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What's next for Northern Michigan? : College Hockey News

What's next for Northern Michigan?  : College Hockey News
What's next for Northern Michigan?  : College Hockey News


June 20, 2024


The program will struggle after Exodus, but Comley remains optimistic as the search for coaches continues apace

Through Adam Wodon/Management Editor (@CHN_AdamWodon)

Rick Comley thought he had seen it all in his 77 years, which included 38 years as a head coach, two national championships and even more years as an athletic director and NHL scout.

But is anyone really prepared for what has happened to the landscape of NCAA sports?

And the new reality hit Northern Michigan in the face in recent weeks, as head coach Grant Potulny resigned to pursue professional coaching options. (At this point, it has yet to be signed anywhere.)

Many in the college hockey world wondered what was going on in Northern Michigan when they lost thirteen players to the transfer portal right after last season. But in reality, it was mostly seniors looking to play their senior year, and after a disappointing 2023-24 season, Potulny was happy to make changes. His staff brought in a great recruiting class.

But perhaps, given the handwriting on the wall, two assistants made moves in the spring. And then Potulny himself decided to leave.

As a result, all those top players have changed their commitments and even more players have been transferred, thanks to the new 30-day transfer window that starts when a coach leaves.

Now Comley, who served as NMU athletics director from 1987 to 2000 and returned to that role in 2022, is responsible for putting the pieces back together and restocking what is now a fairly bare cupboard.

'The program is not broken. We are disrupted now,” Comley said.

“I'm not sure how much you can save right now. Obviously we have multiple vacancies because of what happened. I want to rebuild it the right way. There's an urgency to be good, but at the same time you don't have to to do.” I want the new person to rush in, and in a year we'll be in the same situation again.”

Comley said he is trying to get things moving and have a new coach in place by the end of next week. There is a search committee and they interviewed prospects this week.

“We have a mix of former alums, new head coaches, former players and others who enjoy coaching college hockey,” Comley said.

Some teams are benefiting from the changes. But there are few so-called “Power 5” schools in college hockey. Ultimately, those few teams need others to play against. What that means in the future is an open question.

“The big challenge for me is knowing where it was and trying to understand where it will end up,” Comley said. “No matter how big the Big Ten gets, they can't have a championship without schools like Northern Michigan and Clarkson. We are important to overall college hockey, so the more you decimate us, I'm afraid school presidents will be looking at us. and ultimately say, 'We're putting all this money into it, can we really win or be successful?' And I think that's a legitimate question.

“The element that's gone is that there used to be more concern about the sport within college hockey.”

Comley made it clear that there are no hard feelings on Potulny's part, whatever the reason for Potulny's decision (efforts to reach Potulny have been unsuccessful). Potulny, the former postseason hero from Minnesota, was head coach for seven seasons and won 20 or more games four times. Last season ended with a disappointing 12-16-6 record.

“The timing of professional hockey is what it is,” Comley said. “They're going to make the decisions that are best for their organizations. He has an interest (in pro hockey) and I support that, it's a good move for him. It leaves us in a hole, but that's not his fault.”

“It was a very frustrating year for him in many ways. I told him from the beginning that Northern Michigan is a tough place to win. It's a good place, but a tough place. And I felt his future was more difficult used to be.” in professional hockey than in college hockey. I just let him know that I wasn't offended by his talking. I've talked to NHL teams for him, not that I wanted him to leave 'what's best for me.' He is a professional mentality coach.

“All's well, I'm happy for him, and it'll all work out in the end. It's just hard right now.”

There is concern among NMU fans that the team may not even have enough players for a full roster. Comley acknowledged that's very possible for this season, but said it's not a reason to panic. He said the program will recover, but it will just take time.

“We like to have 28 with us. I'm not sure we can get 28,” Comley said. “Once you give a grant, they have it for four years. So you have to be careful about handing out money at this time of year.”

Will there be anything in the future that will stop the train and bridge the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots?

“It's a double whammy because schools like us benefited because they were playing against schools like Michigan and Michigan State,” Comley said. “So our presence was magnified by their presence. Now you just don't have their presence, but they decide who goes where.

“Our challenge is to win the conference we are in, make the national tournament and upset a high seed. I still believe this can happen.”

Despite all this, Comley remains an optimist.

“I'm not giving up on the sport, though. It will never go back to where players are restricted. They have complete freedom. And the crisis right now is that everything is done through agents. There's no phone call to say, 'Hey, “Rick, we're going to talk to one of your kids.”

“It will never be quite the same as before. That doesn't mean it can't be good.”




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