Q&A With ... Northern Michigan Coach Grant Potulny
Northern Michigan tabbed 37-year old Grant Potulny to be just the third head coach in the program's history, after Walt Kyle was let go at the end of last season. Potulny had a standout career at Minnesota, when the Grand Forks, N.D., native famously became the first non-Minnesotan to play for the Gophers in decades at that point. He was a big part of back-to-back national championship teams in 2002 and 2003, then played one season with his brother, Ryan, on a Frozen Four team in 2003-04 before embarking on a playing career that took him to the AHL and Europe.
Potulny came back to Minnesota as a volunteer assistant coach, only to have the full-time assistant job open before the season started. After a trial run, he was given the job. Since then, he was an integral part of Minnesota's staff, and grew so quickly on the job that he was named to Team USA staffs for multiple international tournaments.
CHN: How has the transition been so far?
Potulny: It's been really good. The energy and enthusiasm of our guys has been outstanding. They're excited about the way we're goign to play the game. It's all new for them. There's a lot of ways to try to win a hockey game. We're going to try to win by playing with pace, playing with tempo, putting pressure on people with our feet and always being on the attack. As a player, you like playing that way, and as a coach, I like coaching that way.
CHN: The trend has gone back in that direction over the years. Why does that seem to go back and forth?
Potulny: I think the NHL sets the standard for the way that most teams play. And I think when Los Angeles was having all their success with their heavy forwards and puck possession, you heard about teams trying to get bigger and stronger and get more possession. Now Pittsburgh and Chicago go on their run, and they play the game that some college hockey teams have been playing forever, trying to push the pace and make plays. And I think part of it for me too is what tree you come up from. And playing under Coach Lucia, his system never wavered, no matter what was going on in the NHL. It was always about speed and skill. That's how I know how to coach the game. You've got to be true to what you are and can't try to be something else.
CHN: What does that mean for guys that aren't the speediest in terms of fitting in?
Potulny: The first day of practice, we did a drill — it was really challenging for the 'D' because they had to move their feet and had a lot of pucks coming at them from a lot of different angles. And we did that same drill yesterday and I said we really looked like a hockey team yesterday. Even guys who struggled mightily the first day, they got better. It's like anything, if you try to learn how to play the piano, you're going to get better at it. So we've spent time on our skill and puck pressures and moving our feet, and guys have gotten better. It's going to be a big deal for me to work on the individual skill of all our players. If you can create an environment where individuals get better, I think our team collectively gets better.
CHN: Is there still a place for bigger forwards?
Potulny: Absolutely. You'd love to have your guy that plays the way you want to play and be 6-[foot-]3. It's only better. As much as you can try to identify guys who have that skill set, you have to build a team and have a little bit of everything. We're absolutely going to recruit some size, and have that power and strength. There's room for everybody.
CHN: What's your take on analytics?
Potulny: I think they're a tool you can use. There's a professional team that — they wouldn't like me to share which team they are, but they did a research study and decided that they felt lots of times that you're delivering a puck to the net, you're kinda giving it back [to the other team]. So in their research, you want to take the right shots, not all the shots. So it goes against the trend of delivering as many shots as you can. And that team finished Top 10 in goal scoring. So I think all the information on those tools is good — you have to formulate what you think it important for the way you want to play, and track it that way than trying to follow the trends.
CHN: When did you first get the coaching bug? Did you know while playing, or did it only occur to you after?
Potulny: I never thought about it as a player. As I left school and my brother was still there, I was invested in what was going on with him and the team. I had a dish so I could watch the games, and it becomes infectious. And when he moved on to the NHL, I was still hooked on watching those (Minnesota) games. You kinda get invested in it, you start talking to coaches, just bantering back and forth. And at one point one of them had mentioned, "Did you think about what you were going to do next year?" I had just come off a couple injuries and I hadn't even thought about it. I wanted to play. He asked me that and I thought, and you know what, maybe I should start thinking about the next 20-30 years of my life. So I was all set to come back and be the volunteer coach, and I had a job lined up that summer. I got the opportunity as an interim coach for a month and a half for Coach [Don] Lucia to evaluate and see if I could be full time. So it went from a phone call if I wanted to be the volunteer assistant, to two to three months later working at your alma mater.
