What’s next for Miami hockey?
And we thought last off-season was eventful.
With the dismissal of Miami head hockey coach Enrico Blasi on Tuesday, the program faces an even more chaotic spring and summer than last year, when the RedHawks replaced both assistant coaches and had six non-seniors leave Oxford.
Now the status of everyone involved in the program is uncertain.
For those who aren’t MU hockey diehards, let’s catch you up.
The year is 1999 and Miami hires a 27-year-old alum in Enrico Blasi. He’s the youngest coach in Division I at the time.
His fifth season – his first having all his recruits dressing each night – Miami qualifies for the NCAA Tournament for the third time ever.
The RedHawks miss that field the following season, but for the next eight – eight! – campaigns, the RedHawks are back in the nation’s top college championship.
And in 2006, Cady Arena opens at the new Goggin Ice Center, and the beautiful new home for Miami hockey is packed to the walls, sometimes exceeding its alleged capacity of 3,642.
From then on, not only did the NCAA berths start becoming an annual event, the RedHawks inched closer to bringing home a national title.
In 2007, Miami earned its first-ever NCAA Tournament win, 2-1 over New Hampshire.
The next season, as the No. 2 overall seed, the RedHawks took out Air Force in overtime and led Boston College, 3-1 late in the second period before falling in overtime, 4-3 in the NCAA regional final.
Numerous players graduated prior to 2008-09, but that spring 2009 Miami still managed to sneak into the tournament.
As a four seed in their bracket, the RedHawks won the NCAA regionals, getting past Denver and Minnesota-Duluth as they headed to their first-ever Frozen Four in Washington, D.C.
The success continued, as they beat Bemidji State, 4-1 in the national semifinal and advanced to the NCAA title game.
We know what happened next, but many forget Miami went right back to the Frozen Four the next season in Detroit after winning an epic, double-overtime thriller over Michigan in Fort Wayne.
No one knew it at the time, but that win over the Wolverines would represent the tip of the plateau that Miami had been riding.
The RedHawks returned to the NCAAs the next three seasons but won just one game, a 4-0 blanking of Minnesota State in Toledo in 2013.
Then in 2013-14, MU transitioned to the NCHC and the unthinkable happened. A sub-.500 record. No trip to the NCAA Tournament.
It appeared that season was just a hiccup, as the RedHawks won the NCHC Tournament and earned a No. 1 seed in the Providence Regional in 2015.
But that conference title game came at a huge cost, as Riley Barber was injured and Blake Coleman was assessed his third game misconduct of the season and was suspended for the NCAA opener.
On top of that, Miami drew the lowest seed in the bracket – Providence – which played its home games two miles from the rink they would play in.
The RedHawks lost that game, 7-5, and haven’t been back to the tournament since.
They haven’t reached the .500 mark in the four subsequent seasons, and after winning 15 games in 2015-16 their victory totals since have been nine, 12 and 11.
Miami’s collapse was blamed on recruiting, which was definitely a major reason.
The RedHawks benefitted greatly from the players brought in by assistants Chris Bergeron and Jeff Blashill. Bergeron was hired as the head coach at Bowling Green and Blashill became the head coach for the Indiana Ice of the USHL, where he continued to push quality players toward Oxford, such as Sean Kuraly and Coleman.
But Blashill climbed the proverbial coaching ladder and is now the head coach of the Detroit Red Wings.
That brings us to March 11, 2018. Assistants Brent Brekke and Nick Petraglia are both let go, and in the following months, Peter Mannino and Joel Beal are hired in their place.
Derek Daschke and others decommitted from Nebraska-Omaha – where Mannino coached previously – and came to Miami to follow the coach that recruited them.
So things are looking up heading into 2018-19, and the change behind the bench seems to pay instant dividends, as the team starts the season 7-2 and is 9-5 at Thanksgiving.
A tough road trip that involved multiple canceled flights and some players arriving just shy of gametime in New Hampshire, and Miami comes away from that series with a tie and a loss.
The RedHawks return home and play two of their best games of the year, coming back from a goal down six times in a pair of ties against No. 1 St. Cloud State.
Off to Providence, where Miami was 0-1-1 but rebounded from a 3-1 deficit to salvage a tie in the finale.
Then in Kalamazoo, the RedHawks were a little sluggish at times and lost both games by a goal.
That’s eight straight without a win (0-4-4) but Miami is still playing mostly good hockey at this point and has a high collective compete level.
After all, the expectations weren’t terribly high this season, but it would be good to see the team play hard and show signs it’s moving in the right direction, right?
To this point, the RedHawks had. After this point, no.
Duluth came to Oxford and in the series opener, Blasi ripped Mannino on the bench for a disagreement in strategy. Coincidentally or not, Miami was outscored, 7-0 for the weekend.
Colorado College was the next team to visit the RedHawks, and CC picked up all six points in a 6-1 and 3-2 sweep at Cady Arena, with Blasi receiving a game misconduct and eventually a reprimand from the league for berating an official and breaking a stick on the boards during the latter game.
St. Cloud State swept Miami by identical 5-1 scores the next week.
Finally, after a 3-0 home loss to Omaha, the RedHawks beat the Mavericks in the series finale to snap a 15-game, 0-11-4 skid that essentially ended any chance Miami had to earn the all-important home ice advantage for the NCHC Tournament.
The RedHawks pulled out a win in Denver the next Friday but would not pick up another victory, losing their last seven for a 2-18-4 post-Thanksgiving mark.
To its credit, Miami played quality hockey at times during the NCHC opening round but was outskilled by No. 1 St. Cloud.
What happened after such a promising start?
It’s likely a combination of several of factors. The schedule got tougher after December. The frustration of the winless streak snowballed. The Mannino-Blasi bench rift. Youth. Injuries played a major role.
The end result: A final record of 11-23-4. Three days after the Game 2 loss at St. Cloud State, Blasi was fired by Miami.
He was under contract until 2023 but an adjustment to his contract after last season only guaranteed him one year’s pay should he be terminated.
So that’s where we are now, and everyone is left to speculate about the future of Miami hockey.
Let’s reflect on the Blasi legacy first.
Criticism of the former coach has been whipping through cyberspace for some time, and how ever much of that is warranted no longer matters.
Blasi played for four years at Miami, was a captain, a 115-point scorer and played on the first-ever RedHawks (then Redskins) NCAA Tournament game in 1993.
After a short assistant coaching stint abroad, he took over the head coaching job at Miami at age 27. Again, the RedHawks went to 10 NCAA Tournaments under Blasi, including eight in a row.
They went to the Frozen Four twice and the national title game once. They won the CCHA Tournament, they won multiple CCHA regular season titles. They won the NCHC Tournament in 2015.
Still just 47, Blasi has 398 career coaching wins.
Miami hockey may have existed before Blasi, but he took the program from fledgling to a level of excellence rarely seen in any RedHawks sport.
Yes, Miami hockey has struggled in recent years but without Blasi, there’s no NCAA runs and no Cady Arena.
This man belongs is one of the greats in the history of Miami sports, and when we get some distance from this tumultuous run, hopefully everyone will realize that.
Blasi has either played or coached Miami hockey for a quarter century despite still being well short of 50 years old and deserves the upmost credit and respect from the hockey community.
So where does that leave the coaching situation?
We’re entering that pure speculation portion of the piece because probably no one knows at this point. The release from the AD said “a national search” has begun in search of the next head coach.
And there’s no doubt, as John Buccigross said, that despite its recent issues that job is still a very desirable one.
The NCHC is the best D-I conference by far, creating a magnet for top recruits.
Miami is still a fantastic school. Oxford is still a beautiful college town. Cady Arena is still a top-notch building, and the RedHawks still have their own multi-million dollar weight room just outside their locker room, a perk very few NCAA hockey players enjoy.
So regardless of who the new coach is – and my guess is it’s not going to be an obvious name familiar to the program – he should be a quality candidate.
The process probably won’t drag on for too long, although if it’s someone already on a bench – pro or college – it could be held up if the ideal candidate’s season is still ongoing.
Because uncertainty in the head coaching slot obviously makes recruiting exceedingly difficult.
Then there’s the assistants, and here’s where Miami may have a problem.
