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Rico Unplugged: St. Thomas coach reflects on Year 2 in Division I and the possibilities to come

For a team that made the leap from Division III to D-I a year ago, Year 2 is highlighted by improved play and news of a new arena for the Tommies.

St. Thomas head coach Rico Blasi (grey jacket) watches the action against St. Cloud State in the third period Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at the St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights.
Jason Wachter/The Rink Live

MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. – Heading into last season, head coach Rico Blasi and the St. Thomas men’s hockey team knew they had a huge challenge ahead of them.

They were making an unprecedented, massive leap from Division III to Division I and were joining a conference full of well-established programs. It wasn’t going to be easy, but the Tommies were determined to establish a culture and an identity through their program, and now that Year 2 has come to a close, it appears as if they’re accomplishing that task.

It may not seem like it as last weekend, the Tommies were swept in the CCHA quarterfinals for the second straight season. However, they put forth a much better performance than the previous year against Minnesota State as they lost by only one goal twice to a ranked Michigan Tech squad on the road. UST fell just 1-0 Friday and kept pace with the Huskies all game in a 5-4 season-ending loss on Saturday.

The program that we’re building is based on that daily improvement on and off the ice and the responsibility that you have in our culture, in our program on and off the ice.
St. Thomas head coach Rico Blasi

Looking back on that series, Blasi said that Friday’s defeat came down to Tech’s experience breaking through against the much-younger Tommies and that the Huskies "executed one more play" Saturday to end St. Thomas' season.

“It’s playoff hockey, right?” he said Wednesday. “So, I thought it was a really good game (Friday). Both sides had their chances, both goaltenders played great. It’s the way playoffs should be, right? It should come down to the wire. It should be hard. If you’re gonna move on, you should have to earn it. I think Michigan Tech if you talked to them, I think they know they had to earn it. I thought we played hard all weekend long and just didn’t get the results.


"So, a good learning experience for our young team. We had nine freshmen in the lineup that had never been through that before. So, it was good for us to be in that kind of environment and to be right there right to the end. Nothing but good feelings about how we played. Nothing about last weekend is disappointing to me. It’s a step forward in our process. Credit to Michigan Tech in how they played and how they closed us out. That’s what veteran teams do. A lot of those guys have been in those situations, which is what we want to be here in the future.”

Over the past few weeks, Blasi had talked about how his team was learning different lessons from each of their opponents and there were a lot of them over the course of the year.

St. Cloud State defenseman Brady Ziemer (2) battles for the puck with St. Thomas forward Jake Braccini (17) in the first period Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at the St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights.
Jason Wachter/The Rink Live

“Oh gosh, there’s so many of them,” he said. “We had 12 freshmen on our team that had never been through this before and 17 new guys. Lessons from how to prepare during the week and how to perform on Friday and then have to come back and perform maybe better on the next night. Those were good lessons. I thought playing teams that I’ll say everyone else didn’t think we could win and we did end up winning and then having to come back the next night and seeing a team that was not happy with the fact that we beat them the first night and how much harder you have to be in terms of your game and how more focused you have to be to the details. I think that’s probably the biggest lesson. So, I think that’s something that will benefit us here down the road."


2022-23 SEASON
OVERALL: 12-23-2
CCHA: 10-14-2
HOME: 7-9-1
AWAY: 4-14-1

2021-22 SEASON
OVERALL: 3-32-1
CCHA: 3-22-1
HOME: 2-11-1
AWAY: 1-20-0
NEUTRAL: 0-1-0

Blasi looks back at the season and how competitive they were in conference play.

"When you look at the whole big picture in our league, Northern (Michigan) got the last home ice spot and they won 12 games in the league. We won 10. We’re not that far off and yet, we’re far off. And that’s kind of what we’re looking at," he said. "If you look at our record, we played 16 games against top-15 opponents. Michigan Tech, (Minnesota State) Mankato, Penn State and St. Cloud (State). We’re 3-13. Everyone else, we’re .500. I think that tells you something about where the growth of our program, and how far we’ve come in a short period of time.”

The Tommies finished with 11 wins on the season, significantly more from their first year in D-I. They also defeated every team in the CCHA at least once and finished seventh in the standings. It wasn’t just wins where UST improved though as Blasi said that his team got better in every facet of the game.

