Sometimes doing the right thing isn't always easy. Just ask Joe Shawhan. In March 2017 and after Shawhan was named the head coach at Michigan Tech men's hockey program, replacing Mel Pearson who was hired by the University of Michigan, the Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., product had more than a few decisions to make. Under the control of Pearson the previous six seasons, Tech hockey was in good shape. As a matter of fact, during Pearson's last season as the Huskies' head coach, Michigan Tech skated to a WCHA postseason tournament title, an NCAA tournament berth and 23 wins. The 20 plus win campaign was Tech's third consecutive season with 20 or more victories and its second-place regular season conference finish that year marked the third time in three years the Huskies had finished either first or second in the WCHA. The program was booming and Shawhan; who had just finished his third season as an assistant coach for Tech, was one of the architects.
Long forgotten were the days of Tech hockey when the Huskies barely cracked the 10-win mark in a season and the majority of the scoresheet was marked with penalty minutes as opposed to points. Things were different and so were the expectations that surrounded the program. The momentum train was moving, and everyone was taking notice, including some of the top hockey recruits around. But with everything, there is always another side of the coin to consider. As it always seems to be, a coaching change meant changes to the Huskies' incoming freshmen class and other recruits who Tech would be counting on for seasons to come. As Shawhan puts it, players are recruited by coaches and when the faces change behind the bench, in certain cases, the dominos fall, and the players move on.
A former college player himself who built his career on the ice (and then after as a coach) one brick at a time with the tools of hard work and character, Shawhan had a decision to make, hold the incoming recruits to their commitment, reap the rewards of their talent and keep the train moving, or allow them to follow another road to another program. Shawhan chose the route of integrity. As stated before, sometimes doing the right thing isn't always easy. Now two-plus seasons later, the veteran coach is reminded about that time period in his career every time he looks at his extremely talented, yet somewhat inexperienced 2019-2020 roster.
"This season we are certainly challenged in some ways when it comes to our upperclassmen," explained Shawhan. "Not in character- their character is outstanding and their commitment and dedication to the program is outstanding, but our numbers situation is one of our issues. We don't have many seniors to start with and then we don't have a tremendous number of juniors so just in numbers those two classes are limited.
"When Mel Pearson left, we allowed a number of players to leave," Shawhan continued. "If a player, even if they signed an NLI (National Letter of Intent), wanted to make a change we allowed that to happen. That left us in a bind a little bit but I still think it's the right thing to do.
"We had a lot of work to do to replace them and I think we had a setback last year because of it. Last year we had a lot of guys as freshmen who went through growing pains but came out great on the other end. If we had to do it over again, I would do the same thing. I think how we handled things; it was the right thing to do. People don't always get that on the outside but me as a coach and human being I need to look in the mirror and make sure that I am treating people the right way and I think we did. When you leave the game you want to be able to walk away with your head held high and be able to look every one you passed along the way in the eye."
The right thing doesn't always lead to instant rewards, but the Huskies are starting see signs that the fruits of running a program the right way are beginning to mature. So too are Shawhan's youngsters.
Now 8-7 overall and 6-6 in the WCHA, Michigan Tech skates into this weekend's series with Alaska Anchorage on a streak where they have won five of their last six games. Maybe more impressive than that is the fact that all six of those games were on the road meaning the Huskies return to John MacInnes Arena this weekend comes with a home-cooked meal in their stomachs and a fresh night's sleep in their own bed. The weekend tilt with the Seawolves is the first of two straight series at home before the Great Lakes Invitational in late December.
Leading the charge during their most recent surge was a balanced offensive attack of youngsters whose cuts from a season ago have turned into battle scars. Players like sophomores Brian Halonen, Trenton Bliss, Eric Gotz and Colin Swoyer- just to name a few. From there, throw in a resourceful group of freshmen and you have a talent-rich squad who seems to be getting better each and every time they step on the ice. To date, the Huskies top four scorers are underclassmen and of their top nine scorers, eight are either freshmen or sophomores.
Over Tech's last six games, four different players scored five points and three of them were sophomores (Gotz, Bliss and Halonen). Right behind them was Swoyer and freshman Parker Saretsky, who each struck for four. Arguably the most impressive statistic is the fact that over Tech's last six games, 16 different players scored at least one point with the class breakdown looking like this - four freshmen, six sophomores, four juniors and two seniors.
"I think it's the nature of the beast in college hockey," said junior defenseman Seamus Donahue. "There is a lot of turnover and this year our team just happens to have a lot of freshmen and sophomores who are in the line-up. That's a not a bad thing at all and we certainly don't use that as an excuse. The freshmen have stepped in this year without hesitation. Obviously, there is a learning curve but if you watched one of our games and didn't have a roster with you, I don't think you would be able to pick guys out on the ice and say this person is a freshman or that player is older than the rest. Everyone seems to be coming together all at once."
"We are extremely competitive on the defensive side and we are getting better and better offensively," mentioned Shawhan. "Our scoring changes are going up and up every game. Our possession time is going up and up every game and we are maturing more and more. It takes time. We are getting great leadership from our upperclassmen; from our juniors and seniors and our young guys are starting to assume those roles as well. You hope it all comes together at some point and we are happy with where this is going."
Yes, then there is the other side of the puck and what a story that continues to be.
