Western Michigan aims high in nation's best hockey conference

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Wade Allison

Kalamazoo – The National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) has proven to be the nation’s best league the past several years, and Western Michigan believes this season could be its best chance to win a national championship in April at Little Caesars Arena.

Minnesota-Duluth has been the program of the decade, winning the national championship in 2011, in overtime vs. Michigan, then claiming consecutive national titles the last two years.

Denver won the national championship in 2017 and North Dakota won it in 2016.

St. Cloud State entered last year’s NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed, and WMU was ranked in the top 10 for the majority of the season before losing in a conference tournament’s best-of-three series to Colorado College at Lawson Arena in Kalamazoo to fall short of making the 16-team field.

This year, national pollsters think WMU has the best chance of teams from Michigan to make a run, putting the Broncos No. 12 (USA Today) and No. 14 (uscho.com). Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota are picked 1-2 in both preseason polls.

The college hockey season gets underway this weekend with WMU facing Ohio State Friday in the Ice Breaker Tournament in Toledo. Michigan plays host to Clarkson while Michigan State plays at Northern Michigan.

WMU, 20-13-1 last season, has its largest number of upperclassmen – nine seniors and eight juniors – in Andy Murray’s nine years as Broncos head coach. Standout players Wade Allison and Dawson DiPietro decided to pass on early entries to the pro ranks in order to pursue a national title.

Allison, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound power forward and second-round pick of the Flyers in 2016, had an impressive sophomore year (15 goals, 30 points), though it was cut short by an ACL injury.

While Flyers general manager Ron Hextall wanted Allison to turn pro, Allison wants to finish his career at WMU while making sure his knee is 100 percent.

“I can’t wait for the season to start,” said Allison after practice Tuesday, pointing out it has been 21 months since he injured his knee. “Ultimately, we have a really good team this year, a lot of talent coming back, and I think for me just to take the time to make sure my knee is 100 percent healthy and I’m ready to go.

“I didn’t think it was too tough of a decision. I felt this is where I needed to be, and I felt like we had a good chance to make a big run this year, just something I couldn’t pass up. The ceiling for this team is the national championship and I don’t think we’ll be happy with anything but that.”

Dawson DiPietro

Allison is expected to play on a line with DiPietro and Drew Worrad.

“I like to score goals and DiPietro is extremely fast and really talented with the puck,” Allison said. “He’s a really special player and Worrad is also really skilled too. He’s fast down the middle, has really good hands, so I think us three working together could be a really good line this year.”

Another reason Allison came back is to play for Murray, who was an NHL head coach for 10 years with the Los Angeles King and St. Louis Blues before taking over for Jeff Blashill at WMU following the 2010-11 season. Murray recently signed a new contract that will run through the 2023-24 season or when he is age 73.

“He knows what he’s talking about,” said Allison of Murray. “He’s very detail-oriented and he’s a great coach. We come to the rink every day and he makes sure we’re prepared.”

Junior Josh Passolt had a strong sophomore season, sharing team-high honors with 16 goals with 18 assists. He will be on a line with 6-7 junior center Austin Rueschhoff (13 goals, 27 points) and sophomore Cole Gallant.

“I think I use my speed to create most of my opportunities,” Passolt said. “I play with some really good linemates. I played a lot with Austin Rueschhoff last year and he’s a great player and we work good together. I think our team has a lot of speed and we use that to our advantage.

“Austin uses his size to his advantage. He’s not the most physical player, but he uses his body to protect the puck. He’s a real good skater and has a good shot. He’s not afraid to go in the corners and use his body.”

Passolt says playing in the NCHC is a challenge but worth it.

“You’re playing a good team no matter what,” he said. “It puts you to the test and prepares us well for our non-conference games and the postseason. A lot of times you’ll see NCHC teams playing each other in championship games at the end of the year.”

Murray likes that he has an experienced team for 2019-20.

 “Every year we’ve been a young team because we lost players early to the pros, so this year we have nine seniors and we haven’t had that before,” Murray said. “We kept a number of guys that were offered pro contracts and decided to come back for their fourth year and play for us again, so I’m excited about that.

“A lot of people are telling us we’re pretty good, but we don’t want to talk about that. We just want to do things better than we did last year because obviously last year wasn’t good enough.”

Murray is also excited to have some talented freshman defensemen in 6-4, 210-pound Ronnie Attard and 6-3, 210-pound Scooter Brickey. Attard, who was a third-round pick of the Flyers, was named USHL Player and Defensemen of the Year after setting the league’s record for goals in a season by a defenseman with 30 while playing for the Tri-City Storm.