Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tough Times at the 'Zoo

So columnist Rick Shanley wrote a column for the Kalamazoo Gazette on the state of Western Michigan's hockey program. You can find the article here. Or at least you could find it there between the times of 2:53am and about 8:30am Wednesday morning, at which time the article was pulled off the website. Apparently it never made it into the paper either.

Why was it pulled? I'm guessing the headline "Western Michigan hockey cycling between mediocre and awful" didn't help. You can read the full article here.

Culhane's contract was set to expire this summer, but in November, he received a three year contract extension. There was quite a bit of displeasure in Kalamazoo after this season, however, when Western finished the season in last place in the CCHA, and had a major conference-worst 4 league wins. But on Tuesday, athletic director Kathy Beauregard announced that Culhane would not be let go, reportedly because the school wasn't willing to pay the buyout on Culhane's contract.

Fan frustration seemed to increase when WMU's women's basketball coach, Ron Stewart, was let go after the season, despite finishing the year with a 13-19 overall record and 9-7 conference mark. It left many fans scratching their heads wondering why their hockey program wasn't held to the same standard.

So are the criticisms valid? One of Shanley's biggest criticisms was:

"The Broncos haven't won a championship of any sort since Ronald Reagan was in office."
The teams besides Michigan and Michigan State that can say they've won a championship since Reagan was in office are: Lake Superior(nothing since 95-96), Ferris State(one regular season title), Miami(one regular season title), Northern Michigan(one WCHA title and NCAA title in the same year), Notre Dame(one playoff title), and Ohio State(one playoff title). Other than Lake Superior's dominance in the early '90's, nobody outside the big two have really racked up the hardware, other than the occasional crazy good year. I'd say this one is somewhat valid. They're not seriously behind the rest of the league, but haven't really been close to anything. Culhane's best year still saw the Broncos on the road in the playoffs(in a series where they scored 15 goals over 3 games and still didn't win the series.)

The next criticism is:
Not when Bowling Green, Ferris State and Northern Michigan -- schools that don't have it any better -- are waving as they whizz by.
Over the last four years, here is the average league finish for each of those teams: Western Michigan 9.75, Bowling Green 9, Ferris State 8, Northern Michigan 5.75. Valid criticism? Again, yes the evidence isn't good, but I doubt you could say they're "whizzing by".

And it's obvious that Shanley thinks WMU should be doing better at hockey. He says WMU has many advantages:
"For a program that should have so many built-in reasons for success -- smack-dab in the middle of a recruiting hotbed, nice university with a great campus in a hockey town that's close to Canada -- there are too many incorporated excuses for mediocrity."
Is that true? We'll look at these one-by-one.

Recruiting hot-bed: Eh. I wouldn't say western Michigan is crawling with lots of Division 1 hockey talent. The best players from that area are usually going to grow up as Michigan State fans anyway. Certainly metro-Detroit has a lot of talent, but I'd think Western is on equal footing with just about everyone else there.

Nice university with great campus: It is a nice campus, but how many hockey players are going to choose a school with a really nice theatre, but below-average hockey arena? I think the facility plays a huge role here.

Close to Canada: This is the big one. Yes, it's only about a two-hour drive to Windsor, but so what? Up until very recently, Western Michigan recruited pretty heavily out of Canada, and were drawing some of the better players out of Ontario, but there just weren't enough good players in Ontario with college eligibility left. The talent pool in Ontario really dried up thanks to OHL expansion and the smaller CCHA schools really suffered. In recent years, they've adapted and started recruiting out of the USHL more, something that I think will pay nice dividends.

In relation to the USHL recruits, WMU has also seen a nice upswing in recruiting, thanks in large part to some nice work by their assistant coaches, but have also been bizarrely hit by a wave of unexpected departures you don't normally see at a school like Western. Aside from losing Mark Letestu after just one year, they also lost two highly-regarded recruits in Tyler Murovich and Josh Bemis to the OHL. You've got to think that getting good players like that is a positive sign, and eventually those kids will start making it to school.

So overall, is Shanley's criticism valid? He's probably correct in pointing out that Western Michigan hasn't had very much success, and is probably slightly behind some of the other schools in the conference. But ultimately, I think the issues run much deeper in Kalamazoo. A school like Western Michigan could be successful at hockey, but they can't do it casually. It takes a serious commitment to the sport from the school to be successful, and I don't really think that commitment has been there. Western's athletic department has always seemed more interested in trying to build up their football and basketball programs, while hockey has taken a bit of a backseat. Compare that to Miami, who seems to have picked hockey as one area where they can make a real splash nationally, and really committed to winning by building a beautiful new facility, and doing everything they can to promote their program.

