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Coach Frank Serratore brought his Air Force Academy hockey team to Minnesota to end 2012 with an appearance at the Mariucci Classic in Minneapolis. The Cadets dropped a 4-0 game to Minnesota, before coming back to whip Alabama Huntsville 6-1, while the Golden Gophers chose the perfect time to play their best hockey, and routed No. 1 ranked Boston College 8-1 in the title game.
Serratore, a former goaltender at Greenway of Coleraine and Bemidji State, where his brother, Tom, now coaches, used to coach the Minnesota Moose of the International League, but he has become entrenched in leading Air Force to the extremely difficult task of being competitive in Division I hockey. It used to be that the strength of a college hockey program could be calculated by how many elite Canadian prospects you had in the lineup. Well, to start with, you don’t get to recruit any Canadians to play for the U.S. Air Force Academy.
By being All-American, Air Force also requires that any prospect be among the highest in class rank, and driven by a determination to lead and excel.
“You’ve got to be a very strong student, and healthy,” said Serratore. “I mean physically healthy. Even having asthma might prevent you from getting in. Cadets also have to agree to make a 5-year commitment to serving in the Air Force after graduation. Other than that, it’s easy to recruit!”
Serratore then laughed. He is a beacon of real-world good humor in a seriously disciplined military world inside the Air Force complex. It is a spectacularly beautiful campus, just north of Colorado Springs, with acres of open prairie and a stunning view to the West of the Rocky Mountains. Rules and regulations dominate life at Air Force Academy. If a visitor innocently steps across the wrong line in the courtyard, for example, Cadets will courteously advise you that you can’t venture there. Things that seem needlessly strict are important for the mental discipline that future Air Force officers must have, or learn.
Despite the obvious obstacles to recruiting “just” standout athletes for athletic success -- compared to programs that make all sorts of allowances and provide easy curricula for athletes -- Serratore has made Air Force a viable threat at NCAA hockey tournament time, year after year.
And he has done it in his own fashion. All coaches are consumed with winning, as are all good players. And Serratore was one of the most quick-witted to adapt to the most likely method to win, as the game became less-creative and more dull-witted with its smothering defensive “neutral-zone-trapping” style. In my conversations with Serratore over the years, I recall when he made the decision to alter his previously clever-but-traditionally-pragmatic style of coaching, deciding that there was an alternative. He has disciplined himself to deploy a unique philosophy.
As we begin the New Year of 2013, perhaps every coach of any athletic team, at any level, should listen to. And consider.
“I want our players to enjoy playing the game,” said Serratore. “I want them to enjoy coming to the rink every day. There are so many things that are so good about the Academy, and there’s a lot to be said about all the discipline -- but some things ain’t fun. So when they come to the rink, I want it to be fun. When we play, we’re going to go after teams. We don’t want them to sit back and trap. All of our players are smart and over-achievers, so we’re going to let them have fun and be creative.”
Hockey is a funny game. Played at its best, it might be done in an unstructured fashion. Like on an outdoor rink in a pick-up game. The creative playmaking of offense is fun, while defensive hockey is work. Watch a player speed down the ice on offense, then labor to come back defensively, then go at instant full speed when his team gets the puck again. It’s mental. That doesn’t mean teams should forget about backchecking and playing defensively sound hockey. But the chance to play aggressive and creative offense makes even practices fun.
Herb Brooks always coached teams to be great defensively, but he always made bargains with his players, to do a little bit of work defensively in exchange for almost complete freedom to create rink-rat offensive hockey. Frank Serratore buys into that theory. His Cadets may need a couple of goal-scoring snipers, and he has to be carefully selective about every single recruit, but every opponent had best be prepared, because they will attack. Every shift. With eagerness and exuberance, and all the creative skill they can bring.
Most refreshing, in these days of 24-hour ESPN interviews and analyses, when was the last time you were aware of any coach, of any team, in any sport, at any level, caring earnestly about his players having fun?
DULUTH’S BIG 4 EXCEL
Holiday tournaments give high school hockey teams the chance to grab the spotlight, and Duluth’s “Big Four” came through in style. Two tournaments going on about four miles apart were both artistic successes, with the biggest being Cloquet-Esko-Carlton’s 3-0 championship game victory over Denfeld at the Heritage Center Classic. Both Cloquet and Denfeld played three straight days of excellent hockey, with the Lumberjacks able to turn up the pressure and stop the Hunters.
