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.
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.”
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.”
Blasi reprimanded by NCHC
Miami coach Enrico Blasi was sent a letter of reprimand by the NCHC for his actions during Saturday’s game, College Hockey News reported today.
The RedHawks lost on a 5-on-3 goal late in the third period, and while the teams were forming the postgame handshake line, Blasi walked out to referee Scott Bokal at the blue line and berated him.
Bokal gave it back to Blasi before skating away, ultimately issuing him a game misconduct.
Blasi was irate when the call was made, and after the decisive goal was scored, he grabbed one of his player’s sticks and made a motion as if he was going to throw it onto the ice before smashing it into pieces on the boards.
BoB discussed this whole incident more thoroughly in Saturday’s game report here, but this is really the first time Blasi has exercised the nuclear option in nine years, and he was obviously venting the frustration of a two-month winless streak.
According to the article, the letter said that the reprimand stems from “unsportsmanlike actions and comments toward on-ice officials during and immediately following Miami’s game,” according to the NCHC.
Whatever he said to Bokal after the game was probably really bad, since Blasi wasn’t penalized for breaking a stick although that was mentioned in the reprimand. But Bokal had been hearing it for the better part of 15 minutes and being on skates – as opposed to Blasi who was wearing dress shoes – could’ve easily fled by taking two strides back rather than compound the issue by engaging a clearly furious coach.
It is fair to point out this was Blasi’s second bench blow-up in as many weekends. He screamed at his associate coach, Peter Mannino, during the opener of the RedHawks’ homestand on Jan. 18.
The old-school hockey fan in me doesn’t have that much of a problem with Blasi’s actions once a decade, and honestly if this is finally the spark the team needs to start playing competitive hockey, this tirade was somewhat welcome.
And the league did the right thing here, publicly showing its disapproval but choosing not to suspend Blasi.
2018-19 Miami preview Part I: Overview
Since 2014-15, Miami has won just 36 games, its lowest three-season total since 1989-92.
As a result, the RedHawks parted ways with two assistants and 11 players this off-season and they hope the influx of new talent – both on the ice and the bench – will vault them to more victories.
With all of the moving parts within the program, game-action anticipation has never been greater. Fortunately for the RedHawks, opening night is Saturday vs. Alabama-Huntsville.
“I think you’re always excited to start a new season,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “But I think with the last five months the way they played out, just focusing on games and getting better as a team and moving forward, I think everyone’s excited, I’m excited, we’re ready to go.”
Peter Mannino was hired as associate head coach at the end of March, and Joel Beal was named assistant in June.
Mannino, a former NHL goalie and NCAA Tournament champ with Denver, was an assistant at in-conference rival Nebraska-Omaha last season after winning a Clark Cup as the assistant of the USHL’s Chicago Steel.
Beal was an assistant at Sacred Heart the past five seasons and an associate head coach since 2016, and on the ice he starred at Union in the early 2000s.
“Peter is very outgoing, energetic, very positive, kind of throws a lot of things at you and makes you think about 10, 15 things at once, and Bealer is very systematic, very cerebral, thinks about things, makes sure that we’re not missing anything,” Blasi said. “Both are very positive – Bealer’s a very positive guy – both are hardworking guys, trustworthy guys you can count on. That’s what you want in a staff and that’s what you want out there recruiting for your program. The dynamics of the three of us – we all bring something different to the table and yet…we mesh together. With both of them, my conversations were very similar in the fact that I felt like we could connect right away and build from there. And I think we see the game the same way, I think we see the type of team we want to be, where the game is going, the way we want to develop our players and inspire our players and the process in which to do it. Those are all things that will continue to grow as we go through the days, and the games, and the practices, but we get along really well.”
Senior co-captain Josh Melnick said the energy the duo has brought to the program has been contagious.
“They’re obviously two younger guys and they bring sort of a different perspective to the locker room,” Melnick said. “As a whole, they’ve settled in really well, and I think they’re getting a good feeling of what our program’s about and also helping re-establish the things that we want to work on to get the program back to where it was in the past.”
Miami’s roster, which was not completed until late July, features five new forwards, four on defense and two in net. Two of the 11 are graduate students completing their fourth years of hockey eligibility.
