MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. — It was a routine move, seen literally every time a team takes to the ice for hockey practice. A few minutes after 11 a.m. on an otherwise ordinary Wednesday morning, Joey Sofo grabbed a blue bucket full of pucks, skated onto the rink at St. Thomas Ice Arena and dumped them out in the center ice circle, before taking a quiet lap on his own.
And with that simple, ordinary action, Sofo — a forward from Sylvania, Ohio, who previously played college hockey at Alaska Anchorage — made a little bit of history. Several St. Thomas teammates soon followed, and the familiar sounds of pucks striking boards and glass soon followed, but Sofo will go down in history as the first player to take the ice for an official Tommies NCAA Division I men's hockey practice.
With their debut as a program at the top level of college hockey barely three weeks away, the Tommies looked like a bit of a rag-tag bunch on Wednesday, but only if you looked at their helmets. One player wore black with a Colorado College logo. Another wore the familiar silver with a red stripe from Ohio State. One black helmet had an Omaha logo. A dark blue helmet had the Des Moines Buccaneers logo. Goalie Peter Thome had the matching green and white pads, gloves and helmet that he brought over from North Dakota.
The pandemic continues to play havoc with supply chains worldwide, and some Chinese-made hockey gear is particularly tough to find. Tommies coach Rico Blasi is confident that all the team’s stuff will arrive prior to their Oct. 2 opener at St. Cloud State, but for now, the helmets provide memories of the previous teams for the 13 Tommies who transferred to St. Thomas from other D-I programs.
“It’s been daily emails trying to figure out where everything is. We’re almost there, just missing the helmets and our game jerseys, so hopefully in the next couple weeks they’ll get here,” said Blasi, who said that the helmets almost work like nametags as he gets to know his team. “It’s actually good for me, because now I know who they are and can call them out.”
Having his team fully equipped is just the latest challenge for Blasi, who noted that they have done in a few months what most coaches have a few years to do in building a program. He found an apartment in St. Paul as soon as he was hired in the spring and set right to work. The immediate challenges were putting together a roster featuring a mix of former D-III players and transfers, and building a coaching staff from scratch.
Assistant coaches Leon Hayward and Cory Laylin ran practice while Blasi did his first weekly TV interview. Laylin’s oldest son, Luc, announced his commitment to St. Thomas a day earlier, but under NCAA rules coaches cannot talk about future players until a national letter of intent is signed. So when Laylin was congratulated about his son’s commitment, Blasi looked confused and asked, “Who?” before cracking a broad smile.
The other big news this week for the Tommies — who, incidentally, are fully vaccinated — was the announcement that their first D-I home game on Oct. 3 vs. St. Cloud State would be played at Xcel Energy Center. Blasi was quick to praise the Wild and the St. Thomas administration for finding a way to play their home debut on a bigger stage, and noted that versus the defending national runners-up, the Tommies will find out what they have for a roster rather quickly.
Blasi came to St. Thomas from a hockey operations job at Providence, where he helped run practice a few times when Friars coach Nate Leaman was off coaching Team USA at World Juniors. But Wednesday was Blasi’s first real practice with his own team since he was dismissed from Miami (Ohio) at the end of the 2018-19 season. He admits lying awake at night, thinking about running a practice and putting together line charts again.
“To be out there with the staff and the players you’ve recruited, it’s just a great feeling,” he said. “I feel like this is where I need to be. I didn’t get much sleep last night, but I feel I’ll sleep like a baby tonight.”