Up at Marshall, the Hilltoppers had an interesting arrangement, with four Wisconsin teams facing off against four Minnesota teams. Powerhouse Notre Dame Academy of Green Bay brought its No. 1 ranked Wisconsin outfit to town and knocked off Superior in the semifinals, while Marshall roared through the opposite bracket to set up the title showdown. Notre Dame Academy had too much for the ‘Toppers, and skated to a 6-3 victory.
Marshall, a private school with a strong hockey program, added a couple standout players from Silver Bay, and another from Proctor, this season, which hasn’t lessened the constant criticism of picking off top players from other schools in the Duluth area. So it came to pass they were beaten by a private school from Green Bay, which is frequently criticized for picking off top players from other schools in the Green Bay area. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, Duluth’s most prominent two powers, East and Hermantown, both played very well in big Twin Cities tournaments.
East was beaten 2-0 by Breck in the opening game of the Schwan Cup, played this year at Ridder Arena, with the top six AA high school teams and the top two Class A teams. While East was hoping to face Edina in the semifinals, before losing to Class A Breck, previously unbeaten and No. 1 rated Edina lost 2-1 in overtime to St. Thomas Academy, the other Class A team. So East got to play Edina after all, and stunned the Hornets 4-1 in a knock-down, drag-out battle. The third day found East facing another power in Minnetonka, but the Greyhounds won that one, also 4-1.
Hermantown, another Class A power that could do very well in AA, went to the South St. Paul tournament and blasted two of the state’s proudest traditional programs, whipping Anoka 10-1, and Hastings 8-3. In the final, the Hawks jumped on Eagan -- another Class AA power -- and raced to a 5-0 lead. Somehow, Eagan came back, caught up, forced overtime, and ultimately won 6-5 in a shootout. The game goes into the books as a tie, making it an impressive three-day show for the Hawks.
Now all Hermantown has to do is come home and get the arena ready for Marshall’s invasion Thursday night.
Minnesota’s victory over BC pushed the Gophers from No. 4 to the No. 1 men’s hockey rank in the nation, which created a unique situation of Minnesota ranked No. 1 in men’s hockey and No. 1 in women’s hockey. That has only happened, if my memory is correct, once before, when UMD pulled it off a couple years ago.
At 13-3-3, the Gophers got a big lift when Nick Bjugstad, their gigantic but inconsistent standout, had a big game. Bjugstad scored two goals, and the second one was a spectacular rush, beating two defensemen with a great move, deke, and backhand. His first one, however, was questionable.
The game was scoreless, when a Gopher shot by Erik Haula was partially caught and juggled by BC’s goaltender Parker Milner, who was alone, on his knees, in the crease. Milner let the puck drop, between his knees, and froze. There was no whistle, for some reason. Bjugstad dashed to the crease, arriving a couple seconds later, and shoved hard with his stick on Milner, pushing the goalie, and the puck, into the goal. The referee immediately signalled goal, then there was a lengthy review of video. Nobody who watched the play on video could imagine that the refs would let the goal stand. But they did.
Interesting connection to the clever pregame bit, where Minnesota officials put up a video on the huge screen, showing Boston College highlights from the Eagles scoring goals and pounding bodychecks in their rout of the Gophers at the NCAA Frozen Four semifinals. Then the screen said: “Welcome to the rematch, but it’s on our ice, and our rules.” When the nongoal was allowed to stand as a goal, that colorful pregame video was brought to life.
The Gophers went on from their to blow out the BC Eagles, and become 13-3-3. Minnesota is 7-0 in nonconference games, and while no one will question the No. 1 rating, the Gophers are 6-3-3 in WCHA play -- No. 1 in the country and tied for fifth in the WCHA.
UMD’s holiday trip to Florida didn’t work out too well. The Bulldogs lost 1-0 to light-scoring Maine, the lowest-scoring team in Hockey East coming into the game 2-11-1, then fell 6-2 to Ferris State the next day.
Other WCHA teams had better success. Michigan Tech, coincidentally the next match for UMD, won the Great Lakes Invitational at Joe Louis Arena for the first time in its 32-year history. The Huskies shocked Michigan 4-0, then beat Western Michigan 4-0 in the final. Minnesota State-Mankato beat Brown 3-1 in the UConn Classic, then beat Connecticut 3-1 in the final. And Denver beat Boston University 6-0 in the Hall of Fame game.