“I think we’ve brought in some guys that will know their role – they were recruited to it,” Blasi said. “I think they’re a little bit older, we’ve got some Clark Cup championship-caliber players who have been through it, understand how to win a championship, guys that have been captains on their teams, and we have one (Jonathan Gruden) that played on the U.S. Development Team, played in the Worlds, and played with (the forward) that’s probably going to be the first overall pick in this (2019’s) NHL draft (Jack Hughes) and played on the same line with him. These are all positive things, and then you add two postgrads to the new faces, and we’ve got guys that are real positive and a tight freshman group.”
Both Melnick and defenseman fellow co-captain Grant Hutton love what they’ve seen from the newest Hawks.
“I think it’s everything we’ve expected and more,” Hutton said. “A lot of these guys are a lot of key, role players that know they’re here for a reason. You see it a lot in college hockey where guys may be goal scorers or big points guys in juniors or whatever it may be, and they get to college and they’re kind of shell-shocked. Gruden is our only true freshman at 18 years old and a lot of older guys that are coming in are mature, and I think that’s the biggest thing. Usually you talk about college hockey being a place where players have the opportunity to mature and develop, but it’s a huge plus when you get players that come in and have some of that maturity, some of that development. We’re pretty lucky with the group we have coming in, and I think it adds more excitement.”
Said Melnick: “They all assimilated right into things quickly – they’re all great people off the ice, and I think a lot of the reason we have high energy is because those guys have a lot of energy. They came here ready to work, and they know what the program stands for and what it’s been like in the past, and they’re ready to help get it back to that point.”
During the summer before the new players arrived, the returning players reached out to the freshman class to welcome them to the program, Melnick said.
The off-season didn’t start well for Miami. Within days of the RedHawks’ final game, it was announced that assistant coaches Brent Brekke and Nick Petraglia would not return as well as four players.
Two other prominent forwards also left the team early in the off-season, with one turning pro and the other transferring.
That’s on top of Miami not qualifying for the NCAA Tournament or even making it out of the NCHC quarterfinal round for the third straight season after qualifying for 10 of the previous 12 national championships.
“This is something that, I don’t look at this as a job, this is my life,” Blasi said. “When your life isn’t going the way you think it should go in terms of guys not playing up to their capabilities or even some of the things I might’ve done in the last couple of years that were wrong decisions. You assess, you evaluate, you try to be better – we all have opportunities to be better every day, we’re no different and I’m no different – and if I told you I wasn’t frustrated or disappointed in certain occasions, I’d be lying to you. But I can also tell you that I’m very proud of some of the things that have happened in the past couple of years. I believe in my heart that these are necessary steps that need to happen to move forward and become better. When we built the program, we went through some tough times, but nobody talks about those because nobody remembers those, everybody just remembers the wins and the Frozen Fours and the championships. I can tell you there were times where we had the same frustrations, the same disappointments, but they were necessary disappointments and necessary things that we needed to get through to get to the next level, and that’s what we’re going to do right now.”
Some positive things happened this off-season well. Multiple prior Omaha recruits switched to Miami following Mannino’s hiring, including defenseman Derek Daschke.
“Obviously at first it was a little difficult with having to (deal with) some difficult situations, to be honest with you,” Blasi said. “Once we started to kind of shape our team around the guys we have coming back, finishing off the recruiting and finishing off the staff, and getting together as a staff and kind of formulating our plan and getting to know each other on a different level, and then obviously have our team come back and work with them and kind of creating their identity. It’s been a lot of fun. ‘Reenergize’ is a work that we’ve been using a lot lately.”
And both Melnick and Hutton, both seniors and destined for lucrative professional careers, announced they were returning this fall.
“I give Hudson, Melly a lot of credit, them and the senior class – Lavs (Zach Lavalle) and (Ryan) Siroky – that helped shaped the spring and the summer to make sure when these new guys came in, that our program was in a good place and we were going to hit the ground running.”
Miami played some quality hockey down the stretch last season, and Blasi said his team will seize that momentum and carry it into this campaign.
“Those are some of the things we were really proud of,” Blasi said. “To stick with it and to keep fighting, that’s a character trait that you can’t teach. And that’s something that’s in our locker room, that’s something that’s in our culture. I was very, very proud of the team and the way they played. Now, do we want to win at the end? Of course. Everybody does. But at the same time, you have to take a step back and assess the situation, and I believe that how we played was really important for the guys coming back in the spring and the summer and for our recruits, to say hey, we’re not that far off. We just need to maybe work a little harder, improve one or two percent. If everybody can do that, then we have something. When you’re in the moment, it doesn’t seem like it, and I know it probably doesn’t seem like it to the general fan – and we have great fans and great supporters, some of which have expressed their support and some of them haven’t, and that’s OK too – but when you take a step back and you see all the developments that have happened over the past couple of years, I think you’ll look back and say, hey, maybe if we didn’t go through that we don’t get to that next level.”
