It was the most bizarre of endings to the 2019-20 season, and there’s no end to the strangeness in sight from the college hockey world’s perspective, with the season set to begin in a month.
Chris Bergeron will begin his second season as Miami’s head coach when the puck ultimately drops this fall or winter, and VFTG was able to catch up with him last week to talk about a myriad of topics.
VFTG: From your perspective as a coach, what’s been the biggest challenge of this most bizarre of off-seasons?
BERGERON: The uncertainty. We’ve created some uncertainty on our roster with some transfers, there’s uncertainty with college athletics, and then there’s ultimately uncertainty specifically with college hockey. In a world where there’s structure and a daily calendar, there’s always been: Where to be and when to be there. We’re just not operating under those circumstances right now, and that’s the toughest part. And I know that we’ve got 28 young people on next year’s roster looking at the coaches saying: Tell us what to do and when to do it. And we normally are able to do that, and right now we can’t. And that’s tough for them. I really feel for the student-athletes in this circumstance.
VFTG: You’ve been coaching a long time and like you said, there’s normally an off-season structure. In what ways has your routine been disrupted?
BERGERON: It’s black to white. It went from in the office every day – obviously under different hours and different responsibilities on each day to not being able to go into the office, and working from home and kind of feeling like there’s no routine. I think we’re all somewhat creatures of habit, and the habit’s been turned on its ear. So for me it’s been 100 percent different. Like I can honestly tell you that Aug. 3 was kind of a return-to-work date for us, and (assistant coach) Barry (Schutte) were in the office and we were kind of talking hockey an talking roster, and we hadn’t done that in what seems like forever – it’s probably four or five months – and it felt normal. And it was funny: We both went home that night and said to our wives, ‘today felt kind-of, sort-of like a normal day’. Then the Mid-American Conference comes out with its announcement and now we’ve kind of been thrown on (our) ear again in terms of routine, and in terms of a plan. So it’s been very, very different for me, personally.
VFTG: Is there anything that you’re able to share about potential plans to play the 2020-21 season, or are you in the dark like the rest of us?
BERGERON: I’m in the dark like everybody else. Our focus is trying to get our student-athletes back on campus safely and in some type of timely manner, and there’s so many moving parts to that. There’s on-campus, there’s off-campus, there’s scholarship, non-scholarship, ice time – when could we potentially get COVID tested and get physicals, because you can’t do anything officially until both of those tests have been completed. So our focus is not on scheduling in terms of playing games and competing, our focus is on scheduling as far as getting our kids back on campus officially and getting into some type of preseason-slash-training camp. And that is very, very difficult in itself. We don’t have concrete answers on that yet. I do know we have basically a weekly, or biweekly at the most, call with the head coaches in the NCHC, and I think (commissioner) Josh (Fenton) is doing a good job saying we’re going to have to be patient and just let things happen. Everybody wants to play. Everybody wants to play Oct. 3. It’s just there’s so much uncertainty here that we’re all in a holding pattern.
VFTG: From a recruiting perspective, is everyone in the same boat, or is it more detrimental for Miami because you’re kind of playing catch-up after a couple of bad seasons, or is it an advantage because the program and the school sell themselves without formal visits?
BERGERON: I definitely don’t think the program is selling itself, but I don’t think it’s an advantage or a disadvantage. To me it’s just recruiting. It’s always been about recruiting. What we needed to do is to figure out which of the verbal commitments do we want and which of the verbal commits want to continue with that verbal commitment until we can get face to face. We’re obviously 14, 16, 18 months into that process (since being hired), and we feel like it’s been solidified. So we feel like this year’s class was a little bit pieced together, and as you can see, there’s some transfers in there and so on where next year’s class is a little more solidified at this point. We have a list of people that we want to recruit, and if we need to see them play it’s video of last year and if we want to bring them on campus we’re just going to have to wait. So we’re in a holding pattern recruiting-wise but we don’t feel like we’re lost. We have a plan, and the best we can, we’re sticking to that plan, knowing that the on- and off-campus recruiting right now is on hold.
