You can bet that as time ticked away late in the third period on an Ohio State 3-2 win over the University of Minnesota on Oct. 6 – the Buckeye women’s first win over the Gophers since 2007 – Minnesota head coach Brad Frost, while unamused on the outside, was smiling a little bit on the inside as he peered across the ice at OSU head coach Nadine Muzerall.
You can also bet that Muzerall, while ecstatic over her team’s ability to fight back and take down Minnesota, part of her struggled with the idea of beating Frost and his Gopher squad. When Muzerall took over as head coach at Ohio State last season, the goal was always to win, but no one ever talked about how to feel when you beat your alma mater ... or when you coach against your former boss and skate away with a victory. Describing it as “weird” might be an understatement.
“It was so personal going back to Minnesota,” Muzerall said. “That was my home. It’s not only where I played, but where I coached. My husband and I live there, our children were born there. My husband is also a former football player for the Gophers, so we have a lot of maroon and gold pumping through our blood.
“Going in, you just have to tell the girls that Minnesota ties their skates the same way we do, so you have a little bit of that confidence. What’s great is that we have built our own culture here and the girls are buying in.”
Culture is a word Muzerall throws around a lot – which should not surprise anyone. It’s also a word mentioned early and often by Frost when talking about his program. Often defined as “a way of thinking, behaving or working that exists in a place or organization,” Muzerall learned what that meant as a Gopher player from 1997-2001, and then again as an assistant coach for Minnesota from 2011-16. During that time period, Muzerall and Frost teamed up to help guide the Gophers to four NCAA titles. It’s that same winning attitude, or culture, that attracted Ohio State to Muzerall. It’s also that same winning attitude that has propelled the Buckeyes to a 7-0-1 overall record and a 5-0-1 mark in the WCHA – good enough for a No. 4 ranking in the nation.
“She is doing a great job out there,” Frost said. “They did some good things last year but they didn’t necessarily have the horses to win the hockey games. But this year, with those players now – the freshman class which is tremendous, a few transfer players and then having Kassidy Suave in net – I think any coach in the country would like to have Kassidy Suave in the net.”
It’s true, there is no shortage of talent. This season, Ohio State sports some of the best playmakers in the nation, including two fabulous freshmen who have skated into the national spotlight in Emma Maltais and Tatum Skaggs. Maltais and Skaggs have linked up with returners Maddy Field, Charly Dahlquist, Jacyn Reeves and Julianna lafallo (just to name a few), making the Buckeyes a force on the offensive end of the ice. Five of Muzerall’s players rank in the top 10 in goal scoring in the WCHA. Maltais and Skaggs rank first and second, respectively, in freshmen scoring in the WCHA.
And then there is Suave. The Ontario native ranks second in the WCHA and ninth in the nation in goals-against average (1.36), and her .952 save percentage puts her first in the conference and sixth in the nation. Still, as most coaches know, talent doesn’t always translate into wins.
There has to be something more thrown into the equation that will equal a win at the end of the day. That’s where Muzerall comes in.
“They play extremely hard, they are a passionate group and a group that is relentless on the puck,” Frost said when asked about the Muzerall’s influence. “Coaching with Nadine for five years, that was her mentality and that was the way she played – with that grit and that passion – and she has passed that along to her players.”
“Being aggressive on the forecheck has really helped and our speed has made some teams panic back there,” Maltais said. “I think that, plus more shots on net, has turned into getting more scoring opportunities and then getting more goals from that.”
Of course, Muzerall sees it a little differently. While she embraces the “culture” she and her staff have brought to the program, she credits the actual results to her players.
“I have a style that I like and I’m trying to get the girls to play like,” she said. “It’s fast and we want to move the puck and get shots on net and then when you are shooting, shoot with a purpose. I have that style, but these girls are the ones who score. They are the goal scorers who are doing the work. You can give them ideas, but they are the ones who are going to have to execute.”
It’s a formula and Buckeye fans hope Muzerall and her team has found. Still the record holder as the all-time leader in goals scored at the University of Minnesota, the Mississauga, Ont., native has seen it work before during her time wearing maroon and gold. She hopes she can lead her new program to the same results, just wearing different colors this time around.
If Muzerall is successful, you can bet Frost and the rest of Gopher nation will be watching from a distance smiling ... at least on the inside.
630 miles to the north
Grant Potulny will definitely remember the Wildcats’ win over Lake Superior State back on Oct. 7, but it might not be why you think. Yes, it was the first-year head coach’s first collegiate win, but maybe more important than that – at least to him – was the fact that the 4-1 victory came on the heels of a 5-3 loss the night before. During that game, despite out-shooting the Lakers 36-26, Northern Michigan gave up four power-play goals. It wasn’t the type of disciplined game Potulny wanted to bring to the Wildcat program.
The following night, NMU made amends by skating to a three-goal win over Lake Superior State, limiting the Lakers to just 21 shots and killing off all three LSSU power plays. As time ticked away late in the third period, the fact that Potulny was about to win his first college game was the furthest thing from his mind.
