One-on-One With Culhane

Broncos Illustrated had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the coach of the Broncos hockey team, Coach Jim Culhane, before last weekend's home exhibition game against Waterloo. Coach Culhane talked among other things about Lawson Ice Arena, Jim McNamara, the team leadership, and Pat Dwyer's summer at the USA Junior evaluation camp.

Upon entering Coach Culhane's office, I had noticed the largest picture in his office was of Lawson Arena, in the game where the Broncos defeated the then #1 ranked Michigan State Spartans.

"The question from our assistant Commissioner Fred Pletsch to me was what makes Lawson so unique? It's simple the students. The league web page last year did a poll, a fan survey, what's the toughest building to play in the league? You think about the likes of who we play in our conference with the Big Ten schools and Notre Dame and Nebraska Omaha and we were voted number one as the toughest building to play on the road. You look at some of the quotes that coach Berenson and Coach Mason said about coming in here. When it is sold out and when it's like that, how tough it is to play here. What were trying to do now is not just one we play those schools every time to play. Make this thing grow because it's a difference maker in what I feel could be the outcome of the game. Whether we need a lift because we've just then scored on or we've just scored a goal and there's been a big hit or whatever this place, they go absolutely bananas. Their lined up, last year there was like 800 kids out here waiting to get in weekly then let them in we were sold out we were packed. They waited outside for two hours or an hour and a half to get in the end of the second period then they rushed building, because the ticket people had left and they come in any way. It's great; it's fantastic that's what makes Lawson Ice Arena so special. When it's sold out when it's packed and when there's 1200 standing students right when you come out of that tunnel is just as shot of adrenaline, as a coach as a player is just amazing. It's a great place to play, it's a great place to coach and has wonderful academics and we have a complete sell. I think our problem is, we're a very well kept secret. I think right now going into our fourth year with our recruiting we're starting to see kids know about Western Michigan the style we play that the program is improved over the last three years where were nationally ranked where we finished last year. We had five scholarships to offer out this year going into next years recruiting cycle the fall of 03-04 in we have four commitments already and we're not even at the end of September and why is that? I think Chris and Scott have done an outstanding job of identifying that young talent. Done a great job at convincing the kids to come in here on an unofficial visit, and then once they see it and they see the progression and the improvement of the program they are excited to come. We've got four out of five commitments already so we are pretty pleased with that."

Wouldn't Collegiate hockey be the only sport that has had a level playing surface among the first string guys longer than any other Collegiate sport?

That's a good question. We have 18 grants; we used to get 20. So we went and reduced our grant in aid from 20 down to 18 but with that did is obviously give schools like ourselves, mid-tier schools, an opportunity to recruit someone who may be would have gone to the bigger name school. You think in our conference, with the likes of Michigan and Michigan state they would have four more commitments of this so-called top end blue-chip kids. They're not getting that now because of the restrictions on the scholarships, and they would have two more kids in their program. So what that's done is letting us and the other schools around the country is to find those kids, that may be around the bubble or whatever to make that program that traditionally they recruit all those top end blue-chip kids. It's given us the opportunity to get some of those kids. But I think in hockey Michigan and Michigan State, I think until someone knocks them off the top of the CCHA will continue to get the top end blue-chip players. Realizing that and understanding that we do our best in trying to identify those kids and get in there and try to recruit them. Yet we realize that hey we might not get them so we need to be well prepared to look at may be that next so-called kid down. I think with a lot of hard work those kids can develop and compete in which we've done last couple years having a Maine coming year and beat and tie a Frozen Four team. Beating Michigan when they came in here and you can do it but it's difficult. The big thing for us is we've been able to beat those perennial powers may be at home but we are yet to win in their buildings. You look at where we are right now. We've done that with our non-conference schedule, our league scheduling into Michigan, into Michigan State so forth down to Notre Dame. But non-conference wise we're going to play at Maine and we're going to play at Colorado College, Again NCAA tournament teams having Cornell play here our non-conference schedule is just as tough as our league schedule. And we're playing against in our non-conference schedule three out of the 12 NCAA tournament teams in we have two more right in our league in Michigan and Michigan State."

One thing nobody can say is our hockey season schedule is a soft schedule.

"No, from top to bottom in our league you just look at last year's playoffs. Lake State finished in last they go to Michigan first night of playoffs they beat Michigan in their building, Michigan has to win two straight or they're knocked out the done and they're don't go to the Frozen Four or they don't go to Joe Louis they don't win."

