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.
Joel Beal was named Miami’s assistant coach on June 2 after five seasons at Sacred Heart, three as an assistant and the final two as associate head coach. He recorded 101 points in four seasons as a playmaking forward for Union and coached there for two seasons before joining Sacred Heart.
Beal moved to Oxford along with his wife, Jessica and his daughter, Mackenzie, 3. His son, Parker, was born on Sept. 4.
BoB: Coach, first of all, welcome to Miami. What would you want Miami fans to know about your coaching philosophy?
Beal: I think when I went through the interview process with (Coach Blasi) and (Coach Mannino) here a couple of months ago, we talked a lot about my coaching philosophy. As an assistant coach I think I have two roles within our staff here, and that’s to recruit the best possible players to Miami and then once those student-athletes get here to help them develop. I think that’s a huge piece of being an assistant coach is helping our players develop to play at the next level and to become great people, great hockey players, great students. Any way we can assist them whether it be through coaching, through video, through skills, even just lunch, breakfast, just being an ear for those guys, really being a support system for our players in key. And the way we’re going to do that is a lot of communication and make sure we have great relationships and work ethic. Those are the three things that I’m going to focus on here in terms of helping our players develop. And then obviously the recruiting piece is huge, being an assistant coach.
BoB: You grew up in Brantford, Ontario, and obviously anyone who knows hockey knows that’s the hometown of Wayne Gretzky. During your playing career did you find expectations on you were higher because you hailed from the same place as the best player ever to play hockey?
Beal: Not really. Any time I introduce myself I and they ask where you’re from and I say, Brantford, Ontario, and immediately they say, oh, isn’t there a famous hockey player from Brantford? (I say) absolutely, and that’s come up, and it’s a great topic of conversation with recruits, with families. Growing up in that town – it’s obviously a big hockey town – I played minor hockey at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre which is on Wayne Gretzky Parkway, and I played in the Wayne Gretzky Tournament at Christmastime. And Walter (Wayne’s father) is always at the rink. They’ve actually changed the name – it used to be the Wayne Gretzky Tournament, it’s now the Walter Gretzky Tournament because he’s the guy who’s there, who’s handing out the certificates and the trophies, signing autographs, doing all that stuff. My whole family’s from that town, my dad grew up there, he’s got five brothers and one of the brothers is the same age as Wayne, so my grandmother used to be able to go to Wayne’s baseball games in the summertime as well as the hockey games in the winter. She was close with Walter all those years, they’d say ‘hello’ at the rink…so it was pretty cool growing up in that town. But in terms of expectations on me or future hockey players, not really. There’s only one Wayne, right?
BoB: Has your path ever directly crossed with Wayne in your lifetime?
Beal: Yeah, once – and this is going way back – might have been the NHL lockout in the 90s. He was off for a couple weeks and he just showed up at the rink, and immediately, all in the sudden the rink was packed with people. His dad was still working with the team, and he jumped on the ice with the guys and he was in and out of town in like a half hour, but that was the only time our paths have actually crossed. Again, Walter is the guy you see around Brantford.
BoB: So you played at Union and racked up 101 points. You have the best single-season assist total in school history with 29 and are second all-time in career helpers with 74. Any time someone has 100 points in the NCAA it’s a great career, so can you talk about your NCAA playing days?
Beal: Union was a great spot for me because it brought – similar to Miami – a great academic tradition and history. That was really important for me. I wanted to make sure I was getting a good degree, I was a mechanical engineering major at Union, so that aspect was very important. At the time when I went to Union they weren’t as relevant on the national stage as they are today, so it was a good fit me for in terms of getting in and getting those opportunities to play. I got to play for two great coaches, who, 18 years later, are still coaching today. Kevin Sneddon, who’s (the head coach) at Vermont, recruited me to Union, and two years into my Union career he took the job at UVM, and Union hired Nate Leaman who has since moved onto (the head coaching role at) Providence. I was really lucky in that I got the opportunity to play for two great coaches and I got to learn from them. Two different experiences. I find myself in my coaching life very lucky to have played for two guys that are very different but also very successful in their own right. I think the on-ice experience was great for me. (Union’s) a great school and a great place and I do so a lot of similarities between Union and Miami in terms of the education and the athletics.
BoB: You were officially named assistant coach here on June 2. Can you talk about the process that lead to you landing the job here?
