definite fit for Michigan Tech," Russell said. "We're a great school academically, so you have to be a student-athlete. We're a smaller school (6,500 students), so our class size is typically 25-30 students. When I went through the recruiting process, for me that was a real positive. I like the fact that the professor knows your name. He knows you're going to play North Dakota and are going to miss Friday's class."
The job for Russell, then, is to recruit to Tech's strengths and not get overrun by perennial league powers such as Denver, North Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado College and Wisconsin, all with glitzy rinks and recent championship banners.
"Chemistry in our locker room is very important to us," Russell said. "You've got to have the right kids, who are pulling that rope together."
In signing Pierro-Zabotel for next season, Russell feels he is bringing an elite player into the program.
"He'll be a very high NHL draft pick," Russell said. "So to say we can't get an elite player at Michigan Tech isn't true. Are we rolling in 4-5 NHL first-rounders like a Minnesota? No, we're not."
Yet Russell has shown that the Huskies can taste success, albeit somewhat limited, without a roster bursting with NHL draft picks.
"Last year, we went into Wisconsin, ranked No. 1 in the nation, undefeated record in the WCHA and beat them," Russell said. "Two years ago, we swept Minnesota on the road in Mariucci."
Of Tech's roster this season, 23 of the 26 players are either freshmen, sophomores or juniors.
"We have the kids in the program right now who have a foundation," Russell said. "So we can certainly compete. We can certainly have a winning program.
"And recruiting is going well, where we can get a championship banner at Michigan Tech. It's definitely heading in the right direction."
Russell said he looks for recruits from winning programs in juniors who were fierce competitors.
"Our biggest challenge as a staff was changing the culture of Michigan Tech," Russell said. "We've got kids who are dedicated to getting Michigan Tech back to the top. Now we're starting to get some kids with a little more skill, a little more speed. The talent level goes up with every class we bring in."
And soon, Russell hopes, Michigan Tech will go up in the WCHA standings as well.