Nine months ago, Bulldogs forward Ashleigh Brykaliuk stood in the players’ lobby of Amsoil Arena and talked about the possibility of her and some her teammates transferring from Minnesota Duluth.
Facing a throng of reporters, Brykaliuk was reacting at the time to the news that Shannon Miller would not be back at UMD as head coach for a 17th season. Brykaliuk said she was “confused” and “upset” over the decision made a week earlier by university administrators.
Brykaliuk said she didn’t want to be coached by anyone else but Miller and her response to a question about transfering was “time will tell that.”
Time turned out to be exactly what Brykaliuk and her teammates needed. Refocused and refreshed, she later joined the search committee used to hire new head coach Maura Crowell and will lead the Bulldogs onto the ice this weekend against Lindenwood University. The UMD captain and her teammates open the season at 2 p.m. today in St. Charles, Mo.
For the 15 Bulldogs who return after going through last season’s drama, it’s good to be back playing hockey again.
“It was a rollercoaster of a year to say the least, but I really believe you can take something positive out of every situation you experience,” said Brykaliuk, a junior. “This year we’ve grown closer as a team being through everything together. We’ll be closer this year, ready to take on anything, really. We went through everything last year. It’s going to make anything seem like a breeze this year.”
The Bulldogs began the 2014-15 season talking about chasing the program’s sixth NCAA championship. Those hopes hit a bump early on when the team started 2-4-2, but a 12-5-3 record by the holiday break rekindled their hopes.
Then the news broke that Miller and her staff were done at the end of the season.
“Emotions were running high there,” Brykaliuk said. “I just took a step back and realized how much I do love it here. I think I can speak for the rest of the girls. We love Duluth, we love the community, we love the school, the rink, everything.
“We realized coaching changes happen in hockey. It happens in the NHL. It’s part of the game. Time let the emotions cool off a little bit and get our heads on straight.”
Miller continued to publicly attack the university for its decision to let her go. Administrators in Duluth and the Twin Cities tried to do damage control, but all their statements did was fuel the flames of a situation still unresolved. Miller and two other former UMD coaches plan to announce the filing of a lawsuit against the university on Monday.
Meanwhile, a banged-up Bulldogs squad began to slide. After starting the second half 5-1, UMD went 0-4-2 against the top three teams in the WCHA - Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota - before sweeping Ohio State to hang on to fourth place and home-ice advantage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
The Bulldogs wound up losing that playoff series to fifth-place Bemidji State in three games, but by then, their minds were no longer distracted by their coach’s war of words with the university. The team’s equipment manager and strength and conditioning coach, Julianne “Montana” Vasichek, was in critical condition at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., undergoing a life-saving liver transplant.
“It was a little divided toward the end of the season,” said Sidney Morin, UMD’s junior defenseman and assistant captain. “We were still able to stick together toward the end of last season. Obviously there was some rough patches.
“Everyone on our team really matured a lot going through that. They knew when to stand up for themselves, when to stand up for each other. The biggest thing is for us to stick together as a team, regardless of anything that is going on. We always want to stick together on the ice. We want to stick together off the ice. We want to be a team.”
Morin said a lot of weight has been lifted off her and her teammates’ shoulders going into this season. There is less stress, the team is excited about the future and everyone is ready to move forward, she said.
Crowell is a big reason for that, players said.
Like Brykaliuk, Morin was a member of the search committee that recommended Crowell as a potential hire. Morin said what stood out to her during Crowell’s interview was the former Harvard assistant really wanted to be at UMD.
“I just thought Coach Crowell was a good person,” Morin said. “You could tell obviously she wanted to be a part of our program. She was excited about the future. As soon as she got here, she talked to our entire team and made everyone feel welcome. She wanted everyone to feel like they belonged.”
As a search committee member, Brykaliuk said she also got the sense that Crowell was ready to pack up and move to Duluth the same day the committee interviewed her.
“She came in and after the first question, I can still remember sitting at that desk and I could just tell how passionate she was. She knew what she wanted to do,” Brykaliuk said. “I just think the big thing for me is that passion in coaching. Regardless of what kind of coach you are, if you have that passion, that goes a long way and she definitely had that fire the first day we talked. That was awesome.”
Crowell said she admires the maturity, responsibility and ability of her team to get through everything that happened last season. It’s more than any other college hockey program has been through, she said.
But she’s not going out of her way to win over this group of Bulldogs, she said.. She’s just trying to build a great program, give her players a positive experience and win a few hockey games.
If everything goes well, they’ll be on board, she said.
“They just want to play hockey and that’s what I’m trying to do - coach them up, drop the puck and let’s go,” Crowell said. “There’s been so much going on in the past, and we’re just excited to go forward and play hockey and be the best we can be.”
Minnesota Duluth at Lindenwood
What: Nonconference series
When: 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Lindenwood Ice Arena, St. Charles, Mo.
2014-15 records: UMD 20-12-5; Lindenwood 10-21-2
Series: The Bulldogs lead the all-time series 2-0, having played the Lions for the first time last year in Duluth.
Coaches: Maura Crowell is making her debut at UMD after going 23-7-4 in her one season as interim head coach at Harvard; Scott Spencer, in his second season at Lindenwood, is 10-21-2
UMD update: The Crowell era begins as she becomes only the second head coach in program history. She inherits three seniors, six juniors and six sophomores from Shannon Miller’s final team. Including three Olympians, the Bulldogs have 11 players who have experience playing for their national team. Most recently, sophomore defensemen Jessica Healey was named to the 2015-16 Canadian Women’s National Development Team. Crowell was an assistant for the U.S. Under-18 women’s team this summer. Junior forward and captain Ashleigh Brykaliuk (16 goals, 14 assists), who once played for Canada’s U-18 team, was the team’s second-leading scorer last year. Junior forward Lara Stalder had 10 goals and a team-high 19 assists. Senior goaltender Kayla Black (1.73 goals-against average, .935 save percentage) has started the majority of the previous three seasons, but Crowell said incoming freshman Maddie Rooney will compete for the starting job. Black has a career 2.10 GAA and .924 save percentage in 100 starts.
Lindenwood update: The Lions begin their fifth season of NCAA Division I play and fourth in College Hockey America. The Lions have finished fifth in the six-team CHA every time, going 7-11-2 last year. Senior forward Shara Jasper (11-16-27 points) was second on the team in scoring. Jasper, of Aurora, Colo., played her freshman and sophomore seasons at UMD before transferring. Three-year starting goaltender Nicole Hensley returns after posting a 2.71 GAA and .916 save percentage last year. The Lions and Bulldogs met on the third weekend of the regular season last year with UMD prevailing 3-1 and 6-2 at Amsoil Arena.
Quote: “We have three really good goalies and they are going to have to battle. I think that’s great for them. That’s going to bring them to a higher level. We’ll see who shows up and we’ll play the best one that week.” - Crowell on goalies Black, Rooney and senior Karissa Grapp