The RedHawks brought in assistants Mannino and Beal a year ago, and obviously that’s not ample time to turn a program around. But when Miami hires a new coach, he will almost certainly be allowed to pick his own assistants.
The optics of that could be terrible for Miami sports overall if the athletic department is perceived as treating their coaches poorly.
Both men uprooted their families to move to Oxford and unless there is an agreement in place to allow them to remain with the team regardless of the head coach, they could presently be in limbo.
Now could Mannino be considered for the head coaching job? Absolutely. He’s an exceptional recruiter, but with only a couple of seasons as a Division I assistant, the perception is that he may not be ready for such a high-profile position.
Then there’s the recruits. Mannino and Beal have pieced together a well-reputed recruiting class for the next few seasons, but many of those potential RedHawks could bolt if the coach that sold them on Miami are not retained.
There could be roster overhaul anyway, as some players could choose not to remain with the program, and – like last year – some may not be invited back by the team if they are not performing to expectations.
So the question becomes: Why let Blasi go now?
Miami could’ve blown the entire program up last season and started over, but at that point Blasi’s contract was still structured so that he would’ve received a lot more money, should he be relieved of duty.
And Blasi was – and still is – very well respected by many at Miami, especially with his decades of service to the program and being an alum, plus with recent firings in other sports, it appeared at the time Miami hockey was deserving of a reboot.
The powers-that-be know all of this, of course. So this is just a guess, but the athletic department probably intended to give the coaching staff at least a second season to right the program, but the 2-18-4 finish may have sealed all of their fates.
From their perspective, paid attendance, merchandise and concession sales plus those all-important alumni dollars have been dwindling, and they may have figured they couldn’t afford to take the chance the program wouldn’t improve in 2019-20 and then having to hire in a new coaching staff anyway as their incoming revenue pool continued to dwindle.
It had to be an excruciatingly difficult decision.
But agree or not, the David Sayler-led athletic department expects results and will replace anyone – even a 20-year tenured coach and alum with Blasi’s credentials – who isn’t meeting those expectations.
Miami fires Blasi after 20 seasons
For the first time this millennium, Miami is without a head hockey coach.
Following his 20th season at the program’s helm, Enrico Blasi was fired on Tuesday, athletic director David Sayler announced in a statement on the RedHawks’ website.
“This is a difficult day for Miami Athletics and our hockey program,” Sayler said. “The hockey program has had strong historical success under the guidance and leadership of Rico. In addition, Rico is an exceptional person of character and devotion. In recent years, Miami hockey has fallen short of expectations, both within our conference and nationally. The NCHC is the strongest conference in hockey and it’s imperative that we become more competitive for conference championships and NCAA appearances. I want to thank Rico and his family for their service and commitment to Miami University and the broader Oxford community.”
The RedHawks have posted four straight losing seasons, failing to advance past the first round of the NCHC Tournament in that span, and have a .362 winning percentage since 2016-17.
Blasi is a 1994 Miami graduate who is tied for 25th on the team’s all-time points leaderboard with 123, including 55 goals. He was also a team captain his final two seasons.
Blasi never played a professional game, opting for an assistant coaching job at Denver under former Miami coach George Gwozdecky.
After four years there he was named head coach at Miami at age 27, the youngest coach in Division I at the time.
The RedHawks finished ninth in the CCHA his first season behind the bench but jumped to second place in 2000-01. In 2003-04, Miami made its first of what would be 10 NCAA Tournament appearances under Blasi.
MU made the Frozen Four back-to-back years in 2009 and 2010, including a national title game appearance in 2009 which the RedHawks lost in overtime.
Miami also won three CCHA regular season titles and a CCHA Tournament and NCHC Tournament under Blasi.
Blasi earned CCHA coach of the year honors five times and was named the top coach in Division I in 2006. He is the all-time winning coach in Miami history with 398 victories, ranking him 45th among NCAA hockey coaches all-time.
The status of assistant coaches Peter Mannino and Joel Beal is unclear. They were both brought in last off-season after the previous assistants were relieved of their duties.
Miami’s statement did say that a national search for a new coach would begin immediately.
SCSU sweeps Miami’s season away
Miami was able to hang with St. Cloud State into the third period, but three unanswered Huskies goals in the final frame ended the RedHawks’ season.
SCSU topped Miami, 6-3 in Game 2 of the opening-round NCHC playoffs, clinching the best-of-3 series at the Herb Brooks Center on Saturday.
The RedHawks lost their last seven games of the season and finished 2-18-4 in their final 24 contests.
Easton Brodzinski scored twice and added an assist, and Sam Hentges and Robby Jackson finished with a goal and two helpers each to pace the Huskies.
Karch Bachman led Miami by netting the team’s first two goals.
RECAP: Bachman gave the RedHawks the lead 6:23 into the first period when he was sprung loose down the left wing after Derek Daschke had tipped the puck away from a SCSU skater, and Bachman corralled the puck and wired it just under the crossbar from the faceoff circle.
Miami (11-23-4) held the lead until the 4:32 mark of the second period when Brodzinski tied it off an intercepted clearing attempt, as he carried the puck across the slot and shot the puck in to the opposite side.
St. Cloud State (29-4-3) took its first lead 83 seconds later when a pass by Jimmy Schult into the crease hit a Miami skate and caromed in.
Bachman tied it at two from nearly the same spot as his first goal, as Lown fed him on the left wing on a 2-on-1.
The Huskies regained the lead when Jackson banged a puck off the pads of sprawling Miami goalie Ryan Larkin with 5:30 left in the middle stanza on a play that was initially ruled no goal. After several minutes of review the call was reversed.
The RedHawks again evened the score at three when Brian Hawkinson poked home a loose puck at the side of the net after a Scott Corbett shot handcuffed goalie David Hrenak.
But a neutral-zone turnover resulted in a 2-on-1 as Hentges one-timed a Brodzinski feed just over two minutes later.
A failed clearing attempt resulted in Brozinski’s second goal of the night with 8:48 left and Lizotte wrapped up the series with an empty netter.
Miami failed to score on a major power play late in the second period that included over a minute of 5-on-3 time.
STATS: Bachman’s two-goal game was the second of his career.
He ended the season with 10 goals, one behind team leader Gordie Green and more than he had his freshman and sophomore years combined.
— Hawkinson scored for the first time since Jan. 11 and finished his freshman season with 15 points, including five in his last seven games.
— The RedHawks were outshot, 45-21 overall and 35-13 the final two periods.
It was the seventh time this calendar year Miami has allowed more than twice as many shots as it has generated.
— During its current seven-game losing streak, the RedHawks have allowed at least four goals in each and an average of 5.14.
— Miami finished 2018-19 0-4 in this building and was outscored, 21-7.
— The RedHawks have been scored in the third period eight straight games and have allowed 18 markers in that span, or 2.25 per game in the last 20 minutes.
THOUGHTS: Turnovers devastated Miami, as multiple failed defensive-zone clears ended up in the RedHawks’ net.
The eventual game-winning goal was on a neutral-zone giveaway.
That, combined with MU’s inability to score on its power play chances, was the difference. To beat a team this good on the road a team has to play nearly flawless hockey, and that was far from the case here.
— One last replay rant then we’re done for a while.
It took about three minutes to review a boarding penalty on Nick Poehling to see if it warranted a major. The hit in question didn’t even look like a penalty, much less an eject-worthy offense.
That was late in the second period. Then there was the Jackson goal that was initially called no goal.
It should’ve required irrefutable evidence to reverse, and no camera angle on television showed that. Maybe the officials had access to angles not available to FSN North.
Most of Larkin’s body was across the blue line and it looks like it probably went in, but again, clear evidence is necessary to reverse that call and viewers never really got that.
LINEUP CHANGES: None.
FINAL THOUGHTS: For the fourth straight season, Miami’s was done before St. Patrick’s Day and the RedHawks are 1-8 in the first round of the NCHC Tournament in that span.
MU seemed to peak in the first eight weeks of the regular season and was lifeless the last two months.
The RedHawks really struggled at home down the stretch, going 1-7 at Cady Arena in 2019, playing some of their worst hockey on their own ice sheet.
They were even significantly outshot in their lone home win of this calendar year vs. Omaha.