Firing the coach may help things somewhat, but if the next coach doesn't have the right resources at his disposal, it's probably unlikely that he'd do that much better.


cooleystudent333 said...

To begin with, mediocrity in hockey is a well established attituted in Kalamazo. Even their youth travel teams have shared-ice practices. The whole point of stepping up to travel from house is to get away from that kind of stuff so a player can develop.

That attitude, which is fine if winning is a concern, heads its way up through the collegiate level. I was astonished when I heard that Culhane got an extension because, for one, many of his players think he shouldn't even be coaching at that level. The community in Kalamazoo love him because he's a good guy and gets his players involved.

One setback Culhane and the WMU program has always had is an older facility. That was remedied last year when they built a $1M+ locker room that rivals any program. In addition, Lawson is one of the best rinks to play in in the CCHA (thanks to the Lawson Lunatics). It's no Yost, but it's definitely better than the library in Munn. It also looks like the school has decided to throw a little bit more money at the hockey program because, even though the locker room was privately funded, their equipment budget almost doubles that of Ferris.

Finally, I think Kalamazoo deserves better. The community loves hockey (even the K-Wings games sell many times). In addition, elite hockey is growing in Kalamazoo with AAA teams at squirt, pee-wee, bantam, and midget levels now. I really think a program like WMU could get much more for their money. A change is needed, quick.

WMUN3 said...

While I think you effectively pointed out some of the flaws in the Shanley piece I think there is a strong case to be made that Culhane should not be retained as WMU coach. A lot of the stuff I would like to reference in making this case isn't currently available to me but I will take a crack at it.

Culhane has been at WMU since 1998, WMU has advanced to the second round of the CCHA playoffs exactly once during that period of time. On three occasions (if memory serves) they have had home ice against an inferior team and have been upset in the first round.

Not surprisingly every team in the CCHA in this period of time has advanced to the CCHA quarterfinals at Joe Louis Arena, an important showcase for lesser known CCHA hockey programs. During the Culhane years the closest WMU has gotten to the Joe (outside of buying a ticket) would be the one occasion they advanced to the second round (a series where they were swept).

This past season WMU possibly fielded its weakest team under Culhane, this team coming into the next year loses Junior captain Jeff LoVeccio and may very well be worst. This wouldn't suggest a recruiting upswing, and makes it increasingly difficult for this staff to pull in higher end talent to 5-10 win teams.

I don't think WMU fans could be described as overly inpatient with the state of WMU hockey. They have not fielded a strong team in a long time, teams have gotten worst over time and the athletic administration has shown little interest in trying to remedy the situation.

It is all very frustrating.

Anonymous said...

Culhane has twice the record of Paluch at Bowling Green. While Culhane deserves the boot, so too does Paluch, perhaps more so.

Walt Kyle: 122-104-21
Bob Daniels: 257-302-56
Jim Culhane: 136-182-33
Scott Paluch: 73-132-20

gofalcons said...

I don't know what the situation was like at WMU before Culhane came in but you need to cut Paluch a little slack considering he needed time to clean up the shambles that Buddy Powers left behind him.

The assistant coaches at BG have been going through a revolving door. Hopefully the all-alumni group they have now will stick around long enough to build on this year's (limited) success.

It didn't help trying to replace Jordan Sigalet with the woeful Jimmy Spratt, either. Every BG fan I know hopes he sees a lot of time on the bench next year with Eno taking over as the undisputed number one goalie.

Anyway, I finally have some hope again for BG and think Paluch, Schueller, Reirden, and Masters might have finally found a winning formula.

Anonymous said...

Not sure that I totally agree with everything you critiqued of the Shanley article. I am not so overly convinced that Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor is such a "gem" over Lawson. It seems to me that for the "fan exerience" their restrooms are in inconvient places as well, their concession stands are scattered in the concourse too and it is rather old, also same as Lawson. So, other than the history of Michigan hockey being Michigan hockey, why can't WMU begin to build a better program? I think with the right people to do some of the right things, this will cause others to become excited and want to join in. The money spent on hockey at WMU in terms of equipment, travel, recruiting, etc., is rivaled by few schools in the CCHA. Big deal that the arena is not the same as Wisconsin, Miami, Minnesota, Nebraska-Omaha. When things are going well and the community is supporting the team, the atmosphere is second-to-none at Lawson- guaranteed! Why wouldn't someone want to come play there with that type of setting? I think it is time that the athletic department administration be held to a little higher standard- not only for hockey's sake but for all sports. WMU has the highest athletic department budget in the MAC, yet they are not a "powerhouse" in the MAC. How is this acceptable?