CHN: Does all the years of playing and, theoretically, listening to your coaches, prepare you for actually being a coach, or do you have to be in it?
Potulny: It's like anything, you get better. The thing that resonated for me the most was, the first time you're on the board talking to your team, and in your mind you think you're communicating what you want to do, and you start the dirll and there's 24 guys looking at you going "What?" They don't understand any of that. So that was the biggest challenge, communication, making sure you were very clear in what you were saying. For any young coach that's the No. 1 key, making sure you verbalize what you'd like to see happen.
CHN: How instrumental was Don Lucia in your development as a coach?
Potulny: Don has been an incredible mentor. He gave me an incredible amount of responsibility and allowed me to grow into becoming a coach that was ready to go off on his own and take over a program. That, to me, is a big credit to him, that he entrusted certain key elements of our game to me, and along the way he's obviously a mentor, but he's allowing you to form your own coaching style, and communication style, and formulate your own relationships with the players, so when the opportunity arises you're 100 percent prepared. ... He's an incredible hockey coach, and being around him and watching him, and watching him handle situations, and watching how he addresses the team, you can learn a lot from paying attention. There's a reason he's successful, and you can learn a lot by paying attention to how people like that carry themselves, and how everything is important. There's no small detail that's not important, from academics to social life to athletics. You build a culture where you're expected to be excellent everywhere. And that resonates the most with me. It's not an evironment where kids feel over-worked or over-stressed, it's just that, there's a lot in you that you don't understand yet, and we're going to pull that out of you.
CHN: Some fans get on his case and have the impression the assistants do more of the Xs and Os. Is that fair?
Potulny: No. He's the head coach, and he's in full control of that program. He's the commander of the ship. That couldn't be farther from the truth.
CHN: When the NMU job opened, people like me were speculating who it would be and were looking for NMU connections. Then you came along, and it was outside the box, which is good for NMU. What was your pitch like? Did you have a really defined plan?
Potulny: I'm confident in myself and my abilities. I was just myself. It was something I thought would be a really great fit for both parties. I have a plan, and I didn't do anything over the top or out of the ordinary. I did what I thought was right and it was genuine.
CHN: What appealed to you about NMU?
Potulny: I think if you look at the history and tradition, there's only been two coaches, both with winning records. That grabs your attention first. Then when you come in the interview process and talk to people in the athletic department or in the community, they are really invested in hockey. Sometimes you need to just remind them what this team and group of men can do in the community. There's no question this is Marquette's team. It's not just Northern Michigan's team. At a Big Ten school you become the school's team. In some of the smaller communities you become the community's team, and everyone is invested. And when everyone is invested, you can do some fun things.
CHN: You can compare to Grand Forks, where you grew up, and the old way it was. These days, North Dakota gets every blue chipper. But that was not the case in the 1990s. They won two championships with a lot of smaller players, speedy, unknows. You hearken back to that era.
Potulny: In 1991 when Northern Michigan won [the national championship], there wasn't a whole lot of difference between the University of North Dakota and Northern Michigan — there was a lot of similarities. With the commitment and investment the university has made in hockey, you have a chance to rekindle a little bit of that and become a program that hopefully people recognize nationally.
CHN: Did you need to get some sort of assurance of that? As badly as you want to be a head coach, you don't want to put yourself in a bad situation.
Potulny: To be successful, you need the support of the university, and I've received their full support. They've been incredibly generous. They're all in on hockey.
CHN: A lot of the schools in that area are having financial issues and that's not necessarily anyone's fault in the athletic community. But what is the sense of that in the moment? They seem to be able to fund what you need in terms of recruiting budget and what not?
Potulny: Absolutely. Our budgets have been funded to every need we've desired. They've been fantastic. And we have the tools and resources we need to be successful.
