"Well, that's one of the challenges. Obviously the teams we're playing present a challenge, but coming back, it's a long trip, made much better by the results and the weather and everything. So we're trying something new this year in that we're going to take tomorrow off. We talked to quite a few teams around our league and quite a few of the teams take Tuesday off rather than the Monday, which makes sense. See, you travel all day Sunday. Today we'll skate, loosen up, take tomorrow off, let the body recover, catch up on some schoolwork and be fresh for Wednesday, Thursday, and play Friday, Saturday. So we'll try that route this year and see how it works for us."
Besides pride, these two games are important for a national scope, correct? And how important were they last year to your club?
"Well, they were all really important last year because we were trying to establish ourselves once again in terms of the RPI ratings and getting ourselves up that ladder. And so the victories that we had on the road I really think propelled us up to a higher status within that RPI system. And that'll do the same this year. And we've already talked about that as a team.
"On the bus last night we said it was a great road trip, now we've got to start recreating ourselves for this next weekend. And although these are not WCHA games, the last thing they heard as they left the bus was the fact that these will be rankings, these will be games that will help our ranking at the end of the year, they are important."
You mentioned at the start of the season how important it was for your team to get off to a good start given their youth and the way the schedule shaped up. Is this as about as good as you could have hoped ten games in, the way things have gone for your team so far?
"Without a doubt. I think that, you know, winning the five out of six games at home that we did, and getting a couple of wins on the road, for a young group we have a starting of a good team confidence now and we need to continue to do that. And this will be a good test this weekend again, to play these quality teams that we don't see very often, to see where we rank with them."
Mike, with regards to a player like Robbie Earl, what is the, what takes the longest to come around, consistency or patience?
"Well, I think for Robert, his biggest task was consistency. We saw last year as a freshman, a young freshman, that there was moments of brilliance. It seemed that in the big games he would rise to the occasions, against the Minnesotas, the North Dakotas. He had his bigger games against, so you knew it was there. As he's matured over the summer, as he matures as a young man, that consistency is there and we're seeing that this year. That's why he has the numbers that he has.
"I think patience is a part of consistency. I think it's a part of the equation that goes within that, understanding that, you know, when he tries to create either better habits on the ice or in his life, he sets off on that task. But you know what? It's not there in a week, goll darn it. We'll, the patience is I have to stay with that in order to create a habit. We talked about how long it does take. So patience is a part of the equation for consistency."
Based on your definition of an elite player, is Robbie an elite player?
"Not yet. And I'll qualify that by saying he has the physical attributes to be an elite player. If you just looked at him from a pure physical standpoint, quickness, power, when you test him, how he tests out, you say this young lad could be an elite player based on that alone. But that's not the whole package. What we were just talking about, the consistency, playing through all kinds of variables, that's what's going to make an elite athlete. So he has some makings of being an elite athlete and he's growing towards that."
Mike, I believe you have one of the only, one of the few teams in the league that doesn't have a week off before the winter break. Does that pose any special challenges as you come to these last three weeks before the break, and, you know, taking different breaks like you do this week and keeping your guys fresh for the these last few weeks before Christmas?
"Well, I think taking the days off will help keep it fresh. But as you know, the WCHA is such a tough grind. In the big picture I'm glad we have that time off in the second part of the year. We'll get through this. I mean, the kids haven't played for six months, they're excited. Yeah, it becomes a little bit of a grind, but that grind becomes more so in February, so it's better to have that week off, in our opinion, in the second half of the year."
Mike, I think earlier in the year you talked about some of the lessons learned on that second night against Denver, and then what some of the young guys learned about intensity at Minnesota. What were some of the strides that were made and some of the things that your team learned this last week in Alaska?
"Well, I think one of the things that we did well was play as units of five on the ice, and what it demonstrates, you can tell them that. You can work on it in practice, but until you do it on the road, in a game, that they really say, hey, it really does work. So we take from this past weekend that lesson. In order to be successful on the road you have to do it collectively as a team, as groups of five when you're on the ice, and we did that to a high level this weekend. I think now they internally understand that and will be able to better do that the next time we go on the road."
Mike, you and your staff use video, from what I've seen, more than anybody. Could you talk about how that has helped the development of a lot of your younger players, especially your defensemen?