As a fan, you really hoped would show improvement late in the year, give people in the stands hope for the coming seasons.
Instead Miami hemorrhaged goals against the final few weeks, and the RedHawks’ so-so offense couldn’t keep up.
This highly-touted recruiting class coming in this fall will be key.
Because without more good players hitting the ice for Miami, the team will remain in its current loop.
St. Cloud sinks Miami in playoff opener
Miami has seen enough of the Poehling brothers.
The threesome combined for five points as the RedHawks fell, 5-2 at No. 1 St. Cloud State in Game 1 of a best-of-3 series on Friday, setting up a potential clinching game for the Huskies.
After Miami fell behind by two in the first period, the RedHawks twice cut the deficit to one but St. Cloud State pulled away with a pair of unanswered goals in the final frame.
River Rymsha led MU with a goal and an assist.
RECAP: Just 3:43 into the game, Nick Poehling tipped in a blue-line wrister by Jack Ahcan to give the Huskies the early lead.
SCSU (28-4-3) made it 2-0 with 2:25 left in the opening stanza on the power play when a Huskies pass pinballed off skates in the slot and ended up on the stick of Robby Jackson at the side of the net for an easy tap-in.
Miami (11-22-4) finally got on the board with 8:42 left in the second period when Alec Mahalak threw a puck at the net and it hit off Ben Lown at the side of the cage and went in.
St. Cloud regained its two-goal advantage three minutes later when Ryan Poehling shoveled home a pass from Jack Poehling in the slot. It was an all-Poehling goal as Nick Poehling picked up the secondary assist.
A Rymsha blast from just inside the blueline found its mark 34 seconds into the third period, again trimming the RedHawks’ deficit to one.
But the Huskies made it 4-2 less than four minutes later when Ahcan carried the puck behind the net and shielded it as he skated to the faceoff circle, where he wristed it inside the far post.
Easton Brodzinski sealed it by slamming home a one-timer on a 2-on-2 break with under four minutes left in regulation.
STATS: It was the sixth straight game in which Miami has allowed four or more goals and the fourth consecutive contest in which a RedHawks opponent scored at least five times.
— MU has allowed at least one goal in 14 periods in a row.
— Lown scored in his second straight game for the first time in his career. He had just two markers the first 35 games.
— It was Rymsha’s second career multi-point game.
THOUGHTS: Miami played well the first few minutes but the St. Cloud State goal killed the RedHawks’ momentum.
And when MU was down two in the second period, the team really wasn’t playing well when Lown scored his goal.
Miami did fight back again by clipping the lead to one, 3-2 in the opening moments of the third period but ultimately talent won out and the Huskies pulled away.
— RedHawks goalie Ryan Larkin stopped 32 of 37 shots for a pedestrian .865 save percentage, but tips in front of the net accounted for two SCSU goals and he was hung out to dry the last one.
He probably should’ve stopped the Ahcan goal but made several key saves to keep Miami in the game, and the second one was unlucky, as a loose puck hit a skate in the slot and kicked straight to the SCSU scorer.
Larkin deserved a better fate than a ‘5’ in the GA column.
LINEUP CHANGES: Miami went with seven defensemen, as Rourke Russell returned after sitting out last Saturday for the first time this season.
Forward Christian Mohs also dressed after missing the regular season finale vs. WMU.
Out were Fs Carter Johnson and Zach LaValle.
FINAL THOUGHTS: This was more of an example of St. Cloud State being really, really good than Miami being really, really bad.
The Poehlings, Ahcan and Brodzinski are all going to be excellent pros and Miami had little answer for the Huskies’ skilled skaters.
That’s why the 2-16-4 stretch heading into the playoffs was so detrimental for the RedHawks: They have to face the best team in Division I on the road to open the postseason.
Preview: Miami at St. Cloud State
St. Cloud State is the top-ranked team in Division I with just four losses this season.
The Huskies are unbeaten at home, going 15-0-1 and have won seven straight games overall.
Now Miami must go into the Herb Brooks Center and beat the top-ranked team in Division I two out of three just to advance to the NCHC semifinals if the RedHawks hope to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
BoB takes a look at Miami’s opening-round series in the NCHC Tournament:
WHO: Miami RedHawks (11-21-4) at No. 1 St. Cloud State Huskies (27-4-3).
WHEN: Friday – 8:07 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday (if necessary) – 7:07 p.m.
WHERE: Herb Brooks Center (5,159), St. Cloud, Minn.
ALL-TIME SERIES: St. Cloud State leads, 18-17-4.
ST. CLOUD STATE RADIO: All games – KZRV-FM (96.7) and KVSC-FM (88.1), St. Cloud. Minn.
MIAMI RADIO: WBKV-AM (1490), Richmond, Ind.
TV: Friday and Saturday – FSN North (DirecTV Ch. 668).
NOTES: It’s the second straight season these teams have met in the first round of the conference tournament in this building, and Miami took St. Cloud State to overtime of Game 3 in 2017-18.
The RedHawks, as an eight seed, also beat the Huskies in this round in 2013-14, with Justin Greenberg scoring the clinching goal in the final seconds of the third period.
So Miami has some positive playoff history vs. SCSU heading into this weekend, but the Huskies have been dominant this season – especially at home – and the RedHawks have won just two games since mid-November.
St. Cloud State has outscored its opponents, 137-73 this season, and six Huskies skaters have recorded at least 30 points.
SCSU flipped the all-time series this season, taking a half-game lead after going 2-0-2 vs. the RedHawks in 2018-19.
Patrick Newell leads the team in goals (19) and points (41), notching 22 assists, and a team-high plus-28 rating and six game winners.
Robbie Jackson leads the team in shots with 104, and he has scored 15 times and picked up helpers on 19 others for 34 points.
Blake Lizotte also has 34 points on 13 goals and 21 assists, and first-round pick Ryan Poehling is 7-23-30.
That’s the forward leaders. Two SCSU defensemen have at least 30 points: Jimmy Schult and Jack Ahcan.
Schult has been all-world this season, as the third-year captain has racked up nine goals and 22 assists for 31 points.
Ahcan has four goals, a team-best 26 assists and a plus-27 rating.
In net, David Hrenak has been the starter most of the season, going 20-3-2 with a 2.18 goals-against average but just a .907 save percentage.
But Jeff Smith has played in two of the Huskies’ last three games and has a 2.01 GAA and .923 save percentage.
Miami enters this series having lost five in a row, and the RedHawks were outscored, 26-11 in that stretch.
The RedHawks have lost in this round three straight seasons.
From unwanted to unstoppable
OXFORD, Ohio – Before coming to Miami, hockey opportunities were scarce for Grant Hutton.
No team in the USHL wanted him, and college offers were nearly non-existent.
“From his freshman year to now, potential NHL free agent signing, just his game, his defensive ability, his offensive ability has all come from his hard work and his willingness to do extra,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “He’s bought into how he needs to play at this level.”
Hutton is from Carmel, Ind., the Indianapolis suburb that produced former RedHawk Cameron Schilling – who has played 10 games in the NHL – as well as current Miami forward Scott Corbett.
Hutton’s father, G.R. Hutton, logged a season with USHL Omaha and G.R.’s father also coached hockey. So as soon as Grant learned how to walk, his family threw him on skates.
After two seasons with the Indiana Ice Under-16 team, Hutton hoped to make the Ice’s USHL team, which had drafted him. He was excited about the prospect of playing for the team he watched growing up less than a half hour from his home.
Hutton didn’t ultimately stick with the Ice, as he dressed just four games with Indiana that season and spent the majority of the campaign with NAHL Corpus Christi, which had tendered him.
“It was just one of those deals where obviously I wanted to be in the USHL but I was still young and wasn’t quite there yet,” Hutton said.
Prior to the following season, Hutton, now 18, attended the camps of two USHL teams – Des Moines and Tri-City.
Both cut him.
So that fall it was back to Corpus Christi. In parts of two seasons there, Hutton scored 10 goals and assisted on 19 others in 85 games.
At the trade deadline, Tri-City – one of the USHL teams that snubbed him the previous off-season – traded for him and called him up. In 20 games there he went 1-1-2.
He returned to Tri-City for his final juniors season in 2014-15 but that team again cut Hutton as it was in a rebuilding process.
