The hockey gods appeared to conspire against Miami from opening weekend last season.
After battling bus issues on the way to Ferris State and winning Game 1, the RedHawks lost on an exceedingly-rare 3-on-4 overtime goal to a Bulldogs team that had not beaten a Division I opponent in 33 previous attempts, a span of over 20 months.
That loss in Big Rapids made Miami the second team in Division I history to lose in the newly-implemented winner-take-all, 3-on-3 OT format (Lake State deposed Omaha in the same fashion a night prior).
The RedHawks finished 2021-22 with just seven wins, 27 losses, two ties for a winning percentage of .222, the second-lowest in school history. That clip has now declined five straight years.
“That loss turned into getting swept at Michigan State, which, both those games are winnable games, and so on and so on,” Miami head coach Chris Bergeron said. “Winning is hard at the college level – it just is. These are young kids, and losing is just easier. Nobody wants to lose, but once you get into that funk it’s tough to get out of it, and we were proof of that last year.”
Michigan State scored the game-winner with four minutes left in the opener and broke a 1-1 tie with 2:12 to play in the finale.
Next up was Bowling Green. The RedHawks squandered a 2-0 lead and ended up tying the Falcons in Oxford then lost 6-4 at BGSU the next night, allowing three unanswered goals in the third period.
Miami found a way to lose to start-up Long Island University in Oxford before salvaging a split the next night, and the RedHawks led by two in the home finale against Western Michigan but ended up losing by a pair.
On home ice, the RedHawks managed to blow a two-goal lead and eventually lose in overtime to Mercyhurst in the 2022 opener and less than a week later in Oxford, Colorado College broke a tie with 6:30 left in the third period to secure a Tigers win.
The following weekend, Minn.-Duluth scored twice midway through the third period to hand Miami yet another gut-punch in Duluth.
From there, the RedHawks headed across the state for a series against St. Cloud State, where the program would suffer its worst two-game set in 31 years, dating back to Bergeron’s MU playing days.
The Bulldogs won Friday night’s game, 11-1 and followed it up with an 8-0 drubbing. Game 1 was Miami’s most lopsided loss since 1996.
At that point, Miami was 4-18-2 and winless in 13 conference games. Yet as badly as the season was going, until that weekend it felt like a couple of bad bounces and a few better finishes and the RedHawks’ record could look a lot different.
But the SCSU emasculation stunned the MU hockey community.
There were questions about why goalie Ludvig Persson wasn’t pulled in either game for his own benefit in favor of third goalie Kirk Laursen (backup Logan Neaton was out with a knee injury).
Rumblings surfaced about the team’s practices being too harsh leading up to that weekend.
Some long-time fans and prominent boosters began openly questioning if Bergeron had the ability to right the program.
The RedHawks clearly needed a reset, and Bergeron held a meeting with his team.
“What we should have done is a sit-down-together meeting with our program sooner than after the St. Cloud weekend, and maybe we could’ve stopped the momentum quicker,” Bergeron said. “Obviously that falls on me, and that’s hindsight. That’ll be something that we try to do better as we move forward.”
That weekend also killed any hope Miami had of climbing into the top half of the NCHC standings and breaking a seven-year streak of opening the league tournament against a national powerhouse on the road.
“We take ownership for what we do and don’t do every year, so what happened last year, that’s on us,” Bergeron said. “We’re still in the process of trying to establish a mentality, establish a mindset of, we can all do better, we all have a say in doing better, and we’re not going to settle for this anymore. And that’s just something that’s been difficult for us. I think some people are getting used to losing and all in the sudden now it’s OK. And losing is 100 percent not OK.”
MU went 3-9 the rest of the season, which doesn’t look much better on paper, but the RedHawks definitely played with more urgency down the stretch and were in almost all of the losses until the end.
That included a home series vs. eventual NCAA champion Denver in which Miami allowed two extra-attacker goals in the closing minutes and another in OT and two games in Colorado College in which MU also squandered late leads and lost in the extra session.