VFTG: With all that’s going on and this being late August, are you able to have contact with the returning players?
BERGERON: You know what? Honestly, this pandemic has forced us to talk to our returning players more than typically we do in the summer. In my opinion, when they leave campus in the beginning of May, end of April, they don’t want to talk to or see us for a while. It’s been a lot of hockey, coaching stuff, and they’re ready to get away. This year, we’ve done the Zoom calls, and we’ve done a lot more of that than we typically would, which I think is great. We just want to stay connected to these boys at this time, and obviously it’s been difficult, but I’ve gotten pretty good at the Zoom meetings – as I’m sure everybody has – and I think we’ve done a decent job of trying to be transparent and keep them informed, and just staying connected, letting them know we’re here, letting them know this is a difficult time for everybody and we want to get through it together.
VFTG: You just touched on it a little, but based on your communication, how do you feel the players – who have worked their entire lives to play Division I hockey – are dealing with the uncertainty?
BERGERON: My personal opinion: They’re outstanding. They realize there’s more questions than answers. They understand – at times I’ve been the messenger – them and their parents, they’ve been patient, and I think they’ve been totally fair and supportive through this process. That’s why I want to be the same to them, and I do think, for the most part, they all want to get back on campus as quickly as possible. That’s normal to them, and they’re not alone there, I don’t think Miami hockey is alone in that statement. Whether they be student-athletes at the college level or just students – this is kind or normal, and they want normal, and I want that for them. So I think all in all they’ve been great.
VFTG: Last season was cut short, as the conference and NCAA Tournaments didn’t happen due to COVID, and now there are talks 2020-21 may not start until January, so are you aware of any discussion to award an extra season of eligibility to players stuck in this predicament?
BERGERON: Obviously, eligibility is a huge, huge topic of discussion. For ice hockey, 34 games is the number of regular season quote-unquote – whether it be conference or non-conference. That’s our number, unless you’ve got exempt games, which, it’s Alaska or the Ice Breaker or something like that. Anything less than 17 games, I do think they’ve been talking about additional eligibility, but none of that has been decided upon. It’s interesting that you bring up last year being cut short. I haven’t heard any discussion that includes last year being cut short. I think they look at us playing 34 games last year as a full season, although you and I both know it was cut short. And for some teams, it could’ve been cut short by 10 games potentially. So I do think there’s lot of serious discussion about eligibility moving forward and what this means for sports, but hockey specifically. If we were to play less than 17 games this year, would people get this year back?
VFTG: I’m thinking hockey players, and Miami hockey players in particular, they’re so serious about their studies that maybe that extra year doesn’t even help. The elite would tend to want to turn pro at that point and others – armed with their degrees – would likely shift from Oxford into the workplace.
BERGERON: A hundred percent. I totally agree with that statement. They don’t have to rely on hockey to have a life, at least the students that we’ve typically had. That’s what they’re about and they do think of things in life after as well. I just think there’s lots for them to try to digest at this point, and obviously their future is a part of that.
VFTG: You were hired nearly a year and a half ago. Reflecting on your perception of this program at that point, has rebuilding this program been a bigger challenge than you initially thought or about what you expected?
BERGERON: I can honestly tell you I didn’t know what to expect. I was so excited to be coming back to Miami in this role, I’m not sure I gave the job itself ample focus. The job to me has always been the job. When Rico took over in 1999 and I joined him, it was just the job. We did the best we could, we recruited the best players we could, we tried to coach the best we could. That’s what Barry, Ty (Eigner) and I did at Bowling Green, and when I got to Miami, let’s figure out what we walked into and let’s do the best job we can. That’s where I am. That’s not coach speak, that’s just how I operate. I have fond memories of 07, 08, 09, those kind of years at Miami, and those players and those relationships and that whole deal. Is that where we are at right now? No. But I just think of it as the job. We need to defend better – that’s just the way I look at it. It hasn’t been a whole lot of focus on, ‘wow, this is a worse or better that I expected’. It’s just been focused on, ‘OK, what do we have to do next?’ And that’s what it difficult during this pandemic, because you don’t know what to do next. And some of which you think you have to do you have to put on hold. So that’s the way I look at it, it’s just the way I’m wired. This is the job, and we’ll do the best we can as long as we have this opportunity.
