New NMU hockey coach Potulny making early headway

Finds potential in players for coming season

Northern Michigan head hockey coach Grant Potulny speaks with the media during an April 18 press conference in Marquette. (Photo by The Mining Journal)

MARQUETTE — Northern Michigan University head hockey coach Grant Potulny has only been the Wildcats bench boss for a few days now, but he already has an idea of what he has to work with this fall.

On Tuesday, Potulny discussed what he has noticed about the team during his first week at the helm and he thinks there is a lot of potential for success this coming season.

“On Wednesday (of last week), I met with individual players and seeing the will and enthusiasm they had, I could tell there was some really good kids there,” he said. “They’re thoughtful and I enjoyed speaking with them. We have some guys that are good pieces for sure.”

As far as specific pieces go, Potulny mentioned a few names that stood out to him offensively and talked about NMU’s talented tandem of goaltenders in Atte Tolvanen and Mathias Israelsson.

“When you look at guys like (Robbie) Payne, (Darien) Craighead, (Troy) Loggins, (Zach) Diamantoni and (Wisconsin transfer) Adam Rockwood being eligible up front, there are definitely some guys there that can create some offense,” Potulny said. “I also think Phil Beaulieu had a great year as a freshman. The defensive corps is strong and there are a lot of guys with experience so that’s a big strength. Obviously, you have to look at goaltending and with the two we have, we definitely look great there.

“One thing that (Minnesota head coach) Don Lucia did was to make sure his players knew that they had the freedom to make plays, and I hope that our guys get that message from me. I want them to play free and when I say free, I mean that you play your best when you’re on autopilot and not thinking about ‘where do I need to be, or where I should’ve been.’ You’re playing off instincts and we need to allow an environment to do that.” 

In addition to the individual talents of his players, Potulny has picked up on is the grit and determination of his new team. At the holiday break last December, NMU had plummeted to last place in the WCHA and was at one point, dead last in the national Pairwise rankings. Many had already concluded that there was very little chance that Northern would make the postseason, but the Wildcats proved the doubters wrong as they pulled off five straight shutouts, locked up the final spot in the league playoffs and pushed top-seeded Bemidji State to a deciding third game before falling to the Beavers.

“The determination on this team is something that can’t be denied,” Potulny said. “In the second half of year, they had the best record in the WCHA and I think that’s something that can build up confidence. There’s a lot of character in the room and that group showed that they are willing to do the necessary things to have success. Now I think it’s our job as a staff to try to replicate that during the first half as well.”

The Wildcats have a strong group of returning players, but Potulny knows that he needs to be looking to a wide-variety of recruiting areas to put together a deep team for the future. Like he alluded to at the press conference last week, he said he plans on recruiting players that fit Northern’s Olympic-style rink.

“We’ll look everywhere,” Potulny said. “When you’re recruiting, you’re looking for the best possible athlete and best possible person. If they are from two hours down the road, that’s fantastic. Western Canada or Scandinavia, that’s fantastic too. The one challenge of Olympic ice and you wouldn’t think so because you have more room and more time to make a play, is that you can get caught playing more on the perimeter. We’ll need to find guys that can play on the interior of the ice and that are willing to go to the areas necessary to have success. We want to be a good skating and competitive team and build our identity off of that.”

Potulny has come to Marquette from Minneapolis where he has served the last eight seasons as an assistant coach under Lucia with the Golden Gophers and helped lead them to five NCAA Tournaments and two Frozen Fours.

It can be a big adjustment for anybody to go from a big city to a small college town, but Potulny is embracing the chance he has in front of him and has enjoyed his brief time so far in the U.P. 

“If you’re going to go make a move and become a head coach, I think it’s really important that you know that you can win there,” he said. “With the great tradition and wonderful facilities they have, I felt that there was some opportunity here. Both of the previous coaches had winning records and were successful, so I think it is a great spot for me.”