Matt Jurusik's story is well-documented around Houghton, the WCHA and across the college hockey landscape. From the NAHL to Big Ten hockey at Wisconsin where the Illinois native played two seasons before deciding that a career change was in order. From there the 6-2, 195-pound netminder spent one season in the USHL before settling in at Michigan Tech last year. Now in his final season of college hockey and one of four seniors on the Tech roster, Jurusik will admit that he's pretty much seen everything hockey can throw at you. Who better to stabilize the net during the transition of inexperience to experience, from inconsistency to consistency. Jurusik went 5-1 in net and stopped 154 of 166 shots. The math comes out to 92 percent in case you're wondering.
"It's been pretty good here since the start of the season," explained Jurusik, now 7-4-0 overall this season with a .927 save percentage and a GAA of 2.02. "I'm trying to get better every day, just focusing on working hard, stopping the puck and doing whatever I can to help the team win games. I go about my business the way I always have, I just try to work hard. I try to be a leader. To use the dog sled analogy you don't want to be the guy cracking the whip you want to be the dog at the front leading the way. I try to work hard every day in the weight room and hopefully the younger guys see that and that sets a good example for them."
"In my opinion he stole us some points with a huge third period at Lake Superior State on Nov. 16," stated Shawhan. "He did a great job for us at Lake State; especially in the third and that was for sure the difference. It means a lot. Where Matt has done a great job with us - obviously on the ice - but he's done a fantastic job when it comes to his leadership. You can see how players gravitate to him. He's done a great job with the other goaltenders in bringing a real camaraderie amongst that group which isn't easy given that level of competition but we have a mature group back there and a lot of that credit goes to Matty because he's done such a tremendous job working with those younger guys while still trying to earn his time and get his time in the net."
The main head in the three-headed goalie monster at Tech this season; along with fellow netminders junior Robbie Beydoun and freshman Blake Pietila, Jurusik and company have been sensational. Through 15 games, Tech has allowed three goals or fewer 14 times. The Huskies are currently third in the conference in defense, allowing just over two goals per contest. Individually, Jurusik is third in the WCHA in overall save percentage (.927) and fourth in goals against (2.02). It seems as though each time the Huskies have needed their leader to step up he has. For those who have followed Jurusik's career or know him personally, that's not a surprise.
"He's always the hardest working guy on and off the ice and he's always trying to get better whether it be in the gym, offseason workouts before the season or a Thursday practice before a game," commented Donohue. "He's always trying to do extra work by being in the gym or doing something that is going to help him improve and in turn help the team get better. He has a ton of experience. One of the reasons he's so stable all the time is because he's always prepared. He's ready to go at the drop of the hat. Having him behind us and especially for me at the blue line, that gives us a sense of calmness and stability as well."
"A great thing about Matt Jurusik is he has the same mindset as many other NHL'ers I have been fortunate enough to coach," explained Shawhan. "What they have that is special is they have a vision; they always have the end game in mind. So many players only see the immediate gratification, the immediate impact, what's going on now. It's that immaturity of saying I want it now. Matt has that ability like so many others I have seen, the Mitch Reinkes, Ryan Millers and the Mattie Roys. You can tell that they are never rattled. Everything is a process that goes towards their ultimate goal end game which is a chance to play in the National Hockey League. I would not bet against Matt Jurusik getting the same opportunity."
High praise from someone who knows what he's talking about. As a player, Shawhan was a successful goalie in the early 1980's at Lake Superior State and even after his playing days, stuck around Lake State to coach goalies and defense for the next several years before running through the coaching circuits of junior hockey and college hockey and eventually landing in Houghton. Everywhere he has gone, the art of goaltending has always been near and dear to his heart. He knows what it takes to be a top-notch netminder. He understands the level of skill needed to play at that next level and the pressures that go along with it. Most of all, he appreciates the level of work ethic and character required that will no doubt make or break a career or a program. If you recall, those are the same qualities Joe Shawhan talked about the second we walked onto campus and still to this day, are the two boxes he knows he needs to check before any other. They are critical ingredients that drive his program even today.
"Matt (Jurusik) has complete respect from all of the staff including our training staff, our weight room staff; just everyone associated with the program," added Shawhan. "He has a great work ethic and doesn't take shortcuts and that's a great thing to have. We know we are going to get his best effort every time he's in the net. He's had success every place he's been and at every level. I don't know if it was too early or not but he went into college early for a goaltender when he went to Wisconsin. They brought him in right away and he was the number one guy for two years for the most part and then I think he just got a feeling that he wasn't going to get the amount to time he was hoping to get so he decided to open himself up and make himself available to do something different. He was a starting goaltender; over 50 games in two years for them and with us, he basically took over the job here last year and played for us in the playoffs and did an excellent job. This year he's done even better, and his numbers are outstanding. Every indicator you want in a goaltender he's provided for us. He's just done an excellent job."
"It's been fun for sure. It's been interesting; definitely not how I drew things up when it started but I am really happy with the way my five years have gone. I think I have grown a lot as a person and as a player. I have continued to try and grow every day and take it day by day, have fun and enjoy the process," mentioned Jurusik, when asked to look back on his journey to Tech. "On and off the ice my maturity is definitely something that has developed and improved. I think I'm a lot calmer on the ice. I can read situations better and control games better now that I am a little bit older. Off the ice I know how to deal with the stressors of college along with things like travel; pretty much everything that goes along with competing at a high level. Every day throughout the last few years I think I have matured and developed so I would say that's something I take pride in."
"He's absolutely that character guy we look for," concluded Shawhan. "We are the beneficiary of Matt Jurusik being here. Hopefully we can have as much of an impact on him, we have aided him as much as he has aided us because he's been invaluable to the stabilization of our team and getting us through a re-structuring and a slight rebuilding process. He's helped give us a great baseline. He's been a great rudder in the water to help keep our boat headed in the right direction."