“Where I think it snowballed is on me, and then the guys feed off me,” Bergeron said. “I did a much better job the last six weeks of the season of staying a little more consistent with my emotions on a daily basis, and the players helped me with that. We had a pretty serious, pretty to-the-point meeting after the St. Cloud weekend, which was obviously an embarrassing weekend, and we talked about a bunch of different things, and I think the rest our season was better, not necessarily in results but in overall attitude. What ended up happening, a bad loss here, a bad loss there, it did end up snowballing a little bit. And probably, it started at Ferris State.”
After those games against the Tigers, the RedHawks were a remarkably-bad 2-5-1 when leading after two periods and 5-13-1 overall when tied or ahead after 40 minutes.
Miami did sweep Omaha at home and blanked Duluth at Cady Arena before the eventual NCAA champions Denver swept the RedHawks in the first round of the NCHC Tournament, and hopefully the RedHawks can build off those wins as they try to break out of their recent funk.
“Basically what I think the last six weeks was, was all of us taking a look in the mirror, how can we be part of the solution? Obviously a lot of that started with our overall mental approach on a daily basis,” Bergeron said. “We feel like we played some good hockey. The results weren’t there, but we didn’t let a poor result or a tough loss get in the way of the next day, and that is something we’re going to learn from.”
Part of the problem with assembling a roster last season was that NCAA players were granted an automatic fifth year of eligibility because they lost parts of two seasons including tournaments due to COVID.
While that was the right move by college hockey, it disproportionately hurt rebuilding teams like Miami that were desperately vying for talent. Established teams kept their cores together, with St. Cloud State and Western Michigan retaining a third or more of their previous rosters as graduate seniors.
In 2021-22, the RedHawks tried to stay competitive through the transfer portal, but two of those three incoming seniors missed significant time with injury and another bolted after playing just three games.
“Everybody had to deal with COVID, but the people in our league were way more established than we were, outside of Colorado College – and they’re going through a transition and they’ve done a nice job with the new coaching staff,” Bergeron said.
Also due to COVID, the NCAA banned in-person recruiting for over a year at a time when Miami most needed an infusion of quality players.
“The one thing I’ve learned about myself, in both my last stop and this stop, in this role, is I’m not for everybody, and to have a chance to sit down and recruit somebody and his family and to say ‘this is what it’s going to be and this is what it’s going to be like to go to school here, and this is how we’re going to coach you and this is how we’re going to love you on the hard days’…that is something I have to be face-to-face with someone to do that,” Bergeron said.
This is Bergeron’s fourth season as head coach of Miami, but really 2020-21 was a lost year for the program, so it feels like Year 3 from a rebuild standpoint.
That said, season four means all 30 of the 2022-23 RedHawks were brought in under Bergeron’s reign.
“It’s difficult to only have guys for one year, and you can see the results of that when injuries come,” Berergeron said. “Guys are uncomfortable and end up leaving. Now here were are with nine new faces coming into this year, so we learned that last year too. Building a program up – there’s just no easy way. You’ve got to take the long way. And we’re in the middle of that right now.”
Opening night is eight weeks away, and nine of the 10 incoming RedHawks are freshmen – six forwards, three defensemen and a goalie. Goalie Carter McPhail is the lone transfer, heading to Miami after three seasons with Ferris State.
The RedHawks are hoping the ample new blood rejuvenates the team bond in the locker room as well as on the ice.
“We need people that are upset with the losing, to where together we’re going to change it and fix it,” Bergeron said. “That was the feeling I had the last six weeks – obviously the Denver matchup was very difficult, we played them much better here than we did there in the playoffs, but every other series was a dogfight, and you win some and you lose some. But I want a bunch of guys that are fed up with the losing. Not fed up with each other, fed up with the losing, and willing to come together with each other to do something about it, and that’s what I feel the last six weeks was, I really do. Obviously we had a couple of tough losses in there. Both losses at CC were winnable games, we had Denver by two goals with a minute and a half to go in the game, I mean come on. So there were some tough losses in there, but something had changed, and I really feel that it was after the meeting we had following the St. Cloud series. We just made a decision to keep pushing and stay more positive, create more confidence and go from there.”
In addition to the losing culture, a huge area Miami needs to address is its woeful defense.
