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The 'Sertich Factor' guarantees historic Tech-UMD puck series

Mike Sertich walked into the visiting dressing room at the DECC Thursday night, looked around, threw his arms out in wonderment, and said: "Who in the world painted this dressing room pink?"...

Mike Sertich walked into the visiting dressing room at the DECC Thursday night, looked around, threw his arms out in wonderment, and said: "Who in the world painted this dressing room pink?"
It seemed surreal -- at least as surreal as those Pepto Bismol-pink walls that allegedly were the brainchild of some previous UMD coach -- that Sertich was back coaching a team of 'Dogs, wearing black and gold instead of maroon and gold.
Tech's arrival at the DECC was just the start of a whole weekend that promised to have a surreal edge to it. Sertich, who was dismissed after 18 years as UMD's coach last spring, agreed on Tuesday to go to Houghton, Mich., and take over the Michigan Tech Huskies coaching job on an interim basis for the rest of this season. He replaced Tim Watters, a former Tech and NHL defenseman and a popular coach who found victories few and far between, and agreed to step down earlier this week.
It was a stunning return to action for Sertich, who "got resigned," as they say, after UMD suffered its second straight season of struggling. The surprise of Sertich taking on a new coaching challenge did not subside all week, and, as fate would have it, Michigan Tech was to play the UMD Bulldogs in the DECC for Sertich's coming out party. Nobody could gauge what the reaction would be, whether Duluth hockey fans would stay away, show up curious, or whether there would be a large turnout to celebrate the return of the popular coach who led the Bulldogs to national prominence in the mid-1980s, and recorded an overall 335-306-44 record.
New UMD coach Scott Sandelin, a friend of Sertich's, said, "Yes, there will be a weird atmosphere at the games, but a good atmosphere. It's perfect timing. Otherwise, the way both teams have started, it might be kind of dead in the DECC. Now I don't think it will be."
Like the Bulldogs, the Huskies have had trouble scoring goals. Maybe a 7-6 game or two would be just what the doctor ordered. "I'd prefer if we won 7-1," said Sandelin. "We can't win much if we keep giving up six a game. But if we win, we won't give a darn how many we give up."
Tech's players feel much the same. After an opening tie with Northern Michigan, the Huskies lost twice to Wisconsin, split at North Dakota, then lost twice to Colorado College and Minnesota State-Mankato. All but the North Dakota series were at Houghton. The Tech-UMD rivalry goes back a ways, like to 1952. The Huskies were one of the first teams to play UMD when the Bulldogs were working toward Division I.
Tech enjoyed a 21-1-1 domination in their first meetings, lost another one, then won 25 straight to build a whopping 46-2-1 edge. In more recent years, things have evened out, cutting the Tech margin to 104-56-12. At Tech, which is in its 80th year of hockey, the legendary John MacInnes established a 555-295-39 record in 26 years, while none of those who followed him -- Jim Nahrgang, Herb Boxer, Newell Brown, Bob Mancini and Watters -- compiled an over-.500 record. Sertich was responsible for some of that, because in his 18 years as head coach at UMD, the Bulldogs had the upper hand with a 39-26-9 record against Tech.
Mat Snesrud remembers watching some of those games, back at Cloquet High School, and acknowledges that yes, he was mad at Sertich for not recruiting him to UMD. Now, as a senior defenseman at Michigan Tech, Snesrud has Sertich for a coach, after all.
"That's the first thing he asked me, if I was mad at him for not recruiting me," laughed Snesrud, now a senior defenseman at Michigan Tech. "Aren't players always supposed to be a little mad at their coaches for something?"
Snesrud, standing outside the visiting dressing room at the DECC, knew that Sertich was close enough to hear him. For four years, he's enjoyed coming back "home" to play UMD at the DECC, and he's hoping a groin injury is sufficiently healed for him to play this weekend, because he knows it will be something special. Call it the "Sertich Factor."
Some of the Bulldog players, however, acted cool and indifferent to the scenario, as if it would be nothing more than routine. "Just two more games," said Judd Medak, as he walked out of the DECC with a couple of teammates, who seemed to agree with his assessment. "Maybe a little more emotion, but just two more games."
Other teammates felt the atmosphere would be a bit more dramatic. "I think it's kind of neat seeing him back," said Craig Pierce, a defenseman from Grand Rapids who has only seen reserve duty so far. "I like the guy a lot, and if he wants to coach some more, I'm glad to see him get the chance."
Sertich joked with and heckled his Tech players, trying to lift their spirits and not dwell on this week's transition of coaches. "When I first met the team, they were a little guarded," said Sertich. "The upperclassmen, particularly, were that way, and rightly so. They got recruited by Tim, played for Tim, and some may think that they're part of the reason he's gone. So it's natural. But one of the strong resources kids have is resiliency.
"I've been impressed that they're really good kids. They're eager, but they started out cautiously watching to see where I was coming from. So I tried to use my typical humor to break the ice. I told Matt Ulwelling that I remembered two years ago when he yelled at me across the ice."
Sertich, always a tactician, said he has tried to keep things simple for now, sensing that the team needed Band-Aids, not major surgery.
"Everything has happened so quick this week," Sertich said. "The last thing they needed was for me to come in and throw a lot of new stuff at 'em."
Jim Knapp, Sertich's top assistant for his full 18-year tenure at UMD, recalled all those road trips over the years. When he heard Sertich was going to Tech, Knapp called him. "He said, 'I'm coming down and spending the night in the hotel with you, just so I can get the remote,'" said Sertich. Knapp always roomed with Sertich, and they engaged in a constant duel to see which one would control the television remote.
"When I first heard about it, I thought, 'No way," said Knapp. "But I think it's great. However many fans they draw for the series, I'll bet that half of them are there to see Sertie. I knew he would get back into coaching, but his radio thing was going so well."
Sertich said he had greatly enjoyed being host to the WDSM radio sports talk show from 9-12 each morning, although he had only done it for three weeks. So glib was Sertich on radio that it was suggested that Michigan Tech's veteran radio voice, Bob Olson, should try putting a live microphone on Sertich on the bench.
"I could do that," said Olson, "because we could put him on an hour delay."
It might take that long for some of those "Yoopers" listening back home to interpret some of Sertie's wisecracks.

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