Beal: I didn’t have a previous relationship with either Rico (Blasi) or Peter (Mannino). Peter had been hired pretty quickly after the staff changes were announced, and two or three weeks before the coaches’ convention in Naples (Fla.), which is in April every year following the Frozen Four, I put in a call to Rico, I left him a voicemail to let him know that I was interested in the position and I was looking forward to hopefully hearing back from him. Rico was busy – he was doing a lot of work at that time before the coaches’ convention. The season had just ended and he was putting together a staff, and we ended up meeting for the first time in Naples. We had a conversation over coffee for about an hour and just kind of got to know each other and he got to pick my brain a little bit and I got to pick his brain a little bit. That was a really good conversation. I wasn’t sure where it was going to go from there, and then about a week later I had a phone conversation with Coach Mannino, who was somebody else I hadn’t met before. So there really was no previous relationship or previous history between the three of us. And it was just a series of phone calls and conversations that I thought were really positive, and I thought what they were trying to build here, I could be a good fit. It’s obviously about a fit – you want to be able to build your staff so that you have certain people that are able do certain things to really fulfill all of the jobs that we need to do here. That was going really well and I think Rico had some relationships with some coaches that I had played for before or worked with – I know him and Coach Leaman at Providence talk a lot and they value each other’s opinion, and I think Coach Leaman was willing to make a phone call to Rico and kind of put in a good word for me – I think that went a long way. Two or three weeks after that I was on campus for an interview. I loved it, I loved everything about it. The philosophy, The Brotherhood, the culture, the facilities, the school, the town, it all was really a good fit for my family and Rico offered me the job a couple days later. I think I wasn’t off the phone for an hour, I called my wife and I called him back and said we’re in.
BoB: Before that interview had you ever been to Oxford?
Beal: I’d never been to Oxford, no. So in reality it was a cold call from me to Rico that got the process started. It just so happened, and this is in life, any time that you’re trying to get a job, that there were some people that I knew that were willing to really put in a good word to Rico for me. And I really think that went a long way in terms of us not having a previous relationship. There are some people that he really trusts in the hockey world that I had known and had relationships with – Coach (Rick) Bennett at Union and Coach (C.J.) Marottolo at Sacred Heart – Rico knows those guys and those guys have all been around a long time, and the hockey world is small, so I think that really helped. And I’m very grateful to those guys that they were willing to help me out.
BoB: You didn’t get hired until the beginning of June, so what have you been able to do in the 3½ months since you’ve been hired at Miami to prepare for this season?
Beal: We’ve been really focused on recruiting. Peter and I have talked a lot about players that we both know. Players that I might know he might not know. What are needs are going into the future. We’ve watched a lot of video, both on recruits that were committed by the previous staff, so the guys that are coming to Miami that maybe I wasn’t as familiar with, and I think that’s really important is to understand what we’ve got coming in. We’ve been watching video on our current team because I think that’s important to have an idea of what our needs, what our holes might be as we look forward to the future, and then obviously there were a lot of phone calls that I had to make with some recruits and some prospects that I think might be a good fit for Miami in the future. There wasn’t a lot of crossover in the recruiting that I’d done at Sacred Heart with the recruiting that we’re doing at Miami in terms of the player pool – it’s a different player pool. So In think for me it was a lot of catching up with the player pool that we’re targeting. I think it’s a more elite, younger player that we’re targeting at Miami than I was previously at Sacred Heart. I’ve been trying to do a lot of homework in that aspect as well, and besides that getting my family moved out here to Oxford. It was a quick turnaround: I had to sell a house, buy a house, my wife was actually pregnant – she just gave birth (on Sept. 4) – so she was like seven months pregnant when we moved out here. I had to get the doctors and the hospitals sorted out on that side as well. But Rico and Peter are just amazing in terms of making sure that the family’s taken care of and family first. And it’s not just something that we say to our team – family first – the Brotherhood here and the staff embodies it and they put into practice, and I had first-hand experience with that from Day 1. Those guys were awesome.
BoB: Miami had a run of success with players from Chicago and to a smaller degree from Columbus, and recently it has taken on a more Michigan-centric feel. Being from Canada and having coached on the east coast, do you see this team taking on players from different regions than it has in the past?
Beal: A little bit. At Sacred Heart I’ve done a little more work in the Ontario loop – both the Toronto area and the Ottawa area – and then in British Columbia. I think we’re going to target some of those areas. We’re going to target areas where we think we can get the best possible players, and those are some areas that have produced some good players not only in our league but across the country. I did talk to Rico a little bit about the recruiting process, and some of the recruiting that I’d done in Ontario and British Columbia and Alberta and some of those places, and the lack of presence of those areas on the current roster was something that – hey, let’s look into that, let’s see why we haven’t been able to get some of the top players out of those areas and let’s go to the well and see what we can do.