VFTG: So with a season under your belt, how do you feel about the 2020-21 version of Miami hockey, since you’ve been able to add your personal touch with eight new skaters and a goaltender?
BERGERON: I feel a little more that I know what to expect from a player perspective. And in both ways: They should know what to expect from me, and we should know what to expect from them. And we’re going to hold them to those standards and those expectations. I think on the ice, we have to defend better. I don’t think our defending last year – and I’m not talking about a goaltender, and I’m not talking about defensemsen, I’m talking about our team defense – was not good enough. We need to make that the staple of who we are. No matter what, we’re going to defend and hopefully keeps pucks out of our net better. But I do think that’s what they’re going to know what to expect from us coaches, and we’re going to know what to expect from them as players. Are we comfortable with each other and have we arrived? Absolutely not. We’ve known each other for a year. And our seniors, they’ve been through a bunch of different coaches over their time. That’s just a fact. So, I do like the fact that 16 of our 28 players, all they’re going to know is this coaching staff and this kind of plan on the ice. And I’m not saying ours is better, but it’s different. And I do think it’s something, when you’re not comparing it and you didn’t have something different for two years and now you’ve had to change, it’s easier when all you know is this way.
And I want to be very clear that I’m not being critical of anything that went on before we got here at all. It’s just difference. It’s a different, we handle situations differently, and when all you know is this way, I think it makes it a little easier for the players:
VFTG: Just looking at the roster posted on Miami’s web site, you have 14 forwards, 10 defensemen and three goalies, with two of the forwards being transfers who won’t be eligible until at least a couple months into the season. That’s really thin up front. Is this the hand you’ve been dealt, or would you add a forward or could someone move up from the blueline?
BERGERON: Yeah, I think 15 forwards is more of a number we would like. I do think internal competition – which is why we have 10 defensemen on the roster – we need internal competition at all three positions, we feel like we need to improve on our competition on the back end for sure. Fourteen forwards, that’s before eligibility concerns, I still think we can hopefully work through some eligibility issues and get to 15. I don’t know that’s going to be true, but it’s something we’re focusing on – we’re hoping to have. But when you’re in the transition of a program like this, we weren’t going to bring in kids that weren’t ready – in terms of committed kids, that doesn’t make any sense – you lose some recruiting battles last year that we thought we were going to win, it just is what it is, and we’re at 14. Again, I still think 15 is where we’re going to end up, it’s an eligibility issue for sure because of transfer, but 14 is thin for sure, and that’s opportunity. And we’ll see what people do with those opportunities.
VFTG: You mentioned that the team’s poor overall defense was by no means all the fault of the defensemen, but with 10 blueliners on the roster – including seven that played 20 or more games in 2019-20 – it seems like it should create a high level of competition for lineup spots each night.
BERGERON: We want to make it clear that by no means are we blaming anybody – if you’re going to blame anybody for our team defense last year, blame me. But we need to get players to play better. We need to get players to understand outside your comfort zone is where you need to be, and you’ll be OK there. If you have questions as to why, you come and ask why. I’m not trying to downplay the depth at forward at all, or the need of competition at forward – we need competition at forward, we need people to play better at forward – it’s just sometimes things happen the way they happen and this is what we have. So I feel like the D-corps itself: You’re going to have to earn the lineup. You haven’t been in the lineup for two years, I don’t listen to that. Those conversations are over – we’re not having those conversations. We’ll go with the best six or seven defensemen every Friday, the goalie that we think has the best chance, and the best 12 forwards, or whatever, and that’s going to be the case. That’s where we are, that’s where we want to be, that’s where we think championship programs have to be.