Then Des Moines – the other USHL team that had released Hutton – traded for his rights and he logged 11 games there.
Des Moines again told Hutton that things weren’t working out, and it was back to the NAHL.
“They even tried to play me at forward for one game, but that was a terrible idea,” Hutton said. “I had no idea what I was doing up there.”
Hutton joined Janesville, but unlike some of his previous stops, this one would prove fulfilling.
With current teammate Zach LaValle leading the team in points, Hutton racked up four goals and 10 assists in 32 games, going a remarkable plus-26 in just half a season.
His plus-minus was largely the effect of Janesville’s 49-11 regular season record, as the Jets advanced to the conference final that spring.
So a season that started with Hutton yet again being rejected by the USHL ended up being one of his best on-ice developmental experiences.
“I was super upset, it totally sucked, but it was one of those things now – looking back at it – it was 100 percent the best thing that could’ve happened to me in my hockey career,” Hutton said. “Obviously I ended up at Miami, and I’m super grateful for that, but just in terms of going to a place where I was a role player, I was used in all situations. I wasn’t sitting in the stands. We were on an unbelievable team…I’ve never been on a team like that in my life. Everyone was good hockey players and good people, and we just meshed really well, and I think I developed – in terms of my junior career, for sure I took the biggest step in Janesville, just maturing as a player and as a person.”
In three seasons of juniors, Hutton played for five teams in two leagues and was cut five times, with two teams releasing him twice.
“For me, I think I learned a lot about myself, went through a lot of adversity, and it’s helped me immensely in my career because I’ve gone through a lot of these experiences that some guys may not have had to go through,” Hutton said. “When hard times come around I feel like I’m prepared for that kind of thing.”
His struggle to find a USHL suitor is baffling considering he has missed three games in three seasons since coming to Oxford.
“I think a little bit of everything plays into that, right?” Hutton said. “First and foremost, you have to find a place where you fit in. All these teams I kept going to, other than Tri-City when I first got called up, had good right-handed defensemen. I always felt like I could compete with all of them at that level, but I think it’s hard in terms of confidence when you go into a new place and you aren’t really given a shot, and if you are given a shot, you make one mistake and you end up back in the stands.”
With three years of juniors service, Hutton, now 20, had only three Division I teams interested in him. Air Force was one but Hutton hadn’t considered that route, and Bentley wanted his services but he would have to walk on there.
Option three was Miami.
Though the RedHawks courted Hutton, there was certainly no guarantee ice time would be available for him entering his freshman year. The 2015-16 RedHawks featured five senior defensemen plus sophomores Louie Belpedio and Scott Dornbrock.
Hutton was the lone freshman on D, and he fully expected to sit most of his Division I rookie season.
But when the defensive pairings were announced for Game 1 of 2015-16, Hutton’s name was on the lineup sheet, and he earned an assist in his inaugural NCAA game vs. Providence.
“When I was in the lineup opening night I was totally shocked – this is absolutely crazy,” Hutton said. “Obviously all the hard work paid off, and I always believed in myself, but I was mentally prepared to have to take a step back and develop my game and learn from those guys, even if it meant being in the stands, which I was OK with.”
Hutton played in 35 of 36 games his first season, and with all of the veterans already on the Miami blueline he was able to gain experience in lower-leverage situations in adapting to the college game.
“It was one of those things where I think I was in an awesome situation to come in and learn from those guys,” Hutton said. “I wasn’t thrown into a role where I had to do too much. I was lucky enough I came into a situation where my role was: Play defense. Don’t let other teams score. And I love doing that, so it was super easy for me.”
Hutton, who is third in Miami hockey history in defenseman goals, did not score once as a freshman, picking up five assists. He earned NCHC defenseman of the week honors once and blocked 38 shots.
With all of the departed senior blueliners, Hutton relished the opportunity to move into a more offensive-oriented role and log minutes on the power play his sophomore season.
He was happy with his progress the summer before his second year, and from Game 1 the puck started finding the net. Hutton scored his first career goal in Providence on opening night 2016-17.
Hutton finished that season with nine goals, tops among Miami defensemen, and he tied Belpedio for first in points by a blueliner with 17.
“He wouldn’t shoot the puck his freshman year – I think he was afraid to get it off for some reason,” Blasi said. “Once he started shooting the puck, it started going in – obviously he’s got a hard shot – I think his confidence from playing and feeling good about what he does on a day-to-day basis has helped his overall game probably.”
Junior season, Hutton racked up five goals the first four games of the season. He ended up leading all college hockey defensemen with 13 goals, and he added 14 assists.
It was the fourth-most goals ever by a Miami blueliner.
“It’s no coincidence that he shoots extra pucks every day and then they end up in the back of the net, but he puts in the work to get what he deserves,” junior forward Gordie Green said.
Green joined the team after Hutton’s freshman season, so he doesn’t know life at Oxford without Hutton being a major scoring threat.
“I kind of joke with him: The Grant that I know wasn’t the Grant Hutton his freshman year,” Green said.
Immediately following 2017-18, both RedHawks assistants and six non-seniors left, and the pro game was beckoning the undrafted star.
Hutton said he pondered the decision during a family trip, and he and Josh Melnick – also a highly-skilled senior-to-be with pro aspirations – publicly announced via social media that they would return for their senior season.
“I love it here so much, ultimately that was what brought me back,” Hutton said. “Obviously I knew Mel was probably coming back and everybody knows how close we are. We were going to be in or out together. Once we mutually decided we were coming back it was a done deal, there was no more speculation. I know I called Rico right away once I made my decision and said hey, I’m coming back, just wanted to let you know first. I just didn’t want to have any regrets leaving this place – it’s amazing.”
Both Hutton and Melnick were assistant captains last season and they were named co-captains prior to 2018-19.
“He’s someone that everyone respects, and each follows his lead, no matter what that is,” Melnick said. “The best thing is he knows what to say at the right time, and that’s been the biggest thing for us this year. Whenever something may not be going the right way, he knows what to say and guys listen and respect that. On top of that he works extremely hard both on and off the ice, so he sets a good example as well.”
As captain, Hutton has seven goals and 13 assists this season, leading the team in blueliner goals. His 20 points rank fourth on the team.
“It’s been an awesome learning experience,” Hutton said. “For me, I just wanted to be able to bridge the gap between the coaches and the players – I think that’s the primary role of a captain. I think the biggest thing for the captain is you have to portray both sides, so whatever the players are thinking, you’ve got to be able to voice that to the coaches and if the coaches are thinking things, whatever they’re preaching you’ve got to be able to preach it to the players as well.”
For his career, Hutton has 29 goals, the third-most ever in Miami history among blueliners behind only Kevin Beaton and Dan Boyle.
He also has 41 assists for 70 points, the fourth-highest defenseman total in the Cady Arena era. Matthew Caito, Chris Wideman and Belpedio are the only others to record more in their RedHawks careers since the rink opened.
“He has grown so much as a player since we’ve gotten here,” Melnick said.
Both Green and Melnick talked about the advantage of having Hutton on the ice during their shifts.
“From a forward perspective, if you’re working hard in the corner you know you can get the puck up to him at the point and you’d better go to the net because you know it’s coming,” Melnick said.
Said Green: “He’s really smart when he picks and chooses when to step in the rush,” Green said. “It’s definitely just a comfortability thing, knowing that you’re on the ice with him, and especially on the power play, he’s our go-to guy. Anyone who has that hard of a shot and that accurate of a shot is a threat at all times.”
Hutton said he was recently talking to his father, G.R., about the magnitude of his four-year transformation from unwanted to Miami captain.
“Can you actually believe what’s going on?” Hutton said. “We were talking about preparing not to play freshman year, and it’s kind of taken off.”
Said Blasi: “He’s a very mature young man so he’s kind of taken that in stride. He knows he’s got a lot of work to do and every day is a challenge, but you just take it from there and whatever happens, happens and you control the things you can control and you go from there. The maturity and the growth is something that we as a program and a coaching staff really emphasize in terms of growing our players, whether we’re winning championships or not. That’s the most important thing that we do is to develop our players to become better at what they do, and a lot of the credit goes to the player and the individual and we just try to hold them accountable to the standard that they set.”
