By John Lachmann
When the puck drops to begin the regular season on Oct. 12, it will begin Enrico Blasi’s 15th season as head coach at Miami.
In that span, the RedHawks have gone from an occasional NCAA Tournament participant to a perennial winner. Thanks largely to Blasi, the program in 1999-2000 bears almost no resemblance to that of today.
I covered one of the first games he coached, a 4-2 loss to Michigan at whatever they’re calling the Cincinnati Coliseum this week.
I was just out of college and it was one of the first live sporting events I covered for The Cincinnati Post. He was just 27 at the time, and I remember thinking how in the world did a guy so young earn a promotion to head coach at Miami.
I guess he showed me.
The RedHawks were just two years removed from one of their best seasons ever with players like Dan Boyle, Todd Rohloff and Randy Robitaille.
Those players went pro before Blasi’s first season, as did Trevor Prior, the goalie who put two great seasons together in 1997-98 and 1998-99 before graduating.
Blasi was left with a freshman goalie in Mark Burleigh – who started the season on fire – and a lot of inexperienced players that he inherited from former coach Mark Mazzoleni.
Miami won 13 games that season, lost 20 and tied three. The RedHawks lost 22 games two seasons later, but since 2001-02 Miami has had one losing season.
Under Blasi, the RedHawks have posted a winning percentage of .600 or better the past eight seasons, winning at least 23 games each year time during that span.
Miami has qualified for the NCAA Tournament each of those seasons, the second-longest streak in college hockey behind North Dakota, which has gone 11 consecutive years.
The next-longest streak is six, owned by Denver. So the three teams with the longest NCAA Tournament streak will play in the same conference this season.
No other team in college hockey boasts a current streak longer than four years.
How has Miami been able to win so consistently? In pro sports, the little guys can usually compete with the big guys for a short period but then have to rebuild.
The answer is simple: Blasi brings players to Oxford who want to be in Oxford. But the application is much more difficult when talking about luring 18-year-olds in to endure a full classload at a demanding school in addition to being full-time hockey players for six-plus months.
Almost all of the big names in college hockey bring in big-name players. First- and second-round draft picks who come in for a year or two and move onto the pros.
At 18, most of those aren’t physically ready for the NHL and age restrictions prohibit them from playing in the AHL, so they do the college thing in the meantime.
For most of them, college is a stepping stone to the pros.
Under Blasi, one draft pick has left Miami before junior year.
And the juniors factor is what makes Blasi’s accomplishments even more remarkable. As a college hockey coach, one must compete with the other college teams for recruits as well as major juniors teams in Canada, who hold their own draft and can lure players away from their colleges at any time once they turn 16.
Reilly Smith gave the best insight into what Blasi and Miami can offer a promising hockey player. He was a third-round draft pick by the Dallas Stars from the Greater Toronto area, which is basically Ground Zero for juniors hockey.
Smith was an amazing talent in college, and his professional career is just starting to flourish. Smith should be a good NHL forward for a long time.
So why would a player like Smith choose to move to another country to play at a school most Canadians have never heard of instead of playing in the OHL, whose primary purpose is to groom players for the pros?
When I asked Smith that question two years ago, he summed up why players choose Miami in two sentences better than I’ve been able to in five years:
"If I went major junior they'd probably work on just the offensive aspects (of my game)," Smith said. "That's one reason why I wanted to come to college and more specifically Miami: Because of the style of game that we play."
Many thought Smith would leave after two seasons, but he stayed in Oxford for three.
And in that time, Smith went from a pretty good goal scorer to a complete player. By the end of his career at Miami, he was logging time on the penalty kill. He wasn’t a physical player but he battled for loose pucks along the boards.
He became one of the best defensive forwards on the team in three years. And once a forward learns how to play both ways – even an obvious offensive talent like Smith – it’s a skill that’s always in demand and makes a player more valuable to whatever team he’s on in the future.
My wife, my hockey-nuts brother and I are all hockey starved by September, and the three of us went to see Connor McDavid play two weekends ago. We were excited to see what all the hype was about.
McDavid is a 16-year-old who has been described as a generational talent playing for Erie
in the OHL. He was granted an exemption to join that league a year early because his talent level was so high. The last player granted that exemption was Sidney Crosby.
McDavid – who’s a center by the way – played 63 games for Erie last season, so it’s not like he’s new to his current team or coaching staff.
He and his linemate, a Capitals first-round pick from this season, pretty much avoided the defensive zone like the plague and when the other team had the puck they both just coasted back as if they were doing their teammates a favor by daring to cross the red line.
This was opening night, and never once did the coaching staff scold either player for their lackadaisical play, even when the player McDavid was supposed to be defending skated into the offensive zone unabated and set up a teammate’s goal.
And Erie was vindicated because McDavid had a beautiful assist, should’ve had another except a teammate fanned with the net open, and Erie won, 2-1.
I’m sitting there thinking, what if Austin Czarnik decided to just coast into the defensive zone and wait for a teammate’s transition pass? That would never happen under Blasi.
Blasi benched Tampa Bay draftee Jimmy Mullin for multiple games last season for what I assume was not playing within the system, and by the end of last season Mullin was playing the best all-around hockey of his two years in Oxford.
That’s the difference between many major juniors teams, many other big-name colleges and Blasi’s RedHawks. Those fortunate enough to wear the Red and White come away from Oxford better all-around hockey players, better teammates and better people because of it.