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“I think we managed the puck better as the year went along,” he said. “I thought our team defense got better as the year went along. I thought our special teams got better as the year went along. I thought our faceoffs got better as the year went along. So, I think in every aspect of our game, we made some improvements. In some areas big improvements and in some areas, smaller improvements, but enough to where we were able to compete at a high level against every team in our league and with the exception of the playoff series, take points every weekend since the middle of November.”

Blasi said that his seniors played a huge role in the Tommies taking a step forward this season and that they helped establish a foundation for the future.


St. Thomas players celebrate with goal scorer Mack Byers during a game against Bemidji State on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023 in Mendota Heights, Minn.
Shannon Stieg / Special to The Rink Live

"As I told the guys after the game, it’s up to us now to build on that in every aspect of our program,” he said. “We want to make sure that we make those guys proud because they put a lot of sacrifice and a lot of tough nights and a lot of tough days into our program over the last couple of years and certainly not easy to start a program at the Division I level from the Division III level in our sport. I think we could’ve done it a little bit differently where you’re playing some teams that might be closer to your caliber, but we didn’t do that. That wasn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted to pay the best right off the bat. Playing St. Cloud, playing Penn State, even our exhibition games were against Duluth and Minnesota. So, it’s not like we’re taking it easy trying to transition. We want to be the best and in order to be the best, you have to know how to get there and you have to play those teams. So, I think as we continue to move our program forward, we’re gonna continue to see that."

The future appears to be pretty bright for UST as it’s opening the new Lee and Penny Anderson Arena on campus in three years and Blasi said that interest in the program is increasing on campus.

2023_0111 - Hockey_Final_V3.jpg
The University of St. Thomas expects to break ground on the new 4,000-seat Lee and Penny Anderson Arena, to be built on the school's St. Paul campus, with plans to have it open for Tommies sports by the fall of 2025.
Contributed / University of St. Thomas

“Just like our team, we’re growing every week,” he said. “You have to go through some growing pains in that as well. We’re not on campus. So, it takes a great deal of effort from our marketing department and our student body to get to the arena and to make it as good as we can. Our pep band was there most nights. That was something we’d started from scratch on campus. We’d never had that before. We had buses carting our students back and forth. That was never done before. So, I think everybody who is associated with our athletic department really went out of their way to try to take another step in our program in terms of that. But that’s also a big important piece to what we’re building and I think it’s exciting for us to see how interested everybody is on campus and making the effort to come to the (St. Thomas) Academy because once we’re on campus, they just have to walk down the street. So that’s also an exciting piece and still a lot of room for improvement in that regard.”

The largest gift ever given to a Minnesota university means the new 4,000-seat Lee and Penny Anderson Arena will likely open on the St. Thomas campus in time for the 2025-26 college hockey season.

Year 3 will be different for the Tommies and not just in terms of the schedule and roster updates. CCHA newcomer Augustana officially begins play this fall, which means UST will no longer be the new guy in the league. It’ll be a different role, but Blasi said that his team knows it earned respect during the previous two years and said that he thinks the Vikings will get the same.

“I don’t think that anyone took us lightly,” he said. “I don’t think any coaching staff or any team played us in the last two years saying ‘Well, it’s St. Thomas. We don’t have to show up tonight. We’ll just win just because.’ I always felt, especially this year, I always felt like when teams are coming to play us, they knew they were gonna be in a battle. One, it’s a respect from us to them that we’re gonna be ready to go and play at a high level and try to play the best we can. But I also think it’s a respect to our program from the other institutions that know we’re gonna do that. I know Augustana is gonna do the same thing and we’re gonna feel the same way about them. Hockey is a small Division I community. The parity is what it is. You can see it around the country. You have to be ready to play every night. There’s so many good hockey players and so few teams. You need to be ready to go and you need to have that respect factor.”

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From the start of his tenure, Blasi has talked about “the process” and how there’s a specific way the Tommies want to go about building a D-I program. Now that the first two years are in the books, he said that his team is still on the right path.

“I think our plan as a staff is very close to where we thought we would be after Year 2,” he said. “I’m really proud of the culture that we’re building in terms of faith in brother. I think we need to continue to build on that and that encompasses a lot of things both on and off the ice. I feel really good about where we’re at and that goal of being the best version of yourself every day, that’s part of the process. The program that we’re building is based on that daily improvement on and off the ice and the responsibility that you have in our culture, in our program on and off the ice. Classroom, community, relationships, performance on and off the ice. All of those things encompass faith in brother and that’s what we’re in the middle of living and I think we have a pretty good road map and we’ve just got to continue to hold each other accountable.”

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