There's a question that was brought up this summer about their eligibility and with guys such as Pat Dwyer by the Atlanta Thrashers. Does the NCAA hockey also have redshirts? If so, how does that work for the hockey? If somebody gets drafted by the NHL, how long are they considered a part of that team before being able to be redrafted?

"The first question the redshirt situation, yes we can redshirt very seldom it happens traditionally a redshirt would come probably a more of a medical redshirt than it would be just maybe a true redshirt that you see a lot in football and basketball. Hockey is pretty unique these kids come out of high school, they are 18-year-old freshman, come in to play. We just don't have the luxury with only 18 grants when your lineup consists of 20 athletes we don't have the luxury if we redshirt someone on a grant and now we're down to 17 and we're dressing 20,so your dressing may be three so-called recruited walk-ons. So there's not much redshirting that goes on in college hockey due to the number of grants. You look at football and you have what 88 scholarships? You're only traveling how many, I mean I'm not sure. So you're able to redshirt, you can have these kids lift a get bigger stronger faster for a whole year before they get into, whether it be a third second or first string player as they move through your program hockey it doesn't happen very seldom. Now the NHL draft and Dwyer situation. He is draft eligible as a freshman, was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers here in June, what happens now as long as he retains his eligibility here, doesn't sign with an agent, and decide to go and pursue pro hockey, they own his rights. So as long as he is here in our program maintaining his eligibility to play Division I college hockey they own his rights until he completes his time here and all his eligibility I think it's until June 30th after his senior year they own his rights. By that time they have to make him an offer."

So, since he is a sophomore coming into the season he will actually be an Atlanta Thrasher (in their system) they will have their rights to him until he graduates.

"For example I was drafted by the Hartford Whalers my freshman year and they owned by rights all the way through and then I send a pro contract with them upon the completion of my junior year. Same thing with Patrick, with Vince (Bellissimo) what the draft means it is they've been identified as prospects, that they're good players. Now you have to develop as a player to a point where you move from being in a prospect stage to someone who's within their organization, you've develop, now you've become a potential pro that they want to sign you. They've just been identified as two talented young men, within the CCHA and our hockey program. With the way the instructional program is, with their work ethic and determination, both of their boyhood dreams I think everybody all 28 of them down stairs want to play at some level of pro hockey. Whether they play in the National Hockey League, well we are going to do try our best to get them there and I know they will too."

There are some fans that are keeping us updated some of the other alumni that are in the NHL or in the NHL camps right now.

"You have Mayers and Eastwood all in St. Louis, shoe-ins to make the Blues, Corvo right now Joey is on the bubble I mean he may stay in L.A. Daryl Andrews is more of the depth player right now I would say with New Jersey, Anthony Battaglia just got sent down from Carolina he was there with his brother, and then Bishai is still in Edmonton. Rymsha was in camp with the Avalanche he's been sent down to their American Hockey League affiliate in Hershey. You look at the CCHA, you're watching future stars of tomorrow in the National Hockey League when you think of Ryan Miller, Mike Cammalleri, Mike Komisarek just last year signed Mike Bishai signed there's a number of guys that play. You're watching these kids play an our building and you're watching them play on television within may be a year to two to three to play in the National Hockey League."

We also have alumni plan across town right Wing's Stadium and I see that as a good situation for the Broncos that are leaving and to me the Kalamazoo Wings is a great developmental team for them to become part of.

"It is them an opportunity to play."

We all know that your feelings about the preseason in and early season rankings and polls and you don't really care for them they're meaningless and stuff. At the CCHA press conference the media picked Western Michigan to finish eighth in the conference. Do you see that as a way to motivate the team, to let them know that the team is better than what the media is saying, and is that also something that will help keep any pressure off the team as they go throughout the year?

I think right now obviously the pressures on Michigan as a preseason poll; to media and the coaches' poll, which were identical. I think the pressure is on them to win. In our situation being picked 8th, I told the team is nothing different than what I tell you it's meaningless. It's where we end up in the second week of March is what matters. In every year we've been able to finish higher than maybe what we have been projected in the preseason. Preseason is just that its preseason it's a projection. What matters is your attention to detail, and what to do through the course of October to the middle of March, that's what matters.

Speaking of what happens during that time frame, I've noticed there's been a trend the last several years in Bronco hockey where from about December to February there is a point to where there is a lull where the team loses more than they win. How can we avoid what they call that type of letdown?