He pointed out that Miami was ranked as high as No. 14 in the PairWise after its big January home win over powerhouse Denver.
“It just shows that we have a group that isn’t rolling over, we’re not going to quit,” Hutton said. “We’re here because we want to be here, we’re here because we love each other, we love Miami, and we want to be the best possible hockey team that we can be every single night and ultimately reach our goal of bringing a championship back to Oxford.”
Blasi said that he, as well as both assistants, have been actively involved in recruiting this off-season and has hit the road with one or both on several occasions as Miami tries to fortify its roster for the coming years.
“I think the culture of the program is still very strong in terms of what we believe in and the way we do our business from day to day,” Blasi said. “We may tweak some things here and there but I think The Brotherhood and the family and the relationships and the process is still something that we still focus on, it’s still all about developing these young men to play at the next level or develop them to be better people on a day-to-day perspective. But at the end of the day, recruiting is your bloodline – that’s never going to change – and so recruiting is very important, and our team is very important. We have to make sure we’re focused on both equally and we’re doing what we need to do to help these men that we have get to the next level and win games and play at a high level, maybe reach levels that they thought they couldn’t reach. That’s part of what we do as coaches is inspire them and push them in a good way to make them play better than even they think they can.”
Though the season doesn’t start until Saturday, Melnick he noticed a marked difference in the locker room already.
“A lot of the times when people ask what’s most exciting about this year and what’s different, I think it’s the energy, and it’s just coming from everyone,” Melnick said. “It’s honestly kind of crazy to be around, because everybody’s so positive and confident and we just can’t wait to get out there.”
Check back for a positional breakdown of the RedHawks.
State of the program
For the third time in four years, Miami viewed the NCAA Tournament at home following a run of eight consecutive appearances on Division I hockey’s highest stage.
It was tough to watch, as this team didn’t compete hard enough, consistently enough to pull itself into PairWise contention, and the reality that the RedHawks would not play long into March began to set in during a miserable February.
The program is presently at its lowest point of the Enrico Blasi administration, as its win total last season was Miami’s lowest since 1990-91.
True the RedHawks went 0-for-4 in NCAA berths during Blasi’s first four years, but they were trending upward at that point.
And now we’re nearly at the midway point of the off-season, three months removed from the tragic end of 2016-17, a little under four months from puck drop.
When a program reaches DEFCON 2, everyone has a theory to fix its problems, and emotions can sometimes obscure rational thought.
And giving into that mentality is tempting, because of course SOMETHING has to be done.
It doesn’t help being close to the situation. Going to a majority of games, watching most of the rest on TV or the internet, knowing many people within the program and their families.
From this end, in a way the relationship is somewhat paternal (or maternal for any PC police that may be reading). There’s a love of program that ultimately – eventually – overrides all negatives.
A season like last one is tantamount to having your kid get busted by the cops for egging neighborhood houses: You’re mad as hell but that anger only exists because of your superseding love.
And that’s largely why three months have elapsed since the last post on this site (to that point: two written and edited stories were scrapped on this end in late March). Blasting hard-working athletes and coaches seems like piling on after a season ends.
Everyone reading knows 9-20-7 isn’t an acceptable record for this program. Re-hashing that yet again doesn’t do anyone any good.
So it was necessary to take a step back rather than rolling out the hatemobile and taking the urban assault approach.
With that out of the way, let’s address the program in an ombudsman-like fashion, answering some of the questions now being tossed out and allow people who didn’t follow this season to catch up.
Q: What happened last season?
A: A number of issues culminated in a bad year. Injuries to key players, such as captain Louie Belpedio and fellow defenseman Jared Brandt, goalie Ryan Larkin, forwards Carson Meyer and Justin Greenberg, all of whom missed multiple games. The team severely lacked scoring depth beyond its first two lines, and overall the forwards weren’t as strong defensively as in past years. Same with the defensemen, who were not physical enough and frequently out of position, leading to far too many A-plus scoring chances by opponents. And yes, there were 14 freshmen on the team, which didn’t help. The development didn’t happen as quickly for some as has typically been the case at Miami.
Q: So if there are all of these freshmen this year, does that mean the program is doomed for several more seasons?
