As good as it is to be a Bronco these days, that wasn’t the case a year ago for the hockey team.
Western Michigan managed just eight victories in 2015-16, tied for the second-worst showing in the four-plus-decade history of the program.
“Coming to the rink every day, to be honest, wasn’t a fun day,” senior defenseman Taylor Fleming said. “You’d come to the rink ready to watch video, and usually the video was kind of on the negative side because we didn’t win a lot of games.
“The vibes were kind of down. It was kind of a not-so-fun year.”
And yet, look at the Broncos now — nationally ranked most of the season, and preparing to play in the NCAA Tournament, starting at 7:30 Friday night against Air Force in Providence, Rhode Island.
The winner of that game advances to Saturday night’s East Regional final against either Harvard, the top seed in the pod, or Providence.
Western Michigan (22-12-5) and Air Force (26-9-5) met twice in the regular season, in November in Kalamazoo, with one tie and the Broncos winning the other game.
But Air Force is 12-1-1 in its last 14 games, while Western Michigan sort of limped into the postseason, with two losses last weekend in Minneapolis, in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference’s semifinal and consolation games.
“We were disappointed,” senior forward Aaron Hadley said of the NCHC weekend — which, it’s worth noting, the Broncos did enter already having known they had clinched their NCAA Tournament appearance. “All year long, our mind set has been focused on the next game.”
Yet, to assess how the Broncos might do in their next game, or more, you can’t help but look back.
The seeds for success started last offseason, with a radical overhaul — among the coaching staff, in the coaching philosophy and in the weight room.
Sixth-year coach Andy Murray, who had taken Western Michigan to the NCAAs his first year, in 2011-12, but not since, took a hard look at things, and decided to make some changes. He started by hiring a new assistant coach, Todd Krygier, who knew many Broncos from his days coaching junior hockey.
His hiring had a ripple effect. For starters, he’s known as a player’s coach, giving the Broncos a sounding board to turn to; they’re plenty fond of Murray, of course, but head coaches usually can’t be the “buddy” type. Krygier also took over the power-play schemes, and that’s been a significant improvement.
Then Murray and Co. set out to improve the conditioning, with the help of strength coach Tim Herrmann. The specific goal: Get quicker. So the reps in the weight room changed for that purpose, with Herrmann even purchasing 12 high-tech devices to attach to the weight bars, measuring how quickly you’re moving the bar.
“As you move it,” said Hadley, “it shows you how explosive you are.
“A lot of our summer training and practices were all about speed.
“Our quickness wasn’t up to the standards of NCAA hockey.”
Forget the NCAAs, it wasn’t up to the standards of the NCHC, regarded as the best conference in college hockey. It landed two NCAA No. 1 seeds, and that didn’t include defending national champion North Dakota.
By the end of the 2016 calendar year, the Broncos already had more wins (nine) than all last season, including eye-openers against eventual No. 1 seed Minnesota-Duluth, Air Force, North Dakota and Michigan Tech, another team that would go on to make the NCAAs.
Then, in early January, it split with Denver, the No. 1-ranked team in the nation most of the season.
A promising freshmen class certainly helped liven things up, but so did the motivation of some awfully motivated seniors who couldn’t stand what happened a year earlier.
Having faced Air Force already this season certainly gives Western Michigan some confidence, as does the probability of getting back senior forward Sheldon Dries (Macomb) and freshman forward Wade Allison, who missed last weekend’s two losses in Minneapolis because of injuries. That duo was a combined plus-23 this season.
“Air Force is such a hard-working, determined team, and if you don’t come out on any given night and match their work ethic, you can be beat,” said Fleming, tied for the team lead with 17 assists. “But it’s definitely nice to have an idea about their systems.”
Fleming then added: “We’re battle-tested.”
Not just in this season of so much winning, but in the last season of so much losing, too.
This is the sixth time Western Michigan has been in the NCAA Tournament, and has lost in the first round the five previous times. This only is the second time, though, that it’s been the better seed.
NCAA Hockey Tournament
No. 2 Western Michigan vs. No. 3 Air Force
Faceoff: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dunkin’ Donuts Center, Providence, R.I.
Records: Western Michigan 22-12-5, Air Force 26-9-5
Outlook: The teams met twice in Kalamazoo in November, with one 5-5 tie and Western Michigan winning, 4-1, in the other game. ... The winner advances to meet either Harvard or Providence in Saturday’s 8:30 p.m. regional final (ESPNU), for a berth in the Frozen Four.