"Well, let's first set the table by saying that video is, you walk a fine line, because you can have paralysis by analysis. So we are very much aware of that fact, and we start from there. We use video as an adjunct to the learning curve in terms of we have the ability to take a practice, for instance, we'll videotape practice. We'll go out, we'll tell the guys this is what we want to do today in practice, we go out and we practice it. We break down the video. We give it to them the next day before practice and we go out and do the same drill. And so that accelerates that whole process of learning. They get to see, they get to do, they get to see and do again.
"So we think that we try to use it smartly, if I can use such a simple term. I know being a former player that, you know, your meetings with video cannot go any longer than 20 minutes or you've just lost them and they're like zombies in there. So we're very aware of that, and we try to be smart about it so we don't get that paralysis by analysis."
Coach, you're in first place and you're on a four-game winning streak in the conference. Based on the question a couple of people ago, would you rather play conference games this weekend, or are you glad that your team's taking like a non-conference, like having a non-conference schedule this weekend, or doesn't it really matter to you?
"I really have not thought about it to that degree. The fact is we play two outstanding opponents, and that's been our focus. So we actually don't look at it as a week off. I guess it is in terms of WCHA, but they're such great opponents that it's another test for us, it's another opportunity for us to grow as a team. And we have such a young group that, heck, I think all our guys, just looking at their eyes last night, you know, it's Michigan, Michigan State, this is a big thing, and I think they're excited to have this challenge."
Coach, what do the guys get to do Thursday for Thanksgiving while most everybody else is sitting around on the couch stuffing themselves full of turkey and watching football? What's the plan with the guys? Is somebody making dinner for them?
"Well, we're going to practice earlier in the day. Then, yes, they're going to go out and have turkey with some folks. And so they'll be sitting on the couch eating turkey watching football as well. But we're going to have, you know, it's interesting, it's always you eat turkey and, you know, you tend to sit down and relax, and we're going to have to have a pretty lively skate on Friday morning to get some of that turkey out of our systems, but we'll work at it."
Mike, you talked about the value of playing Michigan, Michigan State in the RPI, the PairWise, those kind of ranking things. From a broader perspective, this showcase series, you know, every year at this time, what does it mean to your program to play these teams consistently?
"Well, it keeps alive a little bit of a rivalry that was there back in the day when our era played. I mean, they were part of our league. And I think that's why people brought it back. They didn't want to see it disappear altogether. It was such, it's a great rivalry. And it's interesting that I think within the WCHA, I was surprised last year when we played Notre Dame, I mean, how full the building was. I think Notre Dame attracts that. Oh, they're playing Notre Dame, let's go see. Well, if we're playing a Michigan or Michigan State, we're going to get a good crowd as well because those are noteworthy opponents in football and basketball, and I think people will come out and see those games, and there's a little extra charge in the building because of that."
I apologize for an odd question, but when you compare your teams to a Michigan, to a Michigan State, or with any team that's an elite team in the country, do you personally look at who you're matching up against? You have, Red Berenson who has won a couple of national championships. You have Rick Comley who's won a lot of games, won a national championship. Do you even throw yourself into that equation at all?
"As a coach? I'm still trying to establish myself as a college coach. I think that even our players and our team are trying to establish themselves because they're very much like us as coaches. We're young at this level. And we're still learning the college game, both the recruiting aspect of it, and the playing aspect of it, and the dimensions that come along with dealing with college kids. So the difference, one of the differences between Coach Comley and Coach Berenson is the fact they've had the test of time at the college level. And, boy, I don't know if I could ever last as long as they have. That's ultimately the test of greatness, is the test of time, and they've both passed that."
Given all the learning that you're talking about, what's been the most pleasant surprise to this point, admitting that there's a long way to go yet, most pleasant surprise with your team?
"I would have to say our defensemen, and great credit has to go to Mark Osiecki and Troy Ward in terms of working with them and bringing them along at a faster-than-expected rate. It helps to have a real good goaltender behind them because he covers up some of their mistakes and they can, we've talked about this before, having the ability to have a short-term memory. And so they've developed because of the work that those two coaches have done with them, plus the fact that the goaltender has been, both goalies have been pretty good behind them. But that's been the biggest pleasant surprise."