A: Let’s hope not. The injuries were (hopefully) an aberration, and only three of the starting 19 graduated (Fs Anthony Louis and Greenberg and D Colin Sullivan). Several of the freshmen got substantially better as the year went on, most notably F Gordie Green. The defense is going to be key next season. Miami scored 2.53 goals per game, which is nowhere near great, but the RedHawks allowed an average of 3.14, which is brutal with such a solid goalie. And Miami does have an excellent netminder in Ryan Larkin who was among those freshmen.
Q: Is Miami not getting good enough players or are they not being coached well?
A: Gotten this one a couple times, and it’s an excellent question but a really tough one to answer. In college, the coaching staff recruits the players, so either way it falls on the assistants and the head coach. But to answer, it appears to be more on the recruiting end but it’s a little of both. Miami was extremely fortunate to have current Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill and Bowling Green coach Chris Bergeron as assistants during much of that long NCAA Tournament run, and even after Blashill left, he was coaching USHL Indiana and feeding players like Blake Coleman and Joe Hartman to Oxford. With those coaches no longer associated with the program, the talent pool has not been as strong, and that obviously has a delayed effect, as players that those former coaches guided to Miami remain in college for several years after they sign. Miami has brought in more NAHL players recently, and while some have thrived in Oxford, overall it’s not as strong of a juniors league as the USHL, the top development league for Division I.
Q: So the current coaches are to blame?
A: Questions like these deserve very careful response, because we’re talking about people’s livelihoods. People with families and houses and bills. Journalists of all people should be aware of the scrutiny people can face when they’re in the public eye. If a team goes 9-20-7 like Miami just did, it’s there for everyone to see, evaluate and lambaste through social media and other internet sites. On a smaller scale, if a writer types “seive” instead of “sieve”, same thing. So there should be professional courtesy. That said, yeah, it’s absolutely fair is to say the coaching staff hasn’t done a good job during this stretch. Note that it’s not saying that any of these men who undoubtedly love the program and work their hind quarters off to make it successful aren’t doing their best, they don’t care, or they’re bad people. That effort just isn’t culminating into victories. And what’s especially frustrating is that they’ve been given all of the right tools by the university to win. The RedHawks play in a rink that’s the envy of 90 percent of Division I and they had a seven-figure weight room built specifically for them, literally yards from the Cady Arena ice. The school is top-notch, the campus is beautiful, as are the co-eds. Heck, even the weather is fantastic compared to the rest of the NCAA, except Arizona State and Alabama-Huntsville. They also have two well-paid assistants when the standard in college hockey has been one. And speaking of pay, head coach Enrico Blasi is one of the highest-compensated college hockey coaches on the planet. The university has basically said, here you go, here’s the keys to the vault and everything you could possibly need to field a winning hockey team. All you need to do is win. And for four years, they haven’t done that nearly enough.
Q: Should the coaches get the boot?
A: It’s the elephant-on-the-computer-monitor question. First off, Blasi has six years left on a huge contract. So for the people who want him gone, he isn’t going anywhere soon, especially with the recent turmoil surrounding the coaching positions in other sports the past couple of years. And in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately field, let’s not forget that without Blasi, there would likely be no palace of a rink on the south side of town, no 10 NCAA Tournament banners – including eight in a row – a national championship game appearance and two Frozen Four berths. Like him or not, the guy built this program to elite status. Miami went 11-20-5 the year before he took over, and in his fifth season – the first year all of his players were recruits by his staff – the RedHawks made the NCAAs and would do so eight of the subsequent nine years. He’s also a Miami graduate who has completed 18 years of coaching at his alma mater. He deserves a ton of respect for what he’s done for this program. Now if the titanic struggles continue for several more seasons, his position may be reevaluated. As for the assistants, their positions are probably less stable since they’re largely responsible for recruiting. They’re also pretty well paid for Division I hockey. And to be fair to them, Brent Brekke is well-respected for his work with defensemen and Nick Petraglia – another MU alum – has done great work with the goaltenders (TV PxP guy Dave Starman illustrated the improvement in Larkin’s game due to an adjustment Petraglia made in his stance). But it’s very difficult to answer the question as someone who’s not in the locker room every day and rarely sees practices or even a lot of live road games. To call for those jobs from this perspective would be irresponsible. But it’s irrelevant right now anyway. It’s mid-June, and any changes in this area would’ve been addressed months ago.
Q: So what now?
