Commentary: Lake Superior Needs More Than Coaching Change
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Jim Roque became this season's first coaching casualty when Lake Superior State let him go following the conclusion of the team's regular season.
Even though the school has changed presidents (numerous times) and athletic directors in recent years, not much has changed for the program. It's basically been on a downward spiral since Jeff Jackson left in 1996 to start the national development program — though it's quite likely he'd have eventually run into the same problems.
This is a program that once won three national championships in six years, but was not equipped to deal with the changing landscape of college hockey.
Consequently, Jim Roque is just another victim of a familiar story — a school not devoting resources to an athletic program is losing too many games, and in need of a scapegoat.
Last year, Tim Whitehead was let go at Maine under similar circumstances. It's all relative — Maine has more resources than LSSU, and Whitehead went to four Frozen Fours — but it's conceptually similar. Maine had fallen behind the rest of Hockey East in terms of facilities and budget, and it showed. A lot of Maine fans will disgree and insist he wasn't a great coach, but that's not necessarily fair.
I'm not close enough to the situation at Lake Superior State to know why the school itself has limited funds, though declining enrollment is one factor. So it's not appropriate to attach blame to anyone specifically.
But the bottom line for the hockey program is, it hardly has the resources it needs to compete, even in the new WCHA, where it should theoretically be easier than the old CCHA.
When the CCHA was on the brink of dissolving, with the Big Ten and NCHC forming, there were many in college hockey who feared that LSSU was the most likely candidate to simply shut down the program. Behind the scenes, it was the program most mentioned when discussions arose about schools that weren't willing or capable to keep up. Miami and Western Michigan wanted to go to the shiny new NCHC to get away from schools like that, which they believed would drag it down.
Even some of the current WCHA schools had reservations about entering a league with two Alaska schools and programs like Lake Superior. There were machinations, led by Bowling Green and Niagara, to try to form another new conference out of teams from the old CCHA and current Atlantic Hockey — ones that were committed to hockey and 18 scholarships.
Ultimately, too many schools, like Northern Michigan and Ferris State, got cold feet and jumped at the WCHA opportunity rather than wait around for another new conference to form, thus leaving no options.
So here we are.
Maybe Lake Superior State's administration is just hoping for a shot in the dark, maybe find someone who is the new college hockey coaching genius that will lead the team to the top of the WCHA. Maybe that happens. Maybe, lacking any other way to go about it — i.e. devoting more resources — this is its only shot.
OK. Just don't count on it.
More than likely, the new coach will face the same hurdles Roque did, and find winning to be just as difficult. Odds are, also, that the new coach won't recruit as well as Roque was able to, given the situation. Roque landed some pretty good players — just not enough of them. Three players left early last season for NHL contracts. Another, Kevin Czuczman, just did so this week.
Who will be better and more equipped to deal with the challenges at Lake Superior State now? Roque is an alumnus who was an assistant coach on two of the three national championship teams. Anzalone tried a second time and couldn't do it. Roque couldn't do it.
Good luck to whoever this new savior will be.
It's not realistic to expect it could keep up with Big Ten schools anymore. There was a day and age when that was easier. But now, with big money and television revenue going into some programs, and with the Ivy League schools able to snatch recruits with hefty financial aid packages, the Lakers are too far behind that pack and in too remote a location.
But Lake Superior State doesn't have to be completely doomed. A little more money into the program, a little upgrade of facilities, more money in the recruiting budget, and there's no reason why the Lakers, with their rich tradition, can't be in the mix in this new-look WCHA, that has many programs more of its ilk.
We'll see if Lake Superior State has the gumption to do any of this, or leave another coach out to dry.