ST. PAUL -- Rico Blasi, the former Miami University hockey coach who led the RedHawks to within an eyelash of the 2009 NCAA title, has a new job. As of Thursday, Oct. 22, he is an associate athletic director at Providence, in charge of men’s and women’s hockey. As such, he is likely not in the running for the head coaching gig at St. Thomas.
That job, starting next season, became available this month with current coach Jeff “Duke” Boeser’s announcement that he will step down at the end of the 2020-21 campaign, whatever that may look like.
The Tommies’ inaugural season as a Division I program and as members of the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association will feature a new voice barking orders from behind the bench. While St. Thomas faces myriad challenges in making the jump to the game’s top level of competition, it is indeed a coveted gig, with the school’s reputation and location in the heart of one of the three most hockey-centric metro areas (Detroit and Boston being the others) in the nation.
With that in mind, here are some speculative thoughts on a half-dozen names (listed in alphabetical order) we might see bandied about as Phil Esten, the St. Thomas athletic director, looks for the person to pilot the Tommies into these uncharted waters.
Natalie Darwitz -- We will start with an eye-opener. If Darwitz’s first name was “Nate,” there would be no question about qualifications to run a successful college hockey program. She has been a winner as a player and as a coach at every level, most recently in taking the Hamline women’s program from MIAC obscurity to competing for conference and national titles. Darwitz would be the first woman to coach a D-I men’s program, but with countless men coaching D-I women’s programs, why not this level of equality in 2021? If the Tommies want to truly break new ground and debut with national attention, this would be one way to do it.
Dave Hakstol -- After making North Dakota a seemingly every year participant in the Frozen Four, Hakstol left the college game for a NHL head coach gig five years ago. The Philadelphia Flyers fired him despite playoff appearances in two of his three full seasons there. Such is life in the NHL, where coaches have all the job security of DoorDash drivers. Currently an assistant coach in Toronto, we have a hunch that “Hak” would not balk at a return to the Midwest (his family spends summers on a western Minnesota lake), to recruiting territory he knows well and a chance to run his own program once again.
Jason Herter -- The formula for Minnesota Duluth’s success in the past few years has been recruiting some of the best from Minnesota and the western Canada junior leagues. Herter was the man behind much of that for Scott Sandelin. He left the Bulldogs program at the end of last season, citing some burnout and looking for a new challenge. A chance to be the man in charge of a new college hockey program would not be likely to lower Herter’s level of stress too much, but his track record of recruiting and working with the Bulldogs, and his success as a player in the WCHA a few decades ago, make him a logical candidate for the Tommies.
Todd Knott -- A coach has to know his opponent. The CCHA technically doesn’t exist yet, but Knott -- who played at Bemidji State and has been an assistant coach at Minnesota State, Mankato since 2009 -- knows the Tommies’ competition well. More importantly, his background as a coach and general manager in both the USHL and NAHL, along with the on-ice success the Mavericks have had with him and Mike Hastings at the helm make it clear that he can recruit this part of the country. Like Hastings, Knott is originally from northwestern Minnesota, and has that “one of us” vibe that the provincial folks around here just eat up.
Mark Osiecki -- We will admit it is challenging to picture “Oz” in a color other than red. After winning a pair of state prep titles in Burnsville (playing for his father), Oseicki helped Wisconsin win the 1990 NCAA crown and has been a Badgers’ assistant coach in two different stints for more than a decade. Osiecki was also the head coach at Ohio State for three seasons and is widely regarded as a top-notch recruiter. If you follow Osiecki on Twitter, you know that his time away from the rink is spent mostly chasing muskies on the lakes of northern Wisconsin. We think he could find a few hungry fish back in his home state too.
Garrett Raboin -- First as a player and then as an assistant coach, this Detroit Lakes native helped St. Cloud State to every-year contention for conference titles and the NCAA tournament. After briefly being a candidate for the Huskies’ head coach position when Bob Motzko left for Minnesota, Raboin instead followed his boss to Dinkytown and has proven to be a relentless recruiter for the Gophers, locking up some of the top in-state talent and getting commitments from outside the traditional U of M territory, like Pennsylvania and Arizona. Raboin will be a head coach in college hockey before too long. If it happens next year, don’t be shocked.