BoB: Miami has a solid history in all of those spots, as Dan Boyle (Ottawa), Curtis McKenzie (Golden, B.C.) and Reilly Smith (Toronto area) have all worked out really well for Miami.
Beal: I have a few relationships with some of those (juniors) coaches and just like anything it’s all about relationships and knowing some people. I think that will help a little bit but in the end we’re not going to say ‘no’ or say ‘yes’ to anyone just because of where they’re from. We’ve done pretty good in our own back yard – Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois – and we need to make sure that we’re actively targeting those players in our backyard, but after that, yeah, let’s go find the best.
BoB: You’ve been a Division I assistant for quite a while. I remember just a few years ago it seemed like players weren’t allowed to interact with coaches at all until the week before opening night. What has changed in recent years from an NCAA perspective in terms of handling players?
Beal: In terms of the actual coaching, the NCAA has bumped it up from two hours to four hours a week for our on-ice skill instruction. So basically in the past those two hours were broken up into three 40-minute sessions – three practices a week – where now we’re able to go four practices a week at an hour long. There’s certainly a lot more involvement on ice, coaching our players in September, and hopefully that’s going to better prepare not only us but every team in the country and you’ll see a lot higher quality (play) in October, which is what everybody wants. I think it’s definitely been a benefit.
BoB: How about the dealing with recruits prior to the season?
Beal: One thing that’s changed is every league will basically have their showcase in September. All that means is they’re going to bring in all the teams from their league into one city and they’re going to play a series of games back-to-back. For us, as coaches recruiting, if we’re able to fly into Calgary or Toronto or Pittsburgh for two days and see 12 or 14 teams to give us a really good base of knowledge on the league, the teams and the players going into the season going forward. One, it saves a lot of money because you’re going to see a lot of teams in a quick weekend, but two, we get a really good feel for the leagues and the targets going into the season so that we can be a little more active and pinpoint who we want to be, who we want to (pursue) going into the year. Those showcases – every league does it now – so it’s just a matter of spreading ourselves out and using our time wisely and making sure we’re hitting all these leagues and all these teams and targets in September so that we’re ready to go when the season starts. Because when our games start, it’s always a little harder to get out and to be seeing as many players because a lot of these leagues are Friday-Saturday leagues as well.
BoB: How tough of a situation is this to come into? RedHawks fans were accustomed to annual NCAA berths and now the team has a .399 winning percentage the past three seasons and expect an immediate reversal, and yet the players you’re inheriting aren’t guys you recruited.
Beal: Me personally, I love the expectations. I think that having high expectations means you have a history of tradition, a history of success and you have the support of the institution, the administration to help build that success. For me personally it hasn’t been tough at all. I think it’s a terrific group of players that we have in the locker room, I think our culture’s outstanding right now, I think our work ethic’s outstanding and I think our team is genuinely excited to get on the ice and to play that first game. I think they really want to see what we have because we feel really good about it right now, which I think is a great start. Obviously we’re going to hit adversity at some point, we’re going to battle through some adversity like every team does, but I think we have a really strong culture in place right now, and we’re going to see the success and we’re going to see the results and hopefully we can live up to those expectations. Peter and Rico and I, we’re not coming into the season thinking these aren’t our players, it’s a rebuild time. We’re going to work every day to have success, that’s our goal.
BoB: Last season Miami seemed like it was close to being a contender in the NCHC but fell just a little short, and they seemed to lose a lot of close games. You’ve seen enough film at this point and know the guys well enough, so at this point what do you think this team needs to do in order to flip some of those losses to wins?
Beal: I think you’ll see that throughout college hockey is that it’s tight, and especially in this league there’s a lot of parity, there’s not a lot of difference from the top of the league to the bottom of the league. I think when you look at any league and you look at the teams at the top and the teams at the bottom, the two things you can look at are your special teams and your goaltending – you’ve got to be great in those two areas, and those are two areas that we’re going to focus on. If it’s a 3-2 game, you get another goal on the power play or your penalty kill keeps one out, that’s the difference between winning and losing. I don’t think I’ve given you any super-secret methodology of how to be successful, that’s a tried-and-true formula and recipe for success not only in our league but any league. Hopefully we can be great in those areas because I know our work ethic and our culture and our attitude is great.
BoB: Coaches Petraglia and Brekke both had specific in-game responsibilities. Coach Mannino was a goalie and you were a playmaking forward, so do you know what your specific game-night coaching duties will be?
