ST. PAUL — When the word leaked out last week that Rico Blasi would be the first Division I hockey coach at the University of St. Thomas, one of the first text messages he got was from a former college teammate.
Blasi and St. Thomas Academy coach Trent Eigner skated together at Miami University, and they will share a rink, as the Tommies and Cadets play under the same roof — for now — in Mendota Heights.
“As soon as this was announced, Trent sent me a picture of the door to the coaches’ office,” Blasi said with a smile, as he was formally introduced on the St. Thomas campus on Tuesday afternoon. The story served to illustrate that even as an “outsider” in the provincial Minnesota hockey community, Blasi has connections everywhere, and is ready to use them to help his new program make an unprecedented jump.
With his wife and daughters looking on from the front row, Blasi said the reasons for taking the job at one of the region’s most renowned Catholic colleges were clear.
“Family and faith have been the two cornerstones in my life ever since I can remember. They will be our guiding forces on and off the ice,” he said. “We will strive to be the best version of St. Thomas every day, inspired by our Catholic tradition to educate, be responsible and to work hard with integrity.”
There is no transition period for Blasi and the Tommies. Their final season as a Division III program is done. When they next face a real opponent on the ice next fall, it will be as full-fledged members of the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association, recruiting against and playing against NCAA tournament teams like Minnesota State Mankato, Bemidji State, Lake Superior State and others.
In Blasi, who brings nearly 400 D-I wins to St. Thomas, the Tommies feel confident that they have the right man for the job.
“Clearly, Rico can coach,” said St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten, rattling off a resume that includes a pair of Frozen Four trips with Miami, a national coach of the year honor and five coach of the year awards in the former incarnation of the CCHA. “We were looking for someone with demonstrated ability to build, lead and sustain a successful hockey program, with a deep understanding of culture, and how culture plays a role in building that over time. This is not a quick fix. We’re not not looking for shortcuts, this is a three- to five-plus-year build.”
For Esten, it is somewhat familiar territory. A decade ago he was at Penn State in the early days of D-I hockey there, where they stressed culture and community as well as hockey, and brought in a Big Ten title in a notably quick time. Blasi acknowledged the handful of players from the Tommies’ final D-III team in the back of the room, and talked openly about the hundreds of experienced players available in the NCAA transfer portal, many of whom could be included on his first Tommies roster.
That is just one of the challenges that Blasi will need to tackle in the coming months. He also needs to fill out a coaching staff and said that process is underway with no set timeline. Recruiting is the top priority.
Further down the road is the question of a facility for the Tommies. They will continue to play in Mendota Heights for now, in a rink with bench seating for just under 1,000, and Esten said discussions about the building of a new, larger arena near the neighborhood campus will continue.
Blasi played at Miami and began his coaching career there in an arena that is similar to high school facilities in Minnesota. As coach, he helped oversee the design and construction of the RedHawks’ current arena, which is state of the art and seats 3,600. He said that in a more intimate setting like STA, they can create an intimidating environment. Others close to the program have hinted that in the near term the Tommies’ rivalry games versus teams like the Beavers and Mavericks, where ticket demand is expected to be higher, could be moved to places like Target Center in Minneapolis or Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Esten began the process of finding the first D-I hockey coach at St. Thomas about five months ago, and they interviewed around 10 people before offering the job to Blasi, who is originally from near Toronto. The coach acknowledged that he is not considered “one of us” in the minds of some Minnesotans, but added that at Miami he recruited in here successfully and some of his best RedHawks captains were from Minnesota.
“I’ve always admired the development model here and have always loved having Minnesotans on my teams,” Blasi said. “It will be a balance. We want to make sure that we’re getting the right fit for St. Thomas and we’re going to start at home. We’re going to be regionally good. There are a lot of local players that are going to want to come to St. Thomas. And there are a lot of players from other states that will want to come here as well.”
The Tommies finished 6-1-2 in their final D-III season, losing only to Bethel, in overtime, on March 3.