A: So an outside entity is going to evaluate every aspect of the program, which cross-our-fingers will get it back on track. Hopefully the coaches realize what they’ve been doing the past several years isn’t working – a tough thing to accept for choleric leaders accustomed to success – and will hopefully implement suggestions from that analysis. Then the hard part: Everyone from fans, players, coaches, etc., play the waiting game for another four months until Miami’s 2017-18 home opener vs. Providence.
2016-17 Miami season preview
Miami opens its season on Friday, and when it takes the ice it will feature its first defenseman captain since 2012-13 in junior Louie Belpedio.
Belpedio, an assistant last season who netted four goals and dished for 13 assists to lead all RedHawks blueliners in points with 17 last season, is just the second defenseman to hold that title since Cady Arena opened. Steven Spinell (2012-13) is the other).
Captaincy is a cumbersome role at Miami, and the transition was not easy for the past two captains. Austin Czarnik took over in 2013-14 after having never been in that capacity at any level and it took time for him to learn leadership off the ice, and Sean Kuraly earned the ‘C’ in the summer of 2015 but struggled on the ice the first half of last season.
“I think this year is a little different than in years past, with 14 freshmen,” Belpedio said. “For me, a lot of good examples were set by both Austin and Sean that I can take with me into this year and next year so I’ve got to thank those guys for really leading the way and showing me the ropes and what it takes. Those are probably two of the best guys to learn from. But obviously it’s an honor, and you look at the list of guys that have worn the ‘C’ before me, it’s obviously a pretty exciting list, and a lot of them are playing pro hockey right now and I look to follow in their footsteps. But right now, it’s a good personal accomplishment for me, but it comes with a lot of responsibility and I’m ready to take on that role.”
Belpedio said the high number of freshmen could have made his job even more difficult, but the players came in over the summer to work out rather than when school started, making their transition into their first regular season smoother.
“Honestly it hasn’t been to tough so far,” Belpedio said. “Everyone’s bought in and is abiding by what The Brotherhood stands for, and I think that makes it easier on the coaches, myself and even just the team in general. I’ve got to thank those guys for stepping right in and doing what they’re supposed to, and we’ve got (opening) weekend coming up, so it’ll be a big test for us and we can kind of see where we stand.”
Coach Enrico Blasi said that Belpedio having been an assistant last season had aided in his transition to wearing the ‘C’.
“He’s been in that role with other teams and I think his comfort level is pretty good at this point,” Blasi said. “He’s got a good surrounding cast around him, so I think he’s been adjusting well.”
Also earning assistant captain status are senior forward Anthony Louis as well as junior forward Conor Lemirande and sophomores forward Josh Melnick and defenseman Grant Hutton.
“It’s obviously a huge honor and I’m very fortunate to be in that position,” Melnick said. “I’m really not trying to think about it too much, and I’m really not looking to change up anything in terms of play last year. Like I said about Louie, trying to show everyone the way and model the way on the ice and know when there’s a good time to speak my mind and let everyone know. Obviously there’s always a time to lead and a time to follow, so just focusing on that.”
It’s unusual for a sophomore to earn a letter, much less for a team that will have half its team entering their first season in Oxford.
“It was a little overwhelming at first, I think, but from top to bottom, coaches, staff and all the returning guys, we never had any doubts – and still don’t – that we wouldn’t be able to execute this year and play at a high level,” Melnick said. “I think it was really helpful to get the guys in here this summer and get to know them, and we had to establish early what our program was about, and I think we did a pretty good job of that.”
Melnick called Belpedio a great fit for captaincy.
“Throughout the whole spring last season and the summer this year, he’s been a great leader both on and off the ice, showing the new guys the way and pulling everyone along with him as well as saying the right things, keeping high spirits,” Melnick said.
With 14 freshmen, Blasi said the only way to cope with that is for them to play games and gain experience. Opening night is Friday in Providence, which went 1-0-1 against the RedHawks in Oxford last season and knocked them out of the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
“For us it’s about process, and we’ve got to make sure we navigate that process correctly and we’re teaching and yet we’re holding them accountable to a certain standard,” Blasi said. “I think our culture’s in a good place where our older guys have done a nice job of implementing responsibility and that ownership for who we are.”
Blog of Brotherhood takes a quick glance at each position.
First-round pick Jack Roslovic turned pro this off-season after tying for the team lead in points last season with 26 and standout Sean Kuraly graduated, but two of Miami’s other 25-point producers return this fall in Melnick and Louis.