Beal: We haven’t talked a lot about that yet up to this point, so I don’t really have a good sense. I can tell you right now Peter and I have working a lot with the penalty kill. We’ve trying to have that ready for the start of the season. We’ve been spending some time – Peter, obviously – working with the goaltenders, and that kind of goes hand-in-hand with the penalty kill and we’ve been working with the defensemen. That’s kind of what we’ve been focused on. Moving forward, in terms of game-day responsibility, I don’t think that’s something that our staff has worked out yet. We’re just trying to get our team ready for that point.
BoB: The NCHC is arguably to best league in Division I, and as a result the annual conference schedule is brutal. How does a coach help prepare a team for such a difficult slate of games and how do you keep the players focused throughout?
Beal: We focus on really setting a standard of how we want to practice every single day, and we’re not looking too far ahead – I know it’s a cliché, but we’re going to take it day by day here – beyond taking it day by day is we want to set a standard for our execution, our work ethic every day in practice. That’s kind of the first step we’re focusing on. In terms of having a murderer’s row, we’re going to trust our process for how we’re going to go about doing things. How we’re going to prepare, what our work ethic is going to be and how we’re going to execute. And if we go into every weekend, every game with a focus on how hard we’re going to work, and we’re prepared and we’re going to execute…we’re going to have success. And again, it’s going to be about managing some of that adversity and controlling our emotions and not getting too high and not getting too low because there’s going to be good nights and there’s going to be bad nights, but I think if we’re focused on trusting the process, setting that standard every single day I think we can have confidence going into every weekend that we can compete, and we’ll see what the results are.
BoB: Even though you weren’t here last season the team finished well and took Duluth to overtime in Game 3 of the NCHC semifinals. In your limited time with limited exposure to the players do you think that somewhat positive ending to 2017-18 will carry over to this season?
Beal: Yeah, I think so. It’s a really strong leadership group we have in the locker room. (Grant) Hutton and (Josh) Melnick – terrific captains, terrific leadership and I think they kind of saw at the end of last season what we could have going forward to this year, and I think that’s part of the reason they decided to come back for their senior years – they obviously had some options to sign but they decided to come back because they had something to prove and they kind of saw what we had building in the locker room. And then I think we’ve got a lot of young guys – freshman to sophomore year is a huge year where a lot of guys can make jumps, you see some big gains from that freshman year to that sophomore year. We had some really good freshman performances last year, so we feel really confident about that. I wasn’t here in the spring, but talking to performance coach (Ben) Eaves and Rico, the spring workouts were phenomenal. So I think there’s been a lot of great energy and big growth and I think that carries over – to what you just said – some success the last two weekends and getting these guys coming back, great leadership group, we had a great spring, guys came back this summer, they’re training together, and then we’ve had a really good start to our fall workouts and on-ice sessions together. I definitely think there was a carryover from last year and I think you saw that with the leadership group deciding to come back and the great spring workouts that we had. We’re hoping some of that will carry over into the start of the season, and we’ll see how it goes.
NOTE: BoB will publish its interview with associate head coach Peter Mannino in the coming days.
After a whirlwind spring, Miami once again has a full complement of coaches and within a few weeks its 2018-19 roster will likely by finalized.
But several unanswered questions still surround the RedHawks heading into the season as they hope to halt their run of three consecutive sub-.500 campaigns.
BoB takes a look at some of those issues in the summer 2018 edition of State of the Program.
Q: So what’s up with the struggles the past few years?
A: I would say the biggest issue for Miami since 2015 has been depth. The Josh Melnicks and Grant Huttons are as talented as anyone to don the Red and White, but when the RedHawks were qualifying for the NCAAs annually and winning conference titles, they essentially had five lines, four defensive pairings and a suburb goaltending duo.
Let’s look at the forwards from 2007-08, arguably the best offensive Miami hockey team ever. Here are the point totals of the top 12 forwards:
By the way, the 17-point scorer was Nathan Davis, who was hurt for half of his junior season, and the guy with 14 was Andy Miele, who played just 18 games his freshman year, coming in mid-season.
Yes, there is more to forward-ing than racking up points, and yes, that was against CCHA competition and not the NCHC, but the dropoff is still stark.
Defense is much more subjective, but I was a huge fan of the pairings the 2009-10 team rolled out. Here’s how that blueline stacked up:
Matt Tomassoni (F/D)
Name one of those guys who was easy to play against.
Last season the top-end defensemen were fantastic but opponents’ Grade-A chances were at least double those faced eight years prior.
Every season Miami has fared well in the postseason it has had two strong goalies.
In that 2007-08 season, Jeff Zatkoff posted a .933 save percentage. His backup, Charlie Effinger, went 6-0, 2.16 and .912 and still played fewer than 400 minutes.