And when the RedHawks’ season ends, NHL teams will be drooling to sign a player of Hutton’s caliber, with a stature and skill set custom made for the pro game.
But if it wasn’t for Miami, that evolution may have never occurred, and Hutton has treasured his years in Oxford.
“It’s been the best four years of my life, by far,” Hutton said. “I tell people all the time, if I had 60 offers, there’s no way I’d go anywhere (else), knowing now what I know about Miami. It’s the best place in the world. We have amazing fans, we have an amazing support system, incredible facilities, the education is top-notch and the people that I’ve been able to meet here are going to be with me the rest of my life. It’s just such a surreal place. It’s almost hard to put into words, you almost can’t say enough good things about Miami University as a whole and the Miami hockey program. It’s such a special place – it means so much to me. I tell people all the time: You’ve got to come over here and check out Miami. I can’t imagine being anywhere else but here.”
Miami secures last in NCHC with loss
OXFORD, Ohio – The preseason NCHC poll picked Miami to finish last in the conference.
The RedHawks proved those voters correct as No. 12 Western Michigan pounded them 6-1 at Cady Arena on Saturday, sealing eighth place in the eight-team league.
Miami (11-21-4) actually tied Omaha for the bottom spot but lost the tiebreaker. The RedHawks will head to St. Cloud State next weekend in a best-of-3 NCHC Tournament opening-round series.
Wade Allison recorded a hat trick and added an assist, and Colt Conrad ended the night with a goal and three helpers to pace the Broncos (20-13-1).
RECAP: Just 57 seconds in, Allison stole the puck at his own blue line, setting up a 2-on-1 as he tapped home a return feed from Dawson DiPietro.
With 6:06 left in the opening period, WMU’s Colt Conrad threw a hard pass from the top of the faceoff circle to DiPietro, who tipped it in from the side of the crease on the power play to extend the Broncos’ lead to two.
Western Michigan’s Ethen Frank made it 3-0 when he skated into the zone on the right wing and ripped a shot past goalie Ryan Larkin from the top of the faceoff circle five minutes into the second period.
The Broncos scored each of the next two goals 12 seconds into power plays.
Conrad held the puck in on a clearing attempt, drove the net and whipped it under the crossbar with 12:24 left in the second period, and Allison held the puck behind the Miami net, maneuvered the puck onto the end of his stick and threw it around the net and in to make it 5-0 with six minutes left in the that frame.
Ben Lown scored Miami’s lone goal on a laser from the high slot that snuck inside the far post three minutes into the third period, but a faceoff-dot wrister from Allison capped the scoring 57 seconds later.
STATS: It was Lown’s first goal in 21 games and the first assist for Knies in 17 contests.
— Miami was outshot, 25-9 the first two periods.
— The RedHawks allowed three power play goals on five chances and were 0-for-3 themselves on the man advantage with just two shots.
— Opponents have scored 25 goals in Miami’s last five games.
THOUGHTS: Nothing to see here: Western Michigan scored in the opening minute and sent a number of fans to the exits by the end of the second period with a five-goal lead.
At least Friday created the illusion of being close for the first two periods.
Ticket face value for these games was $25 each, and in terms of bang for the entertainment buck, this weekend rated lower than Howard the Duck.
— Mike Babcock and other have famously said that it takes no skill to kill penalties.
Regardless of any talent disparity, Miami’s PK has been abysmal for quite a while, and a poor penalty kill has been directly proportional to the RedHawks’ overall struggles.
Miami finished the regular season 59th out of 60 in the NCAA in at 73.5 percent. During the RedHawks’ final 24 games they were 65.8 percent on the PK and 61.8 percent over their last 10 contests.
FORWARDS: D-. Not much positive other than the Lown goal. An undisciplined offensive-zone penalty by Casey Gilling penalty ended up in the Miami net 12 seconds later. Like Friday, Miami’s top forwards had very few shots, and no one up front had more than two SOG.
DEFENSEMEN: D. Not many highlights here except a couple of big Grant Hutton hits. Liked the play from the big guys – Bray Crowder and Andrew Sinard.
GOALTENDING: D. There were a couple of shots Larkin had no chance on but others were stoppable. Overall he finished 20 of 25 (.800). Jordan Uhelski was 6-for-7 (.857) in relief.
LINEUP CHANGES: Rourke Russell was scratched for the first time this season, as Sinard replaced him.
Up front Carter Johnson dressed and Christian Mohs sat.
STANDINGS: At 5-17-2, Miami finished last in the NCHC for the second straight season and was seventh in 2016-17. As a result, the RedHawks will head to the road for the first round of the league tournament for the fourth straight season.
Both MU and Omaha ended the regular season with 18 points, but the tiebreaker came down to goal differential in head-to-head games, and the Mavericks outscored the RedHawks by one in their four meetings, 11-10.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Miami went 3-12-1 to end the 2013-14 regular season and finished last in the conference, setting up a series at top-seeded St. Cloud State.
The RedHawks swept the Huskies on a clinching goal by Justin Greenberg in the closing seconds of Game 2 and came within a goal of winning the NCHC championship.
So there is hope.
But it would’ve been nice to see an inkling of improvement from this team in the waning games of the regular season, and it never happened.
Five straight losses and a woeful 2-16-4 record since mid-November.
It would be quite a story if the RedHawks could somehow advance to the Frozen Faceoff with their resume.
Western Michigan hammers Miami
OXFORD, Ohio – Miami hung with No. 12 Western Michigan for the first two periods, but an early Broncos surge in the final frame sealed the RedHawks’ fate.
WMU scored twice in the first three minutes of the third period and three times overall in that stanza en route to a 5-1 win over Miami at Cady Arena on Friday, handing the RedHawks their fourth straight loss.
Colt Conrad finished with a goal and two assists and Trevor Gorsuch stopped 22 shots to pace the Broncos (19-13-1).
RECAP: WMU’s Jade McMullen carried the puck along the boards before sending a one-time pass to Corey Schueneman, who ripped it by Miami goalie Ryan Larkin to open the scoring 9:11 into the game.
Conrad extended the Broncos’ lead 3:41 into the second period when he skated across the blue line on a 3-on-2 rush and wired a shot past Larkin on the power play.
Phil Knies cut the RedHawks’ deficit to one on a one-timer from the right wing faceoff circle off a pass by Brian Hawkinson that snuck through Gorsuch with 6:04 left in the middle frame.
But Lawton Courtnall batted home a loose puck in the slot to make it 3-1 WMU at the 1:53 mark of the third period, and 41 seconds later, Cam Lee stole the puck in the offensive puck and centered one to a streaking Dawson DiPietro, who directed the puck into the net.
Wade Allison tapped in an empty netter with 6:29 left to seal it.
STATS: Knies scored his sixth goal of the season and his third in the last six games.
— Hawkinson’s assist extended his points streak to four games, the longest of his career.
— Jonathan Gruden also picked up a helper on that goal and has points in three straight contests.
— Miami has struggled mightily in the third period, as the RedHawks have been outscored, 20-4 in the final 20 minutes of their last 12 games.
— MU reached the 20-loss mark for the third straight season.
THOUGHTS: This was not an entertaining game to watch.
Western Michigan really didn’t play that well. Miami (11-20-4) was awful.
There was no flow. Icings and faceoffs halted play continuously in the opening minutes, and there were so many penalties in the second period the referees’ arms needed to be iced down at intermission from all the delayed calls.
It was 2-1 for about eight minutes and Miami did lead in shots through 40 minutes but it never really felt like the RedHawks had a chance.
Too many turnovers, no transition, trouble completing passes, substandard compete level, mediocre goaltending, weak power play isn’t going to win many games in the NCHC.
FORWARDS: D. This corps simply didn’t create enough quality scoring chances and finished with 13 shots by 13 skaters. Knies scored but that line went minus-5. Josh Melnick: 2 shots. Gordie Green: 1 shot. Karch Bachman: 0 shots.
DEFENSEMEN: C-. Generated some shots but most were low percentage from the outside. More turnovers than usual, especially along the wall. Derek Daschke did have SOG and Grant Hutton four.