The RedHawks averaged just 2.39 goals per game last season, and although it was an exhibition, MU took a step forward in that department by lighting the lamp eight times vs. Waterloo on Saturday.
“Last year we struggled in that area a little bit, and obviously losing Jack doesn’t help us, but we got off to a great start the other night, and I think it was great to see every line contributing,” Melnick said. “That confidence is something I think we need, and we carried it into practice (this Monday) as well. We’ve had that confidence for the past couple of weeks, so that was definitely a confidence booster as well, and that should help us the next few weeks.”
Melnick did everything at a high level in 2015-16 and went 9-16-25. Kiefer Sherwood, also a sophomore, had an outstanding second half and finished with 11 markers and seven assists and Miami hopefully has a serious scoring duo for the next three seasons.
Louis finished with 11 goals as well in addition to 15 helpers and needs just 13 points to become the next member of the RedHawks’ 100-point club.
No other returning player had more than 10 points last season, although freshman Carson Meyer pumped in 32 goals in his first full season in the USHL in 2015-16 and Karch Bachman, a Florida Panthers draftee, scored twice in the exhibition as well as Alex Alger.
Gordie Green and Willie Knierim are also expected to contrinute right away after successful seasons in Dubuque, with Green playing more of a playmaker role while Knierim is a true freshman wide body who will hopefully continue to get better as he develops into his 6-feet-3 frame.
“I think we’ve got a lot of dynamic forwards, a lot of guys who can make plays and score goals,” Belpedio said. “That opens up the offensive side for us, but at the same time I think the defensive zone is the most important part, and those guys aren’t going to get to use their skills unless we take care of business in our end. Luckily, we’ve got some guys that are two-way and care as much about D as they do offense, so the offense will definitely come.”
Overall Miami has seven newcomers at forward, and add four sophomores for a total of 11 with one year of experience or less.
“We’ve been focusing on finishing in practice and doing everything we can to bear down in those tough areas where we need to bury the puck,” Melnick said. “Just focusing on those scoring habits, and I think our line chemistry is really good right now, so it will be really interesting to see how we do the next couple of weeks.”
Said Blasi: “I like the way we’re balanced – we have a little bit of everything – and we’ve just got to continue to get better.”
Out are standout Matthew Caito and shutdown blueliners Chris Joyaux and Taylor Richart, which means Miami must replace half of its starting D-corps from 2015-16.
But obviously Belpedio will anchor the blue line, and senior Colin Sullivan, junior Scott Dornbrock and Hutton return and should be solid in their end.
Belpedio played 34 of 36 games and went 4-13-17, Dornbrock also logged 34 games and picked up six assists, Hutton dished for five helpers in 35 games and Sullivan scored a goal in 15 contests.
Assuming those four start each night, that leaves two spots for four freshmen.
“I think we’re got a good group of guys to step right in and fill those shoes,” Belpedio said. “This past weekend (in the exhibition vs. Waterloo) everyone got to dress, everyone played really well and it’ll be interesting to see what happens from here on out. But I think we have a strong D-corps, and even though we lost those guys I think we’ve got some good new faces.”
Grant Frederic is one of the favorites to land ample playing time, having captained USHL Green Bay last season. Frederic, a 6-feet-3 St. Louis native whose brother was drafted in the first round by Boston this June, went 2-12-14 with a plus-20 rating for the Gamblers and has a reputation as a big hitter.
Chaz Switzer, Jared Brandt and Bryce Hatten are the other three rookie blueliners. Hatten was injured much of last season and may still need time in 2016-17 to return to 100 percent. Hatten and Switzer are 19 while Brandt turns 21 later this month.
The rawest position for Miami, the four RedHawks goalies have logged a total of nine minutes, and the netminder who did play in a game – Evan McCarthy – is out with an undisclosed injury.
“In terms of goaltenders, it’s such a unique position,” Blasi said. “I think having three freshmen goalies battling it out every night, sometimes it’s nice to see the energy and the commitment and the passion that they have to prove themselves.”
Ryan Larkin played the first two periods of the exhibition, which is interesting because in the past when Miami has had split situations – which it has had most of the past decade – the top two goalies have played 30 minutes each.
Larkin, the cousin of Detroit Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin, was limited to four games last year because of injury and went 3-1-2.13 with a .917 save percentage. He had a .919 save percentage in 2014-15 in his only full season in the USHL.
