Tonight was the night I jumped off of the bandwagon, and decided that it is time for a new direction in the program. I have tried to be patient with this coaching regime, but then I realize that nothing has really changed. I remember there was a time when I was calling for the coach's head, but then I was convinced that we just needed more time, that we were a young team, that the system and players just needed to be in place. And I was willing to accept that. But I feel tonight exactly how I felt on 12/3/05. In the midst of this 8 game winless streak, I am getting that disgust again.
Now, this is an annual thing. Every year, we are awful in the months of November and December. Even in our "best year in ages", we were still 3-8-2 in those two months. For Jamie Russell's tenure at Michigan Tech, the Huskies have gone 14-75-10 in these two bleak months, a .192 winning percentage. That compares with the 69-174-35 record overall for the coach, which is a shade over winning 30% of Tech's games. Now, 30% isn't all that great for anyone, but for some reason, we are freaking horrible towards the end of the fall semester. Take away November and December, and Tech's winning percentage is .377.
Why is it that everybody seems to get better around this time of the year, or we seem to be worse?
When you see a trend like this, does that fall on the coach? Is there something wrong with his style? Do other teams make adjustments and find ways to stop Tech, while Tech is unable to match the changes opponents make? Is it a mental thing? There may be "fluky" things that happen in specific years, but an eight item sample set is pretty hard to ignore. Really, how do you make an excuse for 8 random sets that point to the same result?
We do well at retaining players. But, there is something to be said for maintaining a future, and not letting the team get too top (senior) or bottom (freshmen) heavy. And in this regard, the coaching staff set us up to fail. The freshmen classes of 2006-07 (5) and 2007-08 (4) were unusually small. Well, now those small classes would be our jrs/srs. So, at the maximum, we would have 9 upper classmen, and many underclassmen forced to play larger roles that they may not have developed into yet. And then we lose a few of those upper classmen to injury/dismissal, and the problem becomes exacerbated.
The plus side to this is that in two years, we will again be very top heavy and should be in position to make a bit of noise. The pieces are apparently there (and they should be with 17 underclassmen), they just need developing. The last three classes have been 9, 9, and 8 freshmen. Unfortunately, when we get to the point that these freshmen/sophomores are juniors/seniors, we won't have room to bring in larger freshmen classes. We will have a repeat of 2006-08. We may well get near or above .500 and look at future potential, but the cupboard will be bare when those players start to run out of eligibility.
So, we are a 'young team' right now, but the coaches did nothing to change that fact. You could see it coming for 5 years based on class size. You do not set yourself up for success when you only give yourself a maximum of 9 upper classmen to work with, and you have no buffer if those players do not stay on the ice for various reasons.
We are not an awful team. We are just in a run of playing awful hockey. And I think that is the frustrating part.
However, I am going to back and talk about the culture of this program (again, I know). I think losing has become acceptable, maybe not to the players exactly, but to everybody associated with the program. I could feel it tonight, and I am disappointed to say that I even felt it in myself. Things started to go wrong, and we shrugged and said, "Hey, this *is* Tech hockey". We have become detached from losing. There really didn't feel like any emotion was attached to it. It is hard to explain, just call it a gut feeling that I had. We started to fall apart at the end of the game, and there was nothing that was going to change that momentum. There really hasn't been anything to change the momentum of losing, and hence we go on these epically long streaks of ineptitude.
There used to be a time when I would feel the emotion of a loss. I would need that "Tech Once" to get it out. I would feel angry or disappointed. Others around me would share that feeling. And now there is none of that, it is just an apathetic reaction to losing. Losing is what we are, it is what we do, it is what defines the Michigan Tech Huskies. I am torn on the idea of booing a team or making a symbolic gesture of disappointment, but I don't even think that we even feel the emotions of losing enough anymore to put forth the effort to voice displeasure. "Just another Tech hockey game." We go through the motions. We have become complacent with winning 30%.
I am not going to say that this culture permeates the team. I don't know what is in their heads or hearts. I am not going to call out individual players. But I will say that this team has consistently showed a propensity for breakdowns in the rememberable past, and maybe that is an indication that our players are not mentally prepared enough or have the concentration to focus through every second of every shift. Players are often out of position, and thus we make the opposing teams look pretty good at times. They show heart in coming back on some occasions, and on others things just snowball out of control (the 3rd period tonight is the most recent example).
There are many things that a coach cannot control. The coach cannot control injuries, for example. However, it is the job of the coaching staff to manage players and practice time in such a way that players know the system, know where they are supposed to be, know their responsibilities, know their assignment. I place at least a good deal of the blame for the consistent breakdowns (esp. defensive breakdowns) on the coaching staff, that perhaps the team is not as prepared as they should be. Nobody is going to play perfect, and passes will be missed, assignments will be missed, chances will be given up, and opposing players will make good plays, but it feels like Tech just gives the opponents too much on a breakdown of the system/missed assignments.
Most of all, the coaching staff controls the atmosphere and culture of the team. The players have a role in it, but in the end it comes down to the coach. The coach is the one that recruits based on playing skill and character and personality. The coach leads the team, in game preparation and demeanor. And in seven years, has there really been a change in the atmosphere or culture at Michigan Tech? I would think that there would be more appreciable results if there had been.
Five years ago, on that night when Tech was blown out by North Dakota and the program seemed hopeless, I was convinced that it was just a matter of the coaching staff getting their players into the mix and getting the system in place. Now, these things have been in place for a few years, and we are still seeing seemingly unending winless streaks.
I like Coach Russell. I think he is a no-nonsense coach that would go to bat for any of his players. I have no doubt in my mind that he is committed to Michigan Tech hockey, and wants nothing more than to build a program here that Coach MacInnes would be proud of. I have no doubt he dreams of the past glories that shine in the history of this team. I think that he is a character person, and demands the same out of his players (and dismisses the ones that don't follow suit). I have no idea what the graduation rate is for his players, but I would assume it is pretty good. He has brought in some very exciting young players (Seigo, Gordic, Furne, Johnstone, etc.) that I think will grow to be WCHA caliber players, if they aren't already on the cusp of it.
But even so, the results just are not there. Even after seven seasons, including one magical feeling one (in which, by the way, there really were only 1 game over .500), the program feels like it did in the past. A lot of potential, but not quite translating on the ice. Historical trends repeating themselves over and over.
I get the feeling that this team will show flashes over the second half of the season that will convince we need to stay the course, just as has happened in the past. And I am leery about that occurring. If we get our hopes up again, is it really going to be different this time?
I came on here to vent after the game and convince myself that it is time for change in this program. I certainly felt that way after the game, as anyone around me would know. And even now, after typing this, I feel like I am backpedaling a bit. Like I said, I want to like Russell, and I do respect him.
I have also come to learn over the last few years that you can be a fan of the program and not agree with everything going on. You do not have to agree with the coaching staff that is in place and can hope for a change, but you support them while they are there and do not hope that anything undermines them.
Thus, I may not agree with the current culture of the Michigan Tech Hockey program and our reactions as fans (including my own), but I still support the team and the coaching staff that is in place. I wish them the best and hope they make the most of the opportunity, and then let the cards fall as they may in regards to whether the coach stays or goes.
This post, which is a lot longer than intended, is not an indictment of Jamie Russell. However, I believe that a person can put their entire heart into something, generally be good at what they do, be a good person, and have the skills and then end up not succeeding. Sometimes, even a dedicated person and a person who bleeds black and gold is not exactly the right person for the job.