"We started practice on Sept. 24, a week ago Saturday. Then the week got broken up a little bit because I was coaching a WCHA all-star team this past weekend, which played the U.S. Olympic team up at the Xcel Center (in St. Paul, Minn.) on Friday night and then played again on Saturday in Duluth. So I ended up having four of our players that play at Wisconsin on that team, so we actually missed three days of practice last week. It's a good experience for the players. It was great exposure for our league and a wonderful opportunity for players within our league to get a chance to play against the Olympic team on their road to Italy in February. But when you want to start the season, you want to have as many practices and get as many things accomplished as you can.
"We, unfortunately, missed a few days, but in saying that, we look forward to getting over to the Kohl Center today. We'll be practicing there all week. We open up Saturday against a worthy opponent, three-time NCAA champion Duluth, and so we're right there with the wolves to start the season off. We've got a young team in the respect that we've got some freshmen that, if you get an opportunity to watch us play you'll take notice of a couple of the young players that'll be coming into our program this year. We're real excited with what we've seen on the ice, although we haven't been on very much.
"It's going to be fun watching them develop and grow as players. We've certainly got some players that have some experience coming back from last year's squad. The big thing about the players that are coming back, they got a real taste of what it's like to be part of the NCAA tournament with the group going last year.
"Although there was a sour taste in our mouth when you lose that opening game in Dartmouth, but yet it's still a step in the right direction and hopefully the things that they learned over the course of last season and what they experienced at the end of the year will carry over into the start of this season and maybe move us forward in a direction, and continue the process to try to win a championship. So we're excited about it.
"We've got a lot of things coming back. Obviously, we have some holes to fill when you lose Carla MacLeod who was our captain for a couple years. She's presently playing with the Canadian Olympic team. We lose Molly Engstrom who we played against this past weekend who's on our U.S. Olympic team. And then Nicole Uliasz was a fifth-year senior and a real leader on the blue line.
"We've got some holes on the blue line to fill in, but we've got young players that hopefully will be able to step up given the opportunity now to be part of that process and really solidify us on the blue line. I think up front we've got enough players coming back. We've got some young players, as I mentioned, that not only will be exciting to watch, but I think will be able to score some goals.
"In net, Jessie Vetter, who redshirted for us last year will be in the mix. We have both our goaltenders who played the last couple years back in the net. So, knock on wood, we should be very solid in the nets also. So expectations are high. Players are excited. Coaching staff is excited. And we look forward to the opportunity to getting off to a good start here."
Mark, can you talk about some of the challenges of having three goaltenders that are going to compete, I mean, I know you have, you know, one back that played a lot of minutes last year, but if you want to get three in the mix, some of the challenges of getting them, you know, starts or at least time early and evaluating from there?
"It'll be challenging I think on both ends. It'll be challenging for the coaching staffs obviously to make the right selections and try to keep everybody, I want to say happy, but I don't think you can because all three of them are very competitive. We ran into a couple injury problems last year with Christine (Dufour) hurting her knee and missing about six or seven weeks.
"But all three goalies are healthy, all very eager, all practicing very hard. So our challenge is going to try to make sure we have the right person in the net at the right time, but at the same token, giving everybody an opportunity and trying to keep them happy. But it's certainly going to give us a few gray hairs as we go through the season.
"But it's one of those situations where from a coaching standpoint it's okay. We can deal with that. We'll make the decisions. And hopefully through our communication with the three goaltenders that they not only are supportive of one another but they help each other out. I think if their attitudes (are good) and they're really true team players, although it'll be difficult going through it, it'll be best for the team because we do have three very capable kids that could play probably every game for us if we needed it."
Having just done the Ironman, does that now change what your thought is, what you can do for off-ice conditioning with the team and what kind of credibility does that give you in the locker room when it comes to pain and gain with the team?
"Well, I mean, the temperature, today it's 85 out there. It was 94 that day and the wind certainly kicked us. But off-ice conditioning, no, I don't think I'll put the players on the bike for eight hours and have them run a marathon afterwards. For me it was a great experience. I did it with my son. We're always looking for challenges. You're looking for things to push you and it was certainly something that I'll never forget and certainly hopefully down the road get another opportunity to do.
"But from a player's standpoint, a lot of things that you have to do to prepare yourself for that event relates to what an athlete has to do, especially in the college scene with the commitment not only to their individual sport but also commitment to the academic portion of what we do here at the university.
"And then it comes down to your ability to have the discipline to do it. I mean, everybody can talk about doing things, but are you disciplined enough to get up at 5:30 in the morning and go swimming. As an athlete disciplined (be) enough to maybe say no to some social situations around Madison and study on certain nights. So a lot of things that our athletes do, they saw their coaches also do and we were able to finish on a real difficult day. So the message and the support we got from our players is a real positive one."
Is the league up for grabs at this point?
"Thanks for the question because it's going to be a unique year. This is my fourth year and it'll be like no other year compared, in relationship to, with the Olympic season in play. The Canadians have their group together, Ben Smith, our (U.S.) coach, has the group together. Minnesota lost probably 85 percent of their scoring from last year's team with (Natalie) Darwitz and (Krissy) Wendell, Kelly Stephens and Lyndsay Wall being off their team.
"So in years past, you could look at the particular weekend and say, ‘oh, yeah, so-and-so will beat this team by four or five goals every night.' I don't think we'll see that this year. I think we'll see a bunch of splits on different weekends. We'll see some normal teams that you think would walk into a building and win. I think for this year it's going to be really up for grabs.
"We have our media coverage throughout the Internet and through the telephone on Wednesday, and it'll be interesting to see what the coaches' comments are around the league because it's going to be a different flavor. I know a lot of teams that haven't won as many games as they'd like to over the course of the last several years are very eager. A lot of teams return a lot of players from last season.
"And so it's going to be a fun year. It'll be a real fun year from that standpoint because Minnesota, as I mentioned, lost some quality players. Duluth lost a couple quality players. We lost some quality players. So from top to bottom, it's going to be as even and tight as it's ever been."