GOALTENDING: D-. Larkin should’ve stopped the first two goals, as they were from outside with no traffic, as both beat him to the glove side. The third was kind of fluky, the fourth was on a net crashing situation and the fifth was an empty netter. He made 19 saves for an .826 save percentage.
LINEUP CHANGES: Scott Corbett returned up front but did not look 100 percent. He missed the last four games with an upper-body injury.
Christian Mohs was also back in the lineup after sitting for the last two.
Out were Carter Johnson – who scored last Saturday – and defenseman Andrew Sinard as the RedHawks went with 13 forwards rather than the usual seven defensemen.
FINAL THOUGHTS: The point of this weekend was to play better hockey and build momentum heading into the postseason.
This game did nothing to move toward that goal.
Melnick: Working overtime for success
OXFORD, Ohio – No one in the history of Miami hockey can match Josh Melnick’s clutch goal resume.
The NCAA still uses 5-on-5 overtimes, so scoring is relatively rare in those five-minute frames.
But Melnick has netted three OT winners in his career plus two more in 3-on-3s following the extra sessions.
“It never fails, right? It’s always him,” senior defenseman Grant Hutton said. “I think he gets rewarded for all the little things he does, and that’s why he seems to be so clutch, whether it be blocking shots or winning a small battle on the boards, he does the little things, and if you do the little things, you’re going to get rewarded all night long. I think that’s the best way to describe him being clutch is him doing the right thing over and over and over again. That’s not always flashy, it’s not always the highlight-reel play. But he makes the right play all the time, and at the end of the night when he gets that scoring opportunity in overtime, maybe a 3-on-3, a shootout, whatever it is, the puck goes into the net for him.”
Melnick was born and grew up in Annandale, New Jersey, about 50 miles west of New York City. He fell in love with hockey thanks to his step-father, David Crandall.
Melnick played prep hockey as well as soccer and lacrosse at Delbarton, a private New Jersey high school that was close enough for him to live at home.
He eventually dropped the other two sports and was dominant on the ice his final two years of preps. His junior season he scored 22 goals and picked up 25 assists in 28 games, and he racked up 62 points including 46 helpers in 26 contests as a senior.
The following season, Melnick, 18 at this point, headed to Youngstown of the USHL. His first season there he posted a 7-21-28 line in 52 games.
In 2012-13, he returned to the Phantom and his numbers ballooned. He notched 14 goals and a league-leading 48 assists in 60 games, including a five-point performance that included a hat trick vs. Fargo.
Melnick had intended to play Division I hockey for Princeton but decommitted within the final month of his final juniors season.
Within weeks Melnick had committed to Miami following a visit to Oxford.
“I fell in love with the campus right away, and everything that the program stands for,” Melnick said.
He also would be joining former Youngstown teammates, which he said factored into the decision, as he was close friends with Kiefer Sherwood, and Conor Lemirande and Grant Valentine also played with Youngstown during Melnick’s juniors career.
Melnick adapted to the college game with ease. He assisted on Miami’s first goal of 2015-16 and scored in that inaugural NCAA game as well, Oct. 9, 2015 vs. Providence at Cady Arena for a two-point night.
“We had a lot of seniors on our team my freshman year and I think that was huge, just getting guidance from them on a daily basis and being able to play with some of those guys right off the start was really good in terms of learning what it takes at this level,” Melnick said.
The next night he would become the first player in Division I history to score a 3-on-3 goal following the conclusion of overtime. College hockey had allowed conferences the option to adopt that format for league points the previous off-season.
Though PC was not in Miami’s conference, the teams skated three a side anyway following what was officially a 2-2 tie, and Melnick lit the lamp.
Two months into his sophomore season, Melnick found the net in overtime to beat Colorado College for his first official OT winner, and he did it in spectacular fashion.
Teammate Carson Meyer threw a wrister at the net, and it grazed off the side of Melnick, who batted it out the air and into the short side of the net.
Two games later, Melnick tallied the tying goal in the final minute vs. St. Cloud State. Then he scored the game winner in overtime.
Early in his junior season, he victimized Colorado College in OT again, this time burying a rebound on a loose puck at the top of the crease.
He added another 3-on-3 goal to earn Miami a conference point earlier this season vs. St. Cloud State on Dec. 1.
That gives Melnick three official overtime winners plus two 3-on-3s in supplemental OT, and he has six official career game winners. Over 15 percent of his career goals have gone in the GWG column.
“That doesn’t surprise me because he’s the first guy that we’re sending over the boards,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “Everything that you would say about him is true. He’s the leader of our team in a lot of ways.”
Some perspective: No Miamian has ever even scored two career overtime winners since Cady Arena opened in 2006-07.
— Melnick is the only RedHawk with multiple OT goals in a season since at least 2000.
— The last Miamian to post two career OTWs in a career was Alec Martinez, whose first won the final game played at Goggin Arena, clinching the RedHawks’ CCHA opening-round tournament series.
— Chris Michael is the last Miamian to score an OT winner in consecutive seasons, doing so in 2003-04 and 2004-05.
“It’s just being in the right place at the right time, and when you go to overtime it’s a little more sense of urgency,” Melnick said. “And when you get the puck in those situations you’ve got to bear down.”
Freshman season he was voted the team’s rookie of the year by his classmates and was a finalist for Miami’s most valuable player award.
Named assistant captain as a sophomore, his points total jumped by two each of the next two seasons.
Junior Gordie Green has been his linemate for much of those campaigns. Green notched 21 points as a freshman but vaulted to a team-best 15 goals and 33 points last season.
“He’s a complete player – I think he’s probably the most complete player that we have,” Green said. “I’ve had the honor of playing with him for pretty much the last two years and he’s probably been the easiest player I’ve ever gotten to play with. He does everything right and you can count on him. He’s been a lot of fun to play with.”
In 2018-19 Green is again tops on Miami in goals with 11 and is second in points by just one.
The team leader is Melnick, who is also second on the RedHawks in markers with 10.
“He’s definitely a player that makes everyone around him better,” Green said. “That’s why it’s fun playing with him – we play against all of the top lines because our coach wants Melly out there to shut them down as well as generate offense against them. And he’s always out there for the penalty kills, he’s usually the first one to take that big draw.”
This season his points rate is at a career high, as he averages exactly a point a game with 26 in 26 contests. He missed six games with an upper body injury.
So in addition to his reputation for scoring in the clutch, Melnick has exemplified consistency in the points column. His season totals are 25-27-29-26.
That’s a total of 107 points, tied for the 45th with Blake Coleman on the all-time RedHawks’ leaderboard.
“Obviously it’s a great feeling, and I’m very honored to be recognized with some of the names that are there as well,” Melnick said. “But a huge portion of that credit goes to the players that I’ve been able and fortunate enough to play with in my four years here.”
As impressive as his offensive numbers are, Melnick has been one of the top defensive forwards on the team each season.
“I think that’s definitely one of my strengths as a player – being able to play in all three zones and being able to defend well,” Melnick said. “That’s something that I’ve focused on a lot through the years and continue to improve on. Obviously playing well in the O-zone is important, but you’ve got to be able to play on both sides of the puck.”
In addition to playing against opponents’ top forwards, he logs as much ice time on the penalty kill as any RedHawk. Miami has even played four forwards with him in a defense slot late in games this season.
“One of the things that makes Melly so special is his ability to make plays under pressure, and obviously his defense — 1-on-1 he can skate with anybody, he uses his body well, he’s not huge in terms of the size department, but he’s really good at protecting the puck and he makes really good decisions with the puck,” Hutton said. “When you get the puck back (in the defensive zone), you still have to get it out of the zone, you still have to transition to offense, and he makes that transition so easy. As a defenseman, if I go back and I’ve got to make a play, I know I can put the puck anywhere for him – on his feet, on his backhand, behind him – anywhere in the general vicinity – he’s going to get the puck and he’s going to get it out.”
After last season, there was uncertainty as to whether Melnick would have the opportunity to eclipse the 100-point mark. With both assistant coaches and six non-seniors leaving the program, it was unclear if Melnick would return for his senior year.
But early in the off-season, he and Hutton told the world via social media they would both be back for their final year.
