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With two new goalies and a host of transfers, St. Thomas looks to take a step in second D-I season

As it jumped into the fire of top-level college hockey a year ago, wins and matching uniforms at practice were both rarities for St. Thomas. The 2022-23 team looks to take strides in both areas beginning with their season opener on Oct. 1.

Men’s Hockey at Xcel Energy Center
St. Thomas forward Luke Manning, who led the Tommies in goals in the 2021-22 season, will serve as a co-captain during their second season in the CCHA.
Nick Wosika / University of St. Thomas

MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. — For their September practices, the St. Thomas Tommies men looked considerably less colorful in 2022 than they did a year ago. At their first Division I practice in 2021, the team featured a notable mix of different colors of helmets, gloves and hockey pants, reflective of their varied roads to the first St. Thomas team in the CCHA. As year two of the D-I era approaches quickly, it’s pretty solidly purple and black out on the ice.

Perhaps the most notable color change is a few swaths of gray and silver mixed in with head coach Rico Blasi’s normally jet black hair. Asked if that might have come from turning 50 or from the challenges on and off the ice while they posted a 3-22-1 mark last season, Blasi had a quick, deadpan answer.

“I was in the sun a lot this summer,” he said, then offered a sly grin.

If the Blasi family spent time enjoying Minnesota’s warm months, it was well earned after spending two years apart while Rico went from a job at Providence to the head coaching gig in St. Paul. After too much apartment life, Rico and Susan now have a house in the Twin Cities suburbs, good jobs, and even sent a daughter off to college.

“It’s like night and day,” Blasi said, describing both life at home and at the rink. But inside St. Thomas Ice Arena, the differences are noteworthy. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do and a long way to go, but having a summer under our belts, having a strength coach work with our guys over the summer, and being able to build off the identity we started to establish last year … it’s been good.”

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Men's Hockey - Hockey Day in Minnesota
St. Thomas forward Matthew Jennings headed to the rink before the Tommies faced Minnesota State Mankato at Blakeslee Stadium during Hockey Day in Minnesota in Mankato on January 22, 2022.
Nick Wosika / University of St. Thomas

Their on-ice appearance is far from the only difference a year has made as the Tommies prepare for their Oct. 1 season opener at home versus St. Cloud State. The lifting of COVID restrictions meant a more normal off-season and more chances for the team’s 11 returnees, five transfers and 12 incoming freshmen to gather.

“We were able to come in and work out together. We were able to meet everyone over the summer and build those relationships, so when we got here for school starting we could skip all that stuff and get going,” said graduate forward Matt Jennings, who led the Tommies with a dozen assists last season and will be a co-captain again this winter.

The two freshmen that the Tommies fan base is perhaps most eager to get to know are rookie goalies Ethan Roberts and Aaron Trotter. St. Thomas allowed a CCHA-high 172 goals last season, so a healthy competition between two guys determined to keep the puck out of their net more often can only help their odds of success.

“They’re young but that doesn’t show on the ice,” said graduate forward Luke Manning, who led the Tommies with eight goals in 2021-22 and is a co-captain. “They’re both pretty skilled, they play the puck and they play the second rebound, and that’s going to be big for us.”

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From his introductory press conference in the spring of 2021 through all of the on-ice lumps last season, Blasi has repeated the mantra of culture and sticking to the process. His returning players say that did not waver, even as the losses piled up last winter. Jennings said that even going “through the ringer” during their first CCHA season, there was a concerted effort to stay true to what they were trying to build, and not take shortcuts. That wasn’t always easy, especially with several long road trips to hostile buildings where they had never played.

“There are no more unknowns,” Jennings said. “In the first year in this conference you’d get off the bus and try to figure out where to go to the locker room. Now we know the hotels, we know the rinks and we know kind of what we’re up against when we play (Minnesota State) Mankato or Northern (MIchigan) or Michigan Tech. So we can focus on ourselves in that room and make the best out of what we are.”

On the St. Thomas campus, the student body is getting more used to the idea of having a college hockey team competing at the game’s top level. While nobody is talking about competing for the CCHA title, there is a clear expectation that the Tommies will take a step forward this time around.

"I don’t think that people are expecting a whole lot from us, which is fun because we know what we have and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Manning said.

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Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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