Chase Munroe stopped all nine shots he faced in the third period on Saturday and finished 19-15-2.22-.912 with Minnesota of the NAHL in 2015-16.
Munroe has plenty of juniors experience, coming to Oxford at age 21 having played three full seasons in the NAHL.
“Obviously on any team, goaltending’s extremely important, like a backbone for a team as a whole,” Belpedio said. “Chase and Ryan are outstanding goaltenders and I think they’ll be able to step right in for us and make an impact immediately.”
The late addition to the team is Andrew Masters, who is also 21 and dominated in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, posting a .934 save percentage last season.
Richart is Miami’s black and blueliner
OXFORD, Ohio – While Taylor Richart’s presence in Miami’s lineup seems like a given on a nightly basis, there was a point when he pondered whether he had a shot at making it to this level.
Undersized for a defenseman at 5-feet-9, the senior went from having to try out to make an NAHL team to logging 122 games at the Division I level for the RedHawks and becoming one of their most dependable and toughest stay-at-home blueliners.
“He comes in, works his (butt) off every day, he really attacks it – practice, workouts, whatever it may be – real detail oriented, and he makes sure does all of the little things right,” goalie and classmate Jay Williams said. “He wants to do everything he can in his power to make sure he’s ready (for games), and obviously you’ve seen the results: For the past two years he’s been one of our best, most consistent players on our back end.”
Richart was born and still lives in Blaine, Minn., a northern suburb of Minneapolis, and was a rink rat practically from birth. His father, Scott, played for the University of Minnesota and still coaches youngsters.
Richart learned how to skate at a small park a couple of minutes from their home as a toddler and was a natural on the ice.
“Even when I was two years old I would put a pair of skates on and walk around the house,” Richart said. “Everything in my house is hockey since my dad grew up around hockey.”
Prep hockey is huge in Minnesota, and Richart helped Blaine High School qualify for the state tournament twice, including a third-place finish in 2009. He was named to the all-conference team in 2010.
But at that point, he didn’t see a lucrative future for himself in the sport and considered non-scholarship competition.
Richart also patrolled second base and shortstop growing up, and he thought he could play hockey in the winter and baseball in spring if he went to a Division III school.
After his senior year of high school, Richart received a call from an acquaintance that offered him a tryout for NAHL Aberdeen. Richart not only earned his way onto that team, he logged 53 games, scoring twice and dishing out 10 assists.
He worked as hard as anyone on the ice, impressing so much that he joined a USHL team the following season and went 7-9-16 for Fargo.
“His work ethic is really something that’s above and beyond,” senior defenseman Matthew Caito said. “Everything he does, he does 100 percent and he gives it his all, and guys really follow him, and we feed off of that. His intensity and work ethic in practice is amazing to watch. He’s one of my good friends, but I’m not just saying that because he is. It’s true – he’s one of our great leaders.”
Richart was preparing for a third season in juniors when a late defection left Miami short a defenseman. He came to Oxford for a visit and fell in love with the campus.
“That year we had (Steve) Spinell and (Joe) Hartman and (Garrett) Kennedy and (Matthew) Caito obviously with (Joyaux) and Ben Paulides – a year older,” RedHawks coach Enrico Blasi said. “So we needed him to come in right away and compete for playing time and he did that.”
Richart proved himself ready for that challenge right away as well.
Two years after trying out to make an NAHL team, Richart was in the lineup for an elite Division I school. He played 40 of 42 games as a freshman, went plus-2 with four assists and was fourth on the team with 49 blocked shots.
“From Day 1 he’s had that hockey IQ, and it’s obvious – if you watch him play you can see it,” Caito said. “It’s great how he’s always in the right position at the right time.”
A concussion essentially ended Richart’s season after 24 games as a sophomore. Despite the short year, he managed five assists and still blocked 36 shots while taking just one minor penalty.
With more freshmen coming in for his junior season, Richart again had to work his way into the lineup. After being scratched for the first five contests of 2014-15, he hit the ice for the final 35.
“I knew coming into the year I was kind in an odd spot because we had a lot of guys coming in as well, so I knew I had to work my butt off when I came to the rink every day,” Richart said. “Positive attitude, just kind of wait for chance, and when the chance came I grabbed it and ran with it.”
Richart netted his only career goal that season in a 3-0 win over Cornell on Dec. 29, 2014. He piled up 45 more blocks, finished plus-5 and took just three minors.
In 23 games this season, Richart leads team with 46 blocked shots – 11 ahead of any other RedHawk. – and he has three assists.