“It was a tough decision, but in the end it was fairly easy decision,” Melnick said. “I talked with my family and thought about it, but at the end of the day, for me, I love it here, and I wanted to come back and spend my final year – getting my degree was also important to me – but spending another year with the people that we’re surrounded by every day and getting a chance to leave my mark a little bit more.”
And his game has further evolved this season, as he has improved drastically in the faceoff circle.
“He takes a lot of pride in that, and that’s becoming such an important part of the game because the game nowadays is more about puck possession,” Hutton said. “You win the faceoff, it’s much easier to start with the puck than to go get it. The coolest thing is he pulls the other forwards along with him. They see him taking faceoffs, well if Melly’s taking faceoffs and doing the extra work, then you’ve got to do it too, right? Not only has he gotten better but his teammates have gotten better because they’ve followed his lead.”
He has been resilient in his quest to improve his faceoff numbers, as he has been one of the last players off the ice during practice because of his work in the circle.
“That’s one of the things I focus on during the week, especially closer to game day,” Melnick said. “I feel like I’ve noticed it more as the years go by, but the more draws you can win, obviously that just means more possession for your team and it really shows in the long run of the game.”
He has won 55 percent of his draws in 2018-19. A faceoff win by Melnick directly led to a Miami goal last weekend.
“He’s not a natural centerman, so when we moved him to center way back when he really had to learn the position, positionally, and then he had to be effective taking faceoffs,” Blasi said. “That’s a credit to Josh and his hard work and his willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team. He’s the guy that everybody kind of looks to, to lead the way in practice and games. He’s out in every faceoff and special teams (situation). Obviously we really missed him as you can tell from our record without him in the lineup.”
The RedHawks went 0-6 earlier this season while Melnick was out.
“The kid’s unbelievable,” Hutton said. “He does things every week in practice where we’re like, what in the world? It doesn’t even make sense. Physically, there are things that he can do that (most) people can’t. He just has a special skillset and a special mindset, he’s a super-hard worker. He’s super honest with himself – he doesn’t try to be someone he’s not, and that’s the coolest thing about Josh. He’s so humble and so honest, it shows up in his game, right? He works his ass off every single day and everyone benefits from that.”
Melnick and Hutton were named co-captains this season, a fairly unusual move in hockey but one that has worked well for program.
“I think the relationship is very solid, and so anytime you do something like that the two guys have to get along, and have to kind of share the load,” Blasi said.
Hutton has been more vocal while Melnick has played a more lead-by-example role, and Melnick always leads the pre-game huddle speech when the team congregates around the net.
“For me it’s just continuing to be who I am and not really changing the type of player or the type of person I am,” Melnick said. “Making sure we’re holding guys accountable on a daily basis, but all the guys on the team are great and easy to get along with, so for the most part it’s been pretty smooth.”
Said Hutton: “He’s respected by everybody – you don’t have a choice because of how special he is as a player and as a person.”
That consistent level of excellence has carried over into the classroom as well for Melnick, who is a four-time member of the NCHC All-Academic Team.
Unfortunately for Miami, Melnick’s time in Oxford is running short, as the RedHawks play their final two regular season games this weekend.
And while he said his time as Miami has gone too quickly – with each season zooming by faster – Melnick has carved a permanent legacy into RedHawks hockey history.
“As an overall experience it’s definitely been the best four years of my life,” Melnick said. “Coming in, I think one of the biggest things for me was not only developing as a player, but developing as a person. I’ve grown so much over the past couple of years, again, as a player and a person, and I wouldn’t trade any of the experiences for anything.”
Uhelski and Rymsha: Graduate senior saviors
OXFORD, Ohio – Six years ago when a graduate senior joined Miami, it worked out so well that the RedHawks doubled down on that concept last summer, adding a pair of fifth-year players who had already earned their undergraduate degrees.
Goalie Jordan Uhelski and defenseman River Rymsha both joined the RedHawks for their final seasons of NCAA eligibility, and they have been godsends on a team that has battled depth issues, not only with their skills but their Division I veteran status.
“With only (four seniors), it was important for us to have a couple of extra guys to help those guys in terms of leading the way with their experience in college hockey,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said.
A player who has already earned his undergraduate degree does not have to sit out a year if he transfers, so Uhelski and Rymsha were courted last off-season when six skaters left Miami early for various reasons.
Uhelski was the starting goalie for Alabama-Huntsville and Rymsha logged four injury-plagued seasons on the Dartmouth blue line.
Forward Marc Hagel was the first transfer who came to Oxford for his fifth season after graduating. He earned his degree from Princeton before joining the RedHawks in 2012-13 and behind his 19 points, tenacious defense and leadership helped Miami advance to the NCAA regional final.
With more player movement than ever and the ability to avoid a missed season due to the NCAA transfer rules, college hockey could see an uptick in players shifting schools after competing their degrees.
Rymsha, the son of former NHL right wing Andy Rymsha, from the northern Detroit suburb of Huntington Woods, was a forward growing up.
While playing Bantam for Little Caesar’s, a line brawl broke out and the next game his team only had two defensemen eligible to play.
So Rymsha, who was undersized at the time, moved back to the blue line and has been there since as he ballooned to his current dimensions of 6-feet-3 and 205 pounds.
After one season of prep hockey at St. Mary’s, Rymsha was hoping to join USHL’s Fargo – which drafted him – but he was told he wasn’t going to make the team.
At the last minute, he talked to current Miami assistant coach Peter Mannino’s cousin and hooked on with Wenatchee of the NAHL, where he scored four goals and dished for 12 assists in 45 games.
After just one season of major juniors, Rymsha packed for New Hampshire and headed to Dartmouth, the school he had committed to at age 16 out of Fargo’s camp.
“Education has always been super-important to me, so going Ivy League was something that I’d always wanted to do and Dartmouth gave me that opportunity,” Rymsha said.
He turned 18 just two months before his freshman season, during which he dressed just six times.
“Freshman year, I went in too early,” Rymsha said. “I needed to develop more, needed to get bigger, needed to get stronger.”
As a sophomore, Rymsha played in 24 games, posting two goals and two assists while playing with a torn labrum.
“After sophomore year I got my left (shoulder) repaired, rehabbed over the summer, came back and then I tore my other shoulder,” Rymsha said. “After having double shoulder injuries, I decided it would probably be a good idea to redshirt, get an extra year.”
He did register an assist in five games as a junior, but through three seasons Rymsha had been in the lineup just 35 times.
Finally healthy heading into his senior season, Rymsha played in 28 games, registering a goal and two helpers.
He initially intended to spend his fifth season at Dartmouth, decelerating his program to remain a full-time student throughout.
But Miami called to see if he would be interested in spending his final year of eligibility with the RedHawks.
“That was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up,” Rymsha said. “Miami was a school that I loved watching and always wanted to play for growing up.”
So he beefed up his class schedule and took summer classes, graduating from Dartmouth last September.
“I met a lot of great people – the relationships that I built there are something that I’ll carry with me forever – and hockey-wise, they really developed me there,” Rymsha said.
Rymsha was in the lineup for both games opening weekend vs. Alabama-Huntsville, and after tallying just eight points in four seasons at Dartmouth, he scored and picked up a pair of helpers in that series.
“To go out the first week and have the kind of first weekend that I did individually was a really cool feeling,” Rymsha said.
Rymsha has played in 32 of Miami’s 34 games this season, and not all of his minutes have been spent on defense.
Because of injuries and other game situations, Miami’s coaches have tapped his upbringing as a forward and have used him both on the wing and at center.
The Thursday before the series at Omaha in early November, Miami’s centers were taking draws in practice. Rymsha had completed his drills but wasn’t ready to get off the ice, so he went up to Blasi, who was dropping pucks, and asked to take some faceoffs.
Rymsha won most of the draws.
“(Blasi) was a little bit surprised, and I was like yeah coach, I had a little bit of experience playing forward growing up,” Rymsha said.
That weekend a game misconduct left Miami short a forward, so Rymsha shifted to the front end.
“So it’s always been in the coaching staff’s back pocket that if they need me up front, it’s something that I can do and they can rely on me,” Rymsha said. “This is something that I told the coaching staff at the beginning of the year, that I wanted to help out any way I can.”
Due to injuries this season, Rymsha has done pretty much everything but put on goalie pads. He has logged time on the power play, penalty kill, both defensive positions, wing and center, even taking the opening draw at home.
