Friday, June 26, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Western Michigan

It's been a matchup that has been rumored for quite some time - ever since Seth Appert's college roommate became the head coach for a single season on his rocket path up the coaching ranks, RPI-WMU has been something that has been tossed around but has never quite come to fruition for one reason or another. This year, it's finally taking place - as the opening round game in the Shillelagh Tournament in South Bend. It will be the first game that another rising coaching star, WMU associate head coach Ben Barr, will have against the team he captained in 2003-04 since he left Union in 2011.

Western Michigan
Nickname: Broncos
Location: Kalamazoo, MI
Founded: 1903
Conference: NCHC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Andy Murray (5th season)
2014-15 Record: 14-18-5 (6-13-5-4 NCHC, 7th place)
Series: RPI leads, 4-2-0
First Game: December 28, 1979 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: January 23, 1999 (Troy, NY)
Last WMU win: November 28, 1980 (Kalamazoo, MI)

2015-16 game: November 27, 2015 (South Bend, IN)

Key players: G Lukas Hafner, sr.; F Nolan LaPorte, sr.; D Chris Dienes, jr.; F Sheldon Dries, jr.; D Taylor Fleming, jr.; D Mike McKee, jr.; D Neal Goff, so.; D Scott Moldenhauer, so.; F Aidan Muir, so.; F Willem Nong-Lambert, so.; F Frederik Tiffels, so.; F Johnny Curran, fr.; F Matt Iacopelli, fr.; F Mitch Makin, fr.; F Griffen Molino, fr.

The Broncos are a pretty young program in comparison to most other hockey programs out there in a major conference - their first season in existence was the 1973-74 season, the beginning of a two year process that saw them join the fledgling CCHA, at the time a minor conference by comparison to the two mainstays, the WCHA and the ECAC.

Some of the most famous names to come out of the WMU program actually played on some of those early teams, which featured a number of games against smaller schools without varsity programs. Long time New York Rangers GM Neil Smith played for the Broncos from 1975 to 1978, though he never reached the NHL as a player. Smith's teammates included Bernie Saunders, the fifth black player to play in the NHL, as well as Bernie's brother John, who has worked for ESPN for nearly 30 years and was once a mainstay on the network's NHL coverage (though he only appeared in two games for WMU).

Officially joining the CCHA in 1975, the Broncos were long an afterthought within a league that itself was largely an afterthought until 1981, when Michigan, Michigan State, and Notre Dame defected there from the WCHA. Even when the league had as few as five teams, it was not uncommon to see WMU finish in last place or next-to-last place, which they did in each of their first six seasons in the league. It wasn't until 1984 that the Broncos could even claim a finish in the top-half of the league table, which they did with a 5th place showing in what was then an 11-team league.

That was the second season for WMU's third head-coach, Bill Wilkinson, who would eventually become the most successful coach in program history, and under Wilkinson, the Broncos would quickly reach heights they'd yet to see in their first decade of existence. A season later, in 1985, WMU recorded their first winning season in CCHA conference play and finished 3rd in the standings.

The program's first rise peaked in 1986, when the Broncos took a second consecutive 3rd place CCHA finish and turned it into a title run in the CCHA tournament, ultimately knocking off a Michigan State team that would go on to win the national championship by a 3-1 score at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for the program's first hardware of importance. That team won 32 games, by far a record for the most wins in a single season in program history, but WMU was swept out of their first NCAA tournament appearance by Harvard.

The next 10 years or so saw WMU settling into a middling role in the CCHA - rarely competing at the very top of the table, but never really falling into the doldrums of the conference, either. Wilkinson's teams earned their first two at-large bids to the NCAAs in 1994 and 1996, but the Broncos dropped lopsided games to Wisconsin and Clarkson in those years, respectively, leaving the program still in search of its first national tournament win.

Those two NCAA appearances proved to be another local peak for the program, as WMU began to tail off following their 1996 appearance. The Broncos struggled to two losing seasons following their loss to Clarkson and were well on their way to a third when Wilkinson was fired in February 1999, in part due to a scandal on the team in which a team party took place at a home that Wilkinson owned. His replacement was assistant coach Jim Culhane, a WMU alum who had played on the CCHA championship team who'd had a cup of coffee in the NHL following his collegiate career.

Culhane had some minor success early in his tenure in Kalamazoo, bringing the Broncos back to the mid-point of the CCHA standings in 2001 and 2002, the former a 20-win season that would be his only one as head coach. But after that, WMU returned to largely being an afterthought in the now powerful CCHA conference, and the program spent much of the 2000s in the doldrums of college hockey, far from competition for national tournament appearances or CCHA glory.