It was Jeff and Eff, then Cody and Connor, then Jay and McKay. Competition is healthy, and those tandems motivated and fed off each other.
Junior-to-be Ryan Larkin thrived as a freshman but was at .886 in 2017-18 and his backups were well below that mark. The last time a goaltending leader had posted a goals-against average above three was 2001-02. Larkin’s was 3.12.
Again, depth. Miami has been so deep in net it has typically rotated the past decade-plus. A strong showing by a No. 2 could’ve pushed Larkin to more success.
Now, people may say comparing 2017-18 to some of the best Miami teams is unfair, but those teams made deep runs in the NCAAs, and isn’t that the ultimate goal moving forward?
Q: Assuming you’re right – and you rarely are – why has depth been a problem the past few years?
A: The athletic department and/or the hockey team obviously felt like recruiting was a primary reason, as both assistant coaches were moved out of those roles as soon as last season ended.
I definitely think that was a large part of it, which pains me to say because Coaches Brekke and Petraglia bleed Miami red and worked so hard to keep this program on a successful course.
But a key to their demise was the incoming 2016-17 class, when the RedHawks needed 12 freshmen to replenish talent after suffering major losses at forward, defense and in net. Only seven of those players will dress as juniors this fall.
Q: Are there any other reasons high-end players aren’t coming to Miami?
A: Unfortunately, when a team isn’t performing well, it’s tougher to persuade the next Austin Czarnik to come to Oxford.
A lot of the negativity surrounding those sub-par teams over the past few seasons may have also stained the culture’s image to a degree.
Especially in the social media era, the hockey world is a small one and extremely tight-knit. Picking a college is a huge decision for an elite player and he’s going to balk at one that has perceived internal problems.
That said, bringing in new coaches could have a cathartic effect.
And the good news is that Miami is still an excellent school in a beautiful town, playing in a state-of-the-art facility that is the envy of the Division I world. Those attributes of this program will always steer quality recruits to Oxford.
Q: What is Coach Blasi’s status?
A: There are more rumblings each off-season, but he still has five years left on a multi-million dollar contract. That deal doesn’t expire until 2023.
So for those who want him out, he’s not going anywhere. Maybe if this losing trend continues for a couple more seasons, Miami would eat the final couple years on his contract. Maybe.
Personally, I thought his in-game coaching was markedly better last season. The team just didn’t have the guns to make a much-needed postseason run.
Q: Are these new assistants any good?
A: We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?
To be fair, they’re inheriting a team of players that didn’t recruit, so it’s going to be tough to evaluate them for a couple of years.
Still just 34, Peter Mannino moves into the more revered role of associate head coach, which was Brekke’s position. He is a former goalie that won a Division I title with Denver, played eight years in the pros including a cup of coffee with three NHL teams, and this will be his third season behind the bench.
Coming from an assistant’s role at Nebraska-Omaha and having played at DU, he should be extremely familiar with the teams in this league and the types of players he will need to recruit to help Miami win in the NCHC.
The other thing with Mannino is several players previously committed to UNO may now come to Miami as soon as this fall. That could make a huge impact on a team that currently has just 15 skaters on its roster.
Joel Beal has been a D-1 assistant for Union and Sacred Heart the past seven seasons, so he has much more coaching experience.
It will be interesting to see where Miami draws its next generation of players from with these coaches at the helm. The RedHawks had a long-running Chicago-area pipeline, but those connections may have dried up and recent rosters have featured more of a Michigan flare.
Q: So is this team going to be better this year?
A: It’s really hard to say, especially with so many still-unfilled holes on the roster.
It was very encouraging to see how well Miami played down the stretch, taking St. Cloud State to overtime in Game 3 on the Huskies’ home ice.
There was also a lot to like among the freshman class. Phil Knies posted 11 goals, Casey Gilling tallied 19 points and was a stud on defense and in the faceoff circle, and Ben Lown dished for 11 assists and was also a solid penalty killer.
Alec Mahalak and Rourke Russell showed lots of promise on defense, with Mahalak running the power play at times later in the season.
But nine players are gone from that 2017-18 team. Graduated are Louie Belpedio, Scott Dornbrock and Conor Lemirande, Kiefer Sherwood turned pro, Carson Meyer transferred and the team is not bringing back Willie Knierim, Bryce Hatten or the Alger brothers.
Exactly who is coming in this fall is still a huge question mark with several players possibly following Mannino to Oxford, and internet speculation is running amuck, so we’ll leave that for the next post.
The point is: That’s a lot of players to replace when a year ago Miami thought it would only lose three guys this off-season.
When the full roster is posted it will be easier to assess the 2018-19 version of the RedHawks.