"I would agree with that statement our first two years. I think when I first came in we played .500 up until Christmas time that first year in and then we had a real tough schedule in the second half and we and up being 10th in the league. Our second year we got off to such a great start and we were just on fire but we hadn't hit any adversity and we're sailing through things and we got hit by some adversity and we had a tough time fighting through that. Last year we're hovering around .500, a couple games above .500, until roughly the end of January the beginning of February. Then we won like seven out of eight games through that stretch where we played pretty well and made a real push to move ourselves up to get home ice. So I would agree with that my first two years, last year I didn't see that, I saw a great Ohio State team come in here and beat us on home ice, which we're all disappointed about. I think we're cautious of the fact that at some point through the year you are going to be hit by sound adversity its how you stick together as a unit, as a team, and how you push through that. That comes again from, I think, strong leadership within your program. I think we have that but that's the great unknown until you get hit by that in anything in life. How are you going to respond? Look at a firefighter or an EMS person they are trained their whole lives to react to situations. But until you are confronted by that you don't know how you going to react. We train these guys all year long to prepare for different situations in practice and prepare, that's our job as coaches. You do not how they're going to respond until they get confronted by it. With that, I think we have strong leadership from our captain Dana Lattery, our assistants Paul Davies and David Cousineau, I think they will do a great job. I think again the team will rally amongst those guys and together to push through any adversity they come to, that's the great unknown. Then we're cognizant of the fact that preparation, we back off of what we do during February, making sure our guys are well rested and ready to play because it is along year. So we actually give them Tuesdays off, we only practice basically really 2 ½ days a week to get prepared to play for Friday and Saturday. So we back down on the length of time we practice, is more quality than quantity at that point in February, getting into March."

I asked some of the fans of Bronco hockey if they could come up with some questions to give them a chance to ask you some questions. One of them wants to know about Jim McNamara's transfer from St. Cloud to Western Michigan University.

"A situation, where Jimmy got his release from St. Cloud. Then he contacted a number of Michigan schools, he's a Michigan kid, contacted a number of Michigan schools and when we got the letter from St. Cloud State saying it was permissible for us, through NCAA rules, to talk to Jim. We talked once, to ourselves the staff, about Jimmy as a player, made some phone calls to check up on Jimmy as a player and about him as a person. Then with that Jim contacted us and we invited him over to campus and had an opportunity to meet him briefly one afternoon. He came back again with his father, we spent a whole afternoon together, then we made a decision as a staff when Jim left that if he would like to transfer to Western Michigan we would like him to come. We're pleased about Jim's decision and look forward to him this year practicing, can't travel, lifting working out in the weight room Jimmy needs to get stronger. I think right now just what we're doing the limitedly I like what we see in Jim as a quality young man, he's got a good work ethic he really can't compete for a spot on the roster for playing time until next fall. He must set a year (transfer rules)."

What are the goals for the 2003 recruiting including information on your recruits already landed?

"I can't really talk about them until they sign. But we have four commitments right now; we are bringing in 5 on scholarship. You look at Jim's situation. He is already here so right now what we have, we have three forwards and basically two defensemen if you include Jim in that right now that are committed to the program and we will recruit one more defensemen that's what we are looking to bring in. The type of player we're looking for kids that can skate well that have good skills and that are competitive those of the three things that we really look for. Quality, good knowledge of the game those are the things we look for, and we feel that we've done that, done that over the last couple of years and with the kids that have committed to us right now are those type of players."

How will the new players help fill the holes left by last year's graduating seniors?

"That will be yet to be determined, that's a great question, that's the great unknown. We feel we recruited well to do that how quickly they can contribute is responsibility of the team and us as a staff to get to feeling comfortable within their surroundings here athletically, socially, academically. As soon as they can feel comfortable here I think the more than they can contribute to the program. So still right now we think we've done it but that's yet to be determined by obviously the production on the ice."

Is Mantua ready to step up in net?

"I think you have in that situation you have Mike the sophomore that's played a number of games for us early on last year, and then we made the decision to go with Jeff Reynaert through the rest of his senior year. Mike won some big games for us, Mike's very athletic, last year he beats Michigan he beats Maine he played very, very well. So Mike has an upper hand essentially, he knows the competitiveness of college hockey in the different buildings in the league. But the two other guys coming in Scott Foster and Eric Marvin, Eric right now would be our third string guy. I think we're going to see a real competition between Scott and Mike and Eric also on who's going to be the so-called the number one guy who plays the bulk of the minutes in net for us. So that's something right now that's yet to be determined by their performance at practice and I will see by their performance in games."