For some time under Culhane, WMU looked like a program whose administration didn't really care much about. In 11 full seasons as head coach from 2000 to 2010, the Broncos finished with a winning record only twice, making it to .500 in 2007 but never better than that after 2002. After two 8-win seasons in three years (2008 and 2010), Culhane was informed late in his final season that he would not be returning behind the bench.

The summer of 2010 was a tumultuous one for college hockey. At its very end, the news that Penn State was moving its program to varsity status threatened to explode the foundations of the college hockey conference structure - and ultimately, it did, with the CCHA right at the epicenter as teams fled for other conferences in a hurry. WMU, heading into that season, certainly didn't look like a candidate for a strong conference, not after essentially 15 years of stagnation as a program.

But Culhane's immediate replacement as head coach would end up leaving an impressive impact on the program in just a single year behind the bench. When Indiana Ice head coach (and former Seth Appert roommate) Jeff Blashill was named the Broncos' new head man, it didn't exactly make waves, but the team he put on the ice made plenty of noise. Against all odds and expectations, the Broncos rebounded from a last-place finish in 2010 to a 4th place CCHA result in 2011, followed by a run through the CCHA tournament that ended in the championship game. They fell to 5-2 to Miami, but still earned their first NCAA tournament bid in 15 years.

Blashill's charges gave Denver all they could handle in Green Bay (just after North Dakota had demolished RPI on the same ice), but fell 3-2 in double overtime. Four months later, Blashill was hired as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. A year after that, he'd take over the head coaching position at Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, and just this month he became the new head coach of the Red Wings, only four years removed from Kalamazoo.

If there's another coach who had as significant a positive impact on the direction of a college program in just a single year at the helm, it would be awfully difficult to identify him. Less than a year after WMU looked like a program without a prayer, and just a couple of months after Blashill's departure, the Broncos were extended an invitation to join the new NCHC, an invitation to a sure-thing power conference they'd have never earned without the resurgence he brought to the program.

Following Blashill's departure, the Broncos landed another big name to guide the team through the final CCHA years and into the NCHC - Andy Murray, the former Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues head coach. Murray, who had flirted with the head coaching position at RPI in 2006 (he was apparently offered the job first), had coaching college hockey on his "bucket list," and he found quick success at WMU. In his first year, he guided the resurgent Broncos to their second CCHA championship, riding a second place finish - their best final position in the league ever - to a tournament run and a 3-2 title game victory over Michigan.

WMU would fall 3-1 to North Dakota in the 2012 NCAA tournament. The Broncos are still chasing the elusive NCAA tournament victory - with six losses in as many tries, they have the active record for most national tournament games without a win.

In 2013, their tenure in the brand-new NCHC began, and it has been difficult over the first two seasons. The conference has proven to be a total meat grinder, with no "breaks" on any given weekend as basically every team has been among the best in the nation. The inaugural season saw the Broncos finish in the middle of the pack, while last year they were ahead of only Colorado College. As the saying goes, somebody has to be last, but someone also has to be next-to-last. Murray is certainly keeping WMU competitive in a very difficult conference, but there's another step that likely will have to be taken before they can be among the best of the best in this new league.

The Broncos were 8-5-0 in non-league play last season, but only 6-13-5 in NCHC play. The eight non-conference wins included 6-2 and 8-2 destructions of Ohio State and Union in the Shillelagh Tournament, so they enter this year's affair as the reigning champs. This year's WMU squad returns most of the key elements from a decent offensive makeup, with LaPorte. Dries, and Tiffels all having reached double digits in both goals and assists last year. Hafner was strong in the net for the Broncos, with a 2.42, .914 line that really isn't that bad when you consider the level of competition he faced on a night-in, night-out basis.

Most of the top blueliners from last year are back as well, although the defensive corps did suffer one important defection to the pro ranks when Kenney Morrison signed with Calgary at the end of his year, forgoing his senior season. He had previously been slated to be the Broncos' only senior defenseman.

There's no question that WMU was one of the most dangerous sub-.500 teams in the nation last year, so take their losing record with a serious grain of salt. Put that team in practically any other conference and they're likely contenders for a title of some kind. They should be at the very least better than they were last year given what is returning, and while a resurgent RPI team could probably give the Broncos a good game, they're almost certainly the favorites. WMU has only an hour and a half drive to South Bend, RPI's time in the iron lung is 11 hours. This is a neutral site game with a definite home team. Give the edge to the Broncos in what will certainly be another difficult non-conference game for the Engineers, one of many across the first two months of the season.

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