“I think there were four games in a row where he was bouncing back from forward to D, and people don’t realize how hard that is to do at this level,” senior captain Grant Hutton said. “It’s hard to get into a rhythm.”
Rymsha has three goals and four assists for seven points – all career highs – and he is third on the team only to Rourke Russell and Bray Crowder with 41 blocked shots.
“He comes in every day and he works his hardest, so hard that he sets a tone for everybody else,” Uhelski said. “He’s got the skill, and he’s got the speed…he’s an unbelievable player, a well-rounded player.”
He has also been one of the most physical skaters on the team, dishing out punishing hits all season regardless of his position.
“He’s a swiss army knife,” Uhelski said. “He’s got every tool in the box. What’s been so cool and what I think a lot of guys coming up could learn from him is he’s there for the team. Coach wants you on forward, yeah, I’ve got you. Where do you need me? It’s not, oh man, I’m not playing my position. He’s going with a smile on his face and his hard hat on, ready to work.”
With one weekend series left in the regular season and the postseason looming, Rymsha feels like he’s playing at a higher level than ever.
“I think especially now, getting into playoffs, you have to be playing your best hockey and I think that’s what four and a half seasons of college hockey have prepared me for,” Rymsha said. “Looking back to my freshman year all the way up to now, every year I’ve gotten better. The hockey that I felt like I was playing my senior year at Dartmouth you could say was my best hockey and obviously that’s what attracted the coaching staff at Miami. I knew when I came in here that there was another level that I felt like I could go to, and they’ve helped me with that.”
Rymsha credits his father for guiding him during his ascent through the hockey ranks. Andy Rymsha was a fourth-round pick of St. Louis and played six games for Quebec and 11 total seasons in the pros.
“Honestly it’s hard to put into words,” Rymsha said. “He’s been there for me my entire life. The advice he gives me on a day-to-day basis has helped me become the player that I am today. He’s taught me what it’s like to be a pro when you’re (in) juniors and into college, the responsibilities and how to handle yourself on and off the ice. I can’t thank my dad enough for everything that he’s taught me along the way.”
Rymsha’s brother, Drake, is a Los Angeles Kings draftee currently playing in the ECHL.
Uhelski grew up in Flint, Mich., and hockey was an easy sell for him since his mother was a professional figure skater.
There was never a doubt about what position he was destined for.
“I always joke around that when I was young I was a little chubby so they stuck me in net right away,” Uhelski said. “So I was a goalie from the first time I played and I absolutely loved it.”
After two seasons with Belle Tire, he went to Muskegon of the USHL, where he posted a 2.66 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage in 18 appearances, notching a pair of shutouts.
“When I was growing up obviously I dreamed of playing college hockey – but here was the first time where I thought that, oh my gosh, this might actually happen,” Uhelski said.
After another year in Muskegon, Uhelski began his college hockey career with Alabama-Huntsville.
But as he would find out, being on a Division I team didn’t necessarily equate to playing time.
UAH had won two games the season before Uhelski joined the team, and he expected to make an immediate impact upon arriving in Huntsville. But Carmine Guerriero had an outstanding season in net and Uhelski did not see the ice for one second that season.
“Halfway through (freshman) year I was getting upset and I hadn’t played, and it can go one of two ways: I could shut down and this is no good, I’m sick of this or whatever, or you can just battle through it, take what you can for experience and try to learn and grow and develop,” Uhelski said. “That’s what I did.”
As a sophomore, it was the other UAH goalie – Matt Larose – that took over the starting job, and again Uhelski sat the entire season without logging a minute in net.
Uhelski did receive a red shirt for one of those seasons.
“It was something that I think has given me so much strength as a leader today,” Uhelski said. “Whenever you go a new place, you have all these ideas of, oh man, everything’s going to go exactly the way I want it.”
Finally, junior year arrived and Uhelski played his first game in 2½ years against a more talented Michigan Tech team, and UAH salvaged a tie.
From then on, Uhelski was essentially the No. 1 goalie for the Chargers. He was between the pipes for 23 games that season and 32 as a senior, finishing with a .906 save percentage.
“It was definitely an up-and-down, emotional experience but it’s one that I can look back on and draw a lot of confidence and know that I’ve really been through a lot and come out on the other side,” Uhelski said.
After four seasons with Alabama-Huntsville, many of Uhelski’s teammates were leaving and he was looking for a change.
“I knew wherever I went I wanted to be a part of something special,” Uhelski said. “I was really upfront with my coach (Mike Corbett) at Huntsville, and he said if you want to transfer, I’ll do whatever I can do to help you. We decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
So when Blasi talked to him about coming in for his fifth season, Uhelski couldn’t say yes quickly enough.
“I always joke around with him that it was the easiest commit that he’d ever even gotten,” Uhelski said. “He hadn’t even finished the sentence and I was ‘yeah, I’m coming, when do you need me there?’ Before graduation I was ready to pack up for Miami if I could. I was so excited to come here and be a part of this program and be a part of the rich history. It was an amazing opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”
There was one problem for Uhelski: Miami already had a starting goalie in Ryan Larkin.
“I’ve been through a lot in my college experience, and I know that it’s just as important to be someone the team needs when you’re in the lineup as when you’re not in the lineup,” Uhelski said. “That was really my expectation: Just to come in and be a great team guy and try to leave a positive mark on the program.”
Uhelski didn’t have to wait long. Blasi tapped him to start the first game of the season.
The opponent? Alabama-Huntsville.
“When Coach (Blasi) said, yeah, you’re going the first game, I was so excited,” Uhelski said. “To be able to go against some of the old boys that I’d played with, it was awesome.”
The first shot he faced in his RedHawks career was an innocuous wrister from the blue line.
Somehow it snuck through and found the net.
“I was wondering what Coach Blasi was thinking, like who is this kid that I just picked up?” Uhelski said.
Uhelski had already had a cryptic conversation about the very subject prior to the game.
“One of my old roommates from Huntsville was texting me, he was like, if you let a shot in, I’m going to make fun of you the rest of your life,” Uhelski said. “(UAH) scored the first goal, and I was like, oh man. There’s no way that that just happened.”
But Uhelski settled down and stopped the next 18 shots he faced in a 5-1 win.
In his first 10 games his save percentage was .918. That has slipped to .902 after a pair of off-nights, but thanks to Uhelski’s pushing, Larkin is at .916 after posting an .886 save percentage last season.
“His personality and his character helps Ryan in terms of, he’s much more outgoing and very vocal,” Blasi said.
One of Uhelski’s season highlights was the St. Cloud series in Oxford. Larkin was banged up in the series opener, and Uhelski stopped 59 of 63 shots on the weekend to earn a pair of ties.
The Huskies were ranked No. 1 in the NCAA at the time.
“Jordan’s a great player,” Rymsha said. “Coming from Huntsville, he probably didn’t have a lot of help and if you look at his numbers, he’s put up some good numbers and that’s translated here. The work ethic, the energy that he brings to the rink, day in and day out, on and off the ice, it’s made a big impact on the team, and it’s made a big impact on me.”
Although both Rymsha and Uhelski have only spent one season here, they have loved every minute of the little time they’ve had in Oxford.
“It’s exceeded my expectations – it’s a great program,” Rymsha said. “Not to take anything away from the ECAC – it’s obviously a great conference – but the league that we play in is on another level. The coaching staff can tell you every day how hard it’s going to be every day, but not until you get into the thick of it can you really see how hard it actually is.”
Said Uhelski: “I wish I had four more. The year hasn’t gone how you write it up, but every storybook ending has a little adversity. My experience has been so amazing. I love every guy that’s on our team, and it’s been an honor to get to play for a program that has so much history and such support from the community and the fans. When you’re a little kid and you’re thinking about playing college hockey, this is what you dream about. I really wish I had four more years here because every person that I’ve met at Miami has been so loving and so real and amazing and heartfelt to me. I cannot say enough about my time here at Miami. I have people back home joke with me that every time I go out I’ve got something Miami on, it’s just because every day I get up to go the rink I’m so proud to wear that ‘M’ and be a part of something like this program and this school. It’s been truly amazing.”