“The last couple years he’s done a tremendous job, really working hard to bring everything else along,” Williams said.
He also won the team’s hardest shot competition prior to this season.
“He’ll tell you that his shot’s gotten a little harder, but I don’t know about that,” Williams said. “They clocked it before the season but it might have been in kilometers.”
Said Blasi: “He came in his freshman year, kind of struggled sophomore year – which is not uncommon for guys – toward the end of his sophomore year started to come out of it and had a real solid year last year and he’s been pretty good this year. Those are always the good stories when the guys work themselves into the lineup and contribute and are mainstays.”
He also has just four penalty minutes, giving him 12 PIM in 90 games since the start of his sophomore season, a marvel considering his stay-at-home role.
Richart has a goal and 16 assists for his career, but points are a deceiving stat for a player in his role, and his total does not reflect the obvious improvement in his game since he first set foot on the ice at Cady Arena in 2012.
“His sound plays with the puck,” Caito said. “When he was younger, he kind of forced pucks a little bit just like everyone does when they first come into college. Now he’s really harnessed in on making the simple plays and realizing that plays lead to bigger opportunities for us. His defensive play is amazing right now.”
Having a father who played at the college level and still coaches has helped Richart become a smarter player as well.
“He knows the game very well, and as a smaller guy you have to know the game a little better,” Blasi said.
Richart uses the hockey smarts he father instilled in him to overcome the size deficit he faces when he dresses for games against ultra-physical NCHC opponents.
“You’re not going to out-muscle guys – you’ve just got to be smart,” Richart said. “Know the game, know your strengths and weaknesses. Just make strong plays. I know I’m not going to be the bigger guy, and that’s part of the reason why I kind of got overlooked, because I’m smaller, but I always knew I was going to have to out-think someone rather than rough them up.
“That kind of comes from my dad. He taught me to block shots, and he always told me that’s a big part of the game, being a defenseman, so that’s kind of what I prided myself on, blocking shots, taking hits, making plays, being a tough player. Your teammates look up to you when you do that as well, because they see that you’re sacrificing your body for them.”
If there was a statistic for penalty minutes drawn vs. penalty minutes taken, Richart would have to be high on the Division I leaderboard. He has drawn boarding majors numerous times in his career and has rarely missed a shift despite taking some brutal-looking hits.
“He’s got to set an NCAA record for being on the receiving end of hits from behind,” Williams said. “Obviously every time it happens it’s scary and it’s dangerous plays usually, and your No. 1 concern is thankfully he’s OK and his health and his safety. But drawing penalties is the result of hard work and moving your feet and doing the right things, and playing disciplined but playing with an edge and aggressive, so I think that’s kind of a testament to how he plays and how hard he works out there.”
Said Blasi: “He puts himself in that situation where he’s competing so hard for pucks that he’s going to take some punishment. As a smaller guy that’s just the name of the game – you’re just going to have to take it and move on.”
Besides the concussion, Richart said he has broken fingers a couple of times, fractured a foot on multiple occasions and has received countless stitches.
He also bruised a lung earlier this season and required medical treatment as he was coughing up blood. Richard missed just two games for the latter, the only times he has not been in the lineup in 2015-16.
“A couple of times I’ve gotten stitches this year and last year and just put some glue on it and repair after the period so I don’t miss time,” Richart said.
Whenever Richart has to visit a doctor, the paperwork heads north to his parents.
“My mom always gets the bills, an X-ray here, an X-ray there, there’s probably a stack about 20 deep,” Richart said. “They always joke that when I get an X-ray they know me by name there – I have a little VIP section where I go in.”
Caito is one of Richart’s best friends, and he said that Richart has earned the nickname The Deputy because of his militaristic routine.
“He’s real strict about his schedule and he gets all upset if you mess with it,” Williams said. “Kind of the iron fist.”
Richart has a 3.3 grade-point average as a sports leadership management major and will graduate this spring. He want to continue playing hockey in the professional ranks beyond this season but is currently focused on his final collegiate games as he wraps up his last few months in Oxford.
“The coaching staff, the guys – this place is just unbelievable,” Richart said. “Even the first time I came for my visit in the summer when no one was here, I knew this was the place for me. Everything is set up for you to succeed – the professors want you to succeed, the coaches want you to succeed, not only on ice but they want you to grow as a person. They care about you and they have so much respect for you. I’ve made some of the best friends I’ll have for life here. It’s been an unbelievable experience.”