Garrett Raboin, Augustana begin the journey into NCAA Division I men's hockey
New head coach's first task is to hire an assistant coach, start recruiting players. University has already begun work on finding a conference for the Vikings to join.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Garrett Raboin was certainly impressed with the transportation Augustana University used to get his family to the official announcement on Tuesday, April 19, that he had been named its first men's hockey head coach.
"Any day you start out by getting picked up in a private jet, it's a good day," Raboin said with a smile. "I'm trying to tell my kids that it doesn't always go down like this.
"My family and I are just thrilled to come down here. It's the first time my kids have been able to meet some of these great people. It's a start for us."
There were cheerleaders, a Viking mascot decked out in a hockey uniform and an enthusiastic group of faculty members and people from the area to help Raboin feel welcome to the community. Now comes all the tough parts.
First on the list of things to do for the 37-year-old Raboin will be to hire an assistant coach. The Vikings begin play in the fall of 2023 and he and his assistant coach need to start recruiting.
"I want to get one guy in place as quick as I can," Raboin said. "We'll put a real good plan together in terms of recruiting, what we want our group to look like and then we'll build it out from there.
"I think he needs to have a great rapport in the hockey community, be well connected and he's got to share a vision of where this thing can go and how we're gonna do it," Raboin said of his first hire. "It's gotta be somebody that attracts and gravitates toward the type of person and human being that we're looking to recruit to here."
OK, well, beyond talented, what type of players are they looking to recruit?
"They need to be on board for building, accept that challenge," Raboin said. "They've got to be willing to come together to build something far greater than themselves. We have to recruit a resilient type of player that accepts and leans into the challenges and is just excited that, one day, if he puts in the work, that he'll look back at this thing with a heck of a lot of pride."
To put it plainly, the players are going to need that resilience because a lot of wins the first few seasons is asking a lot, judging by what the two newest members of Division I men's college hockey have gone through.
The University of St. Thomas had an established successful Division III program before moving up to Division I last season. The Tommies joined the CCHA and finished 3-22-1 in the conference and 3-32-1 overall under head coach Rico Blasi.
Long Island University went 10-21-3 last season, but five of those wins came against teams in the Northeast-10 Conference, which has Division II members. In its first season as a Division I team (2020-21), the Sharks went 3-10.
Josh Morton, Augustana's director of athletics, worked at the University of North Dakota and Michigan State before he got to his current job. He sounds like he has a realistic outlook as what success might look like the first few seasons.
"It's the stuff that you see day to day that maybe the fan doesn't on Friday or Saturday, but I see it on a Tuesday or a Tuesday in June," Morton said. "Those kind of things lay the foundation for success. Starting out is not going to be easy. There's going to be ups and downs. That's where it's important for us to make sure Garrett has the support that he needs. This isn't about one year or two years. This is about truly setting the foundation."
Conference membership, home ice
Will those first few years be as an independent or as a member of a conference? That's a big question because being an independent is difficult from a scheduling standpoint and it also is a harder sell to potential recruits.
Raboin, Morton and Augustana president Stephanie Herseth Sandlin all sound confident that the Vikings will find a conference home.
"Our geographic location is an advantage, not just a geographic fit for one of the conferences, but so many of the coaches know Sioux Falls because they recruit (here)," Herseth Sandlin said. "We fully recognize that it's in the best interest of our program, our coaching staff and our student-athletes to have a conference home, we also recognize that it's not unusual for a new program to spend it's first year or two — hopefully it's not more than that — as an independent if a conference invite doesn't come in a timely way. But we have some time and now that we have a head coach hired, those conversations can continue in earnest."
Morton said that conversations with potential conference affiliates have been taking place.
"Nobody wants to take a school just to take a school," he said of conference affiliation. "We feel like our academic excellence helps us, and we're supporting our school and doing it right. Those conversations remain confidential, but we feel good with where we're at because of the conversations that we've had. We also know that start-ups are typically independent for a year or two."
Our geographic location is an advantage, not just a geographic fit for one of the conferences, but so many of the coaches know Sioux Falls because they recruit (here.)
Raboin played and coached in the WCHA and has coached in the NCHC and in the Big Ten. He balked at the use of the word "challenge" when describing trying to find a conference home.
"I don't know if 'challenge' is the word because I think there's an awful lot of people that want us in," Raboin said. "I haven't been a part of those discussions. Josh and president Stephanie have been handling most of that until now. We're just in the early stages of all that, so stay tuned."
One fight Augustana has already won has been getting funding for a new arena. Ground has been broken for Midco Arena, which will seat 3,000 and be located on campus with a price tag of $50 million.
"It would have made the climb a lot steeper if our lead donor, T Denny Sanford, hadn't made that transformational gift," Herseth Sandlin said. "I think that lead gift that was dedicated to that project really spurred other people in our alumni base and in the community to invest, to recognize the difference it makes for Augustana in elevating our profile, investing in our students ... but also the community of Sioux Falls and it's first Division I program."
And now that he's on board, Raboin will also see to the details that go into the new arena.
"I think college hockey has been waiting for something like this in the Midwest — another program," he said. "Sioux Falls is just the community that's ready for it. Augustana University, with its outstanding academic tradition, has a history of excellence in athletics and there's so much support and a real desire to add college hockey to Sioux Falls and South Dakota. It was a no-brainer.
"To be part of hiring a staff, recruiting your culture and building a rink — these opportunities don't come around very often."