CHN: You played one year with your brother Ryan [the 2006 CHN Player of the Year] at Minnesota. Was that the only time you ever played together?
Potulny: That was the only time we ever played together in a competitive game. He's in Europe. He got married this summer. There's a moment I think he thought about retiring. I think this might be his last hurrah. So they're going to travel and enjoy it. Hockey has been good to a lot of people, and he's going to enjoy it this year, and bring his wife along and see some of the sites.
CHN: You were coming off two national titles that year, and then you made the Frozen Four. That must be a year you cherish.
Potulny: It was really fun. There's a funnny story — we had never played together. Here comes Ryan, the USA Hockey Player of the Year, and Danny Irmen, all-USHL First Team. We had a great class coming in. The first game was our father's 50th birthday, in the Icebreaker against Maine. Everything in practice had been great, playing with Ryan. We get to the first game, I look at him halfway through the game and I say, "Hey, give me the puck." And he says, "Get open." It was, right away, the brotherly connection. ... It's like the old Danny Devito in Twins movie — he got all the skill and I got what's left over.
CHN: Well you certainly made the most of it, that's the beauty of it. You had to rely on more than just skill. Does that make it harder or easier as a coach to teach guys? You need to have that well-rounded game and work ethic.
Potulny: I can't speak for guys who were high-level players [and now coaches] but I know you had to manage the game with a middle-of-the-road skill set. You weren't just going to athletically skate around everyone. So you had to understand space, and the systems, because it makes it a whole lot easier when you know where the guys on your line are going to be. So I think those things have helped me, because if everyone is where they're supposed to be, and everyone knows what their job is, when you get the puck, you have options. As a coach I try to communicate that to our players — the more you can be in the right positions, you can be demanding the puck and can play as a group of five, and it makes it easier.
CHN: Who else have you leaned on?
Potulny: Jim Johansson at USA Hockey has been great. And [NMU alum and former NHL executive] Don Waddell has been a very good resource. When you're around high level people and fortunate to be around them, you can learn a lot if you just ask the right questions and pay attention to what they're saying. You formulate your own identity from there, but those guys can be a really good sounding board.
CHN: How about Rick Comley?
Potulny: Yeah, he's been around. We're dedicating the rink [to him] for that first home game, so Coach will be back for that. He's been outstanding. He was on the [search] committee. I had a chance to speak to him after. He's just an icon of the game. If you learn from those guys and the experiences they've had, you can accelerate some of the learning curve. Even Coach Comley having worked with the Blackhawks, he can share different things they did there.
CHN: Last thing, I guess it strikes me as humorous that you move from Minnesota to Northern Michigan. There's no one more outspoken on the recruiting age issues than Don Lucia, and no one more on the other end of the spectrum than Walt Kyle. You were with Don, and now you're in Walt's shoes. What's your take now?
Potulny: I'm glad you brought up Walt. Walt's been nothing but welcoming. He's been fantastic for me. He's a huge supporter of the program. Outside of Rick Comley, Walt has been known more for Northern Michigan than anyone. So that's been great.
On the question of recruiting, you hear both sides of it. Some people would say, "How can you recruit a certain player at a certain age?" And the other end of the spectrum is, "Well my team is full of 20 year olds." And even at my old job (at Minnesota) I'd say, I don't care if a team is full of 20-year olds. If we want to have 20-year olds, we can have 20-year olds. If guys want to identify and evaluate talent, you just have to do what's right for your program. As long as you're honoring your commitment and word to the players you've made commitments to, each program has the ability and right to do what they feel was best.
CHN: Would it hurt NMU if the age limit were dropped? Was Walt right?
Potulny: I think having more time to have players develop in junior hockey can even the playing field a little bit, I do. But like anything, you'd adapt. Walt is correct in thinking that — listen, I was a 20-year old freshman, I'm not sure I was ready to play college hockey at 19, and look at all the wonderful things hockey has afforded to me. I would have a hard time voting to move that age down because of all the experiences I've had. Limiting that might be the wrong step for us to take as a [coaching] body.