“The takeaway was through two periods we played really good hockey and as a young group, still figuring out how to learn, we needed to learn how to win,” Potulny said. “We had a few moments in the third period where we got away from doing the things that made us successful. I think we got a little nervous with the puck and we kind of stopped playing. I just felt on the bench that we had to try and keep it light. We had to encourage the guys to continue to make plays and try to help them get through that moment so we could come out of the game and learn from that win.
“You hope that early in the year you can have some success, that your guys can have some success because they’ve worked so hard. That’s the biggest thing for me. You just want them to feel good about your game. As coaches, even after we lost that first game of the year, we felt pretty good about the game we played and now you hope the guys can have some success and feel good about it, too.”
He already sounds like a coaching veteran. To be honest, even though this season marks his first as head coach, he is. Dating back to his playing days with the University of Minnesota, Potulny earned his reputation as a leader on the ice, a coach among his fellow players. The Gophers’ only three-time captain since 1947, the Grand Forks, N.D., native caught the attention of fellow players and coaches, thanks to his poise on the ice, his ability to lead and his knack for timely goals. His most well-timed tally happened in the 2001-02 NCAA championship game when Potulny netted the game-winning goal giving the Gophers a 4-3 overtime win over Maine and a national title in the process.
Watching every second from the bench was Gophers head coach Don Lucia, who several years later, hired Potulny as an assistant coach after Potulny finished his five-year run playing professional hockey. That marked a new chapter in Potulny’s hockey career and set him on a collision course with a future head coaching job somewhere … at some point. That “somewhere” turned out to be Northern Michigan after the Wildcats hired Potulny as their newest head coach last April.
“I think with any assistant coach who has aspirations to become a head coach, you’re always preparing,” Potulny said. “I had the opportunity to learn from one of the greatest coaches in the history of college hockey and I got to watch how Don went about his business every day.
“The one thing that really, really resonates with his teams was that they were always prepared to play and there is no doubt going into Friday night that the staff has done their work, that the players feel prepared. When you go into a game and you are prepared, I think that eases some of your nerves because you know what to expect and we’ve really tried to do that with our staff here. Rob (Lehtinen) and Byron (Pool) work extremely hard. There have been some long video sessions within the staff. We just want to make sure that when we go out on Friday night we’ve done everything we can do to prepare our guys. You can do that in a multitude of ways. Watching and learning from Don was probably the best experience a coach who wants to become a head coach can have.”
Prepared to play. Prepared to attack. One of the most obvious influences Potulny has had on the Northern Michigan squad has been on the offensive side of the puck. Last season the Wildcats stumbled out of the gates, going 4-16-2 through their first 22 games and averaging just two goals per game during that stretch and allowing 3.2 goals per contest. Even though the Wildcats rebounded by skating to a 9-6-2 over their final 17 games, Northern Michigan finished sixth in the conference in team scoring and seventh in total goals scored. This season, the 4-2-0 Wildcats rank third in the WCHA in team scoring and have already scored three or more goals in a game four times. They did that 15 times all of last year in 39 games.
“He’s unbelievably professional is how he conducts himself every day,” said senior forward Robbie Payne, who leads the WCHA in goal scoring with six goals. “The guys see what he brings to the table. What he brings is being able to play a fast game and being able to open up our options when it comes to what we are able to do on the ice. I think that with the systems he’s played in the past, especially with him coming from Minnesota after playing on the Olympic-sized rink, I think it really fits our style playing on our own rink. Also the things he was able to do during his playing career, he’s shown that to the guys as far as what we can accomplish as a team.
“We are more offensive than we have been in the past. We are really focusing on making plays in the offensive zone and focusing on getting the puck out of our own zone so we can play more offense. Just focusing on not turning the puck over and having good solid offensive plays overall.”
“Grant has brought a different style of hockey to us,” senior forward Zach Diamantoni said. “We are playing a faster game; everyone is involved. Our D-men are being more offensive. Our focus is not only playing fast, but making fast decisions. It’s a very up-tempo style of hockey. We constantly want to be on our toes and attack teams. He’s also kind of changed the culture here. He’s put his own imprint on what he wants the team to look like and how we are going to act off the ice – that kind of stuff carries over to how we play on the ice.”
If you talk to Northern Michigan hockey fans, you will hear the excitement when they talk. If you stroll through Marquette these days, you will feel the energy. The whispers started back in April when it was announced that Potulny was first hired and the noise has turned into a roar. It seems that no matter where you go or who you ask, everyone knows that this year’s Wildcat team is different. The legend of Grant Potulny continues to grow.
“You always think you are ready to become a head coach, but until you actually get that opportunity you’re not sure. In order to get that opportunity, you have to prepare yourself,” Potulny said. “You have to be in the right place and you have to get lucky. It’s hard to get jobs in hockey and it’s hard to get head coaching jobs. You need someone to take a leap of faith on you and Northern Michigan did. I’m grateful for that opportunity. Now that you have it, you still understand that there are a lot of things you need to learn. There are going to be mistakes along the way, but you hope you can learn from those and grow as a coach.
“I think your character and reputation is something that other people can evaluate you on. I think individually you try to work as hard as you can and you try to do what you think is right. You’re not always going to be right and there are going to be some adjustments that need to happen. I think you just try to go about your business and do things the right way. When you do that and you work hard, sometimes things happen the right way for you.”
Andrew Vitalis can be reached at email@example.com