What do you as the team's biggest strengths and weaknesses?

"I think our biggest strength will be we will have the ability to score goals. I think we have good team speed. I think we have good skill. I think we have the ability looking at it on paper, we haven't scored a goal yet, but you look at these kids I think they have you look at the players, they have good puck skills and the ability to score. The great unknown for us right now is just because we are young in net and how well we're going to play in front of a young goaltender. I think that's a challenge to everybody through the program to play well in front of whether the sophomore Mantua or the freshman in Foster and Marvin to play well in front of them in, and limit the scoring opportunities. I think as a fan that if I'm looking at it I think the biggest question mark would be not so much line combinations or defense pairings or whatever images, it would just be who is it going to be in net for the Broncos. Jeff Reynaert played so many minutes for us over his career the torch has been passed here now to the three other guys and that's yet to be determined who its going to be."

Seems like we've always had some pretty good goaltenders here.

"We had good goaltending."

You talked a little bit about Dana Lattery, Cousineau, and Davies. How are they going to fit in as the leaders of this year's Broncos squad? Do they lead by example? Are they outspoken? Do they work good with the refs.?

"That's a great question. I just heard coach Parker from a number of years ago, and I forget where this was but or even if I read up from somewhere or whatever, he made a comet that your best players have to be your hardest workers if you're going to be a championship team. And that's always stayed with me and I look at Dana, Paul, and David and that's just what you have. The team selects their captains, they vote, and we tell them the criteria to what to look for. But the team votes and I pulled the three guys in here in our first meeting in September, and I can't be any more proud of those guys. Sitting them in here what do I say to you? You know exactly what I want from you. Now don't change anything from what you've done over your careers here. You're outstanding players, your outstanding academically both Paul and Lats are in biology David is in business and they are all 3.7, 3.75 students. They work their tails off athletically getting stronger in the spring and summer conditioning. The quote from coach Parker is I feel some of our best players and those three guys are also our hardest workers so that excites me. The fact that they are going to set the bar and the rest of the team has to stay with them. And if you do that then hopefully they will make everyone else better. Because the harder they work as your most gifted players and makes everyone else work harder just to try and keep up, and they've done that and he will continue to do that. I think the team made a wise selection in the three of them Dana specifically. Dana is in a unique situation where if he is voted again as a senior as captain it will only be the second time in Bronco hockey history that we would have had a three-year captain. A guy I played with on defense Chris MacDonald was a captain as a sophomore, as a junior, and then as a senior so that would be quite an accomplishment if that took place for Dana."

Somebody wanted to know how Pat Dwyer did in his junior evaluation camp for Team USA.

"You know what he really enjoyed the experience. I think that was a great individual accomplishment for Pat just to be selected to the evaluation camp and also for our program. Pat worked extremely hard, I talked to people that were out there, I was not there. Pat just as we know him, as a player was all over the ice, up-and-down the ice, finishing his checks, and working real hard. Talking to Patty about it he was disappointed that he didn't score more. As a goal-scoring player you feel that way when the puck is not going into the net for you. Like I said to Pat, I said you do so many other things well, if you're not scoring you're still contributing to the team. So right now USA Hockey will evaluate all the players that were selected to the camp throughout the fall and make a decision through late fall on what they are going to do with the world junior team."

What is your outlook on this coming season?

"Well, we're going to have a talk, we need to talk as a team. We spoke a couple times already about coming up with our team goals. Right now what we've done is the team understands the philosophy and the foundation of the program and our fabric, what our culture is, what our rules are all of those things have been reinforced and reiterated. Now what we need to do, we're going to try and get this done next week is come up with our team goals. They've seen the preseason projections; they've seen the coaches poll whatever. We will have a meeting and we will look at train to do it sometime next week collectively as coaches and players when we want to accomplish and give them a lot of ownership on what they're trying you do, and how we are going to do this together. And once we come up with our goals and how we are going to reach them. It's easy to come up with the goals and now you have come up with all right how are you going to get them? What do you have to do to accomplish those goals? That's the difficult part day and day out and that's what we will drive home all year. There are you're goals we decided together what those goals are now we need to do x, y, and z to accomplish those goals and that's what you put there…I have thoughts in my mind but I think it's unfair for me to stay here and tell them. Every coach in the league, we expect to win a championship that's what we want, that's why we are here. But these will come from within the four walls of the locker room."

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