Bergeron’s RedHawks allowed 144 goals, the second-worst rate in the NCAA only to St. Thomas, former MU coach Enrico Blasi’s team which was in its first season of Division I play.
“Something I take pride in and we take pride in is defending, and our defending has not been good enough,” Bergeron said. “Whether we can’t get people to buy into defending or are just doing a poor job of executing the way we want to defend or our opponents are just that strong offensively or a combination of all three, too many pucks are ending up in our net.”
To help in that area, Miami has brought in half of USHL Dubuque’s six starting defensemen to replace its three graduating senior blueliners. All three Fighting Saints will be 21 by the end of 2022-23 season and each has played at least three years at a high level of juniors.
They combined to finish last regular season plus-70 with Dubuque.
Michael Feenstra is a five-year Dubuque veteran who logged a remarkable 190 games with the Fighting Saints, racking up 30 assists the past two seasons.
Zane Demsey finished second on the team with a plus-34 rating and chipped in 20 points in 2021-22.
Swede Axel Kumlin went 5-17-22 in his first season in North America and has 17 goals in his last three juniors seasons. Kumlin has also has not recorded a negative plus-minus rating in any of his five stops since reaching that level.
They join key returning veterans Jack Clement, Robbie Drazner, Hampus Rydqvist, Dylan Moulton and Alec Capstick, all of whom have been regulars on the Miami blue line for at least two seasons.
Up front, John Waldron had the best USHL season of any of the five newcomers, leading a weak-scoring Waterloo team in assists (30) and ending the year second in points (45).
Max Dukovac finished with 17 goals and 42 assists in 51 games with Langley of the BCHL, a league considered a tick below the USHL.
Intriguing is another Dubuque skater, Swedish-born William Hallen, who surged late in his first season on this continent and ended up with 10 goals and 11 assists in 47 games.
The RedHawks return their entire top line of Matthew Barbolini, Red Savage and P.J. Fletcher this fall.
Miami also brings back a handful of key senior-to-be contributors at forward, including Ryan Savage, Jack Olmstead, Joey Cassetti, all of whom reached double-digits in points, and Chase Pletzke and John Sladic also have over 20 career points.
In net, Persson remains the favorite to start after logging 50 games the past two seasons. After a slow start in 2021-22, the junior-to-be had a .922 save percentage his final 11 games, raising his season rate from .876 to .894.
Neaton, a Winnipeg draftee who was injured mid-season, is expected to be ready for opening night after posting an .887 save percentage in 296 minutes.
After appearing in the NCAA Tournament 10 of 12 seasons in 2003-15, including two Frozen Fours, Miami has one tournament win since 2010 and has posted seven straight losing records.
But RedHawks fans still showed up in respectable numbers in 2021-22, selling out multiple home games last season and at times packing the student section.
“The fans who truly support us through thick and thin, we 100 percent appreciate them, love them,” Bergeron said. “The fans need to know that nobody wants Miami hockey to be back where it belongs more than me and this coaching staff. Nobody. And if they don’t know that, then they don’t know me very well. I’m a Miami guy, through and through, that’s why we came back here three years ago. I hope people feel like we’re all in this together. The year after COVID (this past season) when we got back to normal, quote-unquote, I thought our fans were great, came out in great numbers, and we had some fun nights at the Goggin, especially the second half of the year.”
More big crowds are expected at Cady Arena this fall and winter for an 18-game home slate that includes two games each against defending NCAA champion Denver, North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Western Michigan and Michigan State.
“I don’t want to come across as self-serving, but transition(s) like this and a change like this and you throw in a worldwide pandemic, they take time — It’s just that simple,” Bergeron said. “But we appreciate the (fans) that stuck with us and continued to come out and cheer, we 100 percent appreciate it and love them for that, and nobody wants it more than us. We want the same thing. Keep coming, keep cheering, keep letting us know how can do better, and hopefully we can bring Miami hockey back to where we all want it to be.
“What I know it seven wins isn’t enough – that’s an obvious statement. It’s not enough for us, it’s not enough for our fans. Our program is not a 7-win program.”