A hockey trip out East – Part I

 

By Kevin Hartzell
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

Last spring, the Sioux Falls Stampede was sold to a new group of owners and they made the decision to not renew my contract.  Maybe I was overrated and/or over-paid in their view, but whatever the case, I became the proverbial free agent.

Over the summer, I looked at only one job seriously. That was a pro job in Europe but it didn’t happen.

So what to do? My wife and I decided to do something we have never done –travel while we wait for a new coaching opportunity. At the top of our travel list was to spend time with our boys (Brandon and Eric) who both live out east. Our son Eric is a senior goaltender for Quinnipiac and I had never seen him play in person. So we planned an extensive trip, and I plan to share some of this trip with you.

Thursday, Nov. 1 – Our journey begins with a stop just outside of Detroit at the home of the parents of former Stampede player Brent Darnell (Bill and Patty Darnell). They were amazingly gracious to share their home with us. We toured some of inner-city Detroit. I have never seen anything like it. I am told 8 out of 10 homes stand vacant. It looks more like a recent war zone with abandoned and often half-burned homes. It is its own kind of ghost town. That this once proud city could deteriorate in our “land of plenty” is very sad.

Friday, Nov. 2 – A day later, the four of us drove to East Lansing to watch the Michigan State Spartans host the Bowling Green Falcons. I felt like a proud papa as I had three former players in the game – Brent Darnell of MSU, and Marcus Perrier and Marc Rodriguez of Bowling Green. Bowling Green would win the game 1-0. When Michigan State pulled their goalie for a sixth attacker, Darnell was on the ice for the Spartans and Perrier was on the ice for Bowling Green to defend the lead. That is what a player should strive for ... at crunch time, a player should want his coach to trust him enough to have him on the ice. That made me very proud to see them  both out there when it mattered most.

I thought both teams looked solid but maybe lacked a high-end playmaker like a Kyle Rau, a player that just makes plays and makes everyone around them better. Nevertheless, it was a good college hockey game.

The Michigan State arena looks much like it did back when I played as a visiting Golden Gopher. The arena seems brighter and cleaner with more electronics, but still a very nice venue for the college game.

Saturday, Nov. 3 – Originally we planned to go to Bowling Green and watch the rematch between the Falcons and Spartans. But with our plans to attend the Western Michigan at Notre Dame game on Sunday night, we stumbled into some Notre Dame football tickets for Saturday. What an experience. Notre Dame has the longest-standing marching band in America. Seeing this band was worth the visit. The atmosphere for Notre Dame football is special to say the least and we were treated to a classic game, a three-overtime thriller against one of their long-time rivals, the Pitt Panthers. Pitt almost pulled off a classic upset but couldn’t make that one last play to win the game.

Sunday, Nov. 4 – Walking into the new Notre Dame hockey arena, you immediately know you are walking into something special. It is brand new, bright and spacious hockey venue. Downstairs, outside the locker-room, they have two shooting stations. One side feeds pucks from the left, the other side feeds puck from the right. Players practice receiving the puck and then shooting at a goal with targets. Players first punch in their personal code so the machine can track their time of release and accuracy of shots. They can compare themselves not only to Notre Dame teammates, but other collegians and pros who also use the system. The computer keeps track and compares players all over the world. Wow, if we had technology like this when I played, I might have practiced 24/7.

Western Michigan has been in the NCAA Tournament the past two years and again are a solid team. I have two former players on the Broncos – Jordan Oesterle, a sophomore defenseman from Michigan and forward and Bronco captain Dane Walters of St. Paul. Always proud to see former players become captains. 

On the other side, a very talented Notre Dame team where I also have an alum, Michael Voran of Livonia, Mich. Michael was our leading scorer a few years back in Sioux Falls. I am very proud of this young man. He has worked very hard to get where he has. 

The Stampede boys all got lots of ice time. Notre Dame was the better team this night and put up a 3-0 win. This night, WMU just never seemed to get it going. Notre Dame has a lot of talent and seems to be the kind of team that should be around come tournament time. Minnesota native Anders Lee is always impressive.

I am surprised only that this beautiful new arena does not play replays on their video board. I don’t know if it just wasn’t functioning this night or they don’t have a replay function, but in my opinion, replays for the fans can really enhance the experience as the game often moves too fast for many of us to really see what happened the first time. Still, a great experience.

Tuesday, Nov. 6 – We arrive in Hamden, Conn. We will be watching our son’s Quinnipiac team play three games in five days. As we arrive, I receive the news that my mom has just died. She was 92 and lived a great life. My dad, her husband of 60-plus years had just passed away a few months earlier.

On this night, our son Eric was not going to play. Quinnipiac was playing American International College, a non-conference opponent based out of Springfield, Mass. To be honest, they are one the weaker teams in NCAA Division I hockey. Quinnipiac had been rated in the top 20 and was expected to win this game easily.

I would rate this game as extremely poorly played. AIC won 2-1. I left the rink wondering what I had just seen. That said, weeknight games can be tough for college players. These are student-athletes who are not just preparing to play, but attending classes, taking tests, etc. It is not easy to play at a high level with this tax on the mental side of life.

Friday-Saturday, Nov. 9-10 – Quinnipiac was to begin conference play hosting Colgate on Friday and fourth-ranked Cornell, who is always a solid team, on Saturday. The Quinnipiac campus is one of the most beautiful campuses I have ever seen. The hockey and basketball facility is at the top of a small mountain or maybe it’s a big hill! It is breathtakingly beautiful. The arena is gorgeous and the views around the arena are in a class of their own.

I was surprised by the number of NHL scouts I saw at the games and a number who told me that they were in attendance mainly to watch our son.  That is pretty neat.

Game 1 vs. Colgate, the Quinnipiac boys played fantastic but had trouble getting the puck in the net. Still they won a thriller 3-2 in overtime. Though Eric didn’t see a lot of action, I thought he played very well. 

Over the course of the three days, we see Eric very little. He has school and hockey and we don’t want to cramp his style or take away from his focus. We enjoy the surrounding countryside, including a visit to Yale which is only a few miles down the road.  What a great institution!

It was an honor to visit campus during a “nor’easter,” as they call them out east, which dumped nine inches of snow over-night. We met with assistant Yale coach Red Genron and then watched both the Yale women and Yale men practice. Both conduct up-tempo and fun practices. Yale has a unique arena for sure with a roof/ceiling unlike anything I have ever seen. I look forward to the day I can go back and watch a game.

Saturday night it was the visiting Cornell Big Red. Cornell dressed eight players already drafted by NHL teams. A couple of weeks earlier, they had swept a very good Colorado College team. I was excited to watch what I thought would be an excellent test for Quinnipiac but also a great goalie match-up between Cornell’s Andy Isles and Eric. I wanted to see Quinnipiac play their A game again like they did on Friday. The test of a good team is not just playing a good game, but putting many good games together. 

Quinnipiac started very slow but Eric was really good. Quinnipiac could have been down 2 or 3 the first half of the game, but the game remained scoreless. Then half-way through the second, Quinnipiac forward, Kellen Jones, a native of British Columbia and an NHL draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers, scored a power-play goal to give Quinnipiac the 1-0 lead and from there, they caught fire and won the game 4-1.

It was so fun for me to watch our son play in person. He was fourth in the nation in save percentage two years ago and has set school records for best goals-against average the past two years. I can see why when watching in person. He has lots of game.

But what I also saw was a Quinnipiac team that is very good. They just need to gain confidence and continue to play like a top ranked team.

They have three other Minnesota lads on the team – Ben Arnt of Oakdale (North St. Paul HS), Zack Tolkinen of Lino Lakes (Centennial HS) and Jacob Meyers of Chanhassen (Benilde-St. Margaret’s). Also, Minnesota native Reid Cashman (Red Wing) is an assistant coach.

I don’t know if Quinnipiac should be considered a top 10 team, but they are close. They do have the potential to be. They have to see themselves that way and not accept less. If they can, they will contend for their conference championship.

We got together with Eric on Sunday. Went out for a long lunch, watched our Purple (the Vikings) win a tough game on the restaurant’s TV, bought him some groceries and then headed to the Hartford airport to come back to the cities to attend my mom’s funeral. After the week, headed back east with our first game back being another treat with a Hockey East showdown as UMass-Lowell, with four former Stampede players taking on host UMass, with one former Stampede alum.