The Huskies took 4 of 6 points from Lake Superior State this weekend—but it was still a disheartening result for Tech, as they let a sweep get away from them with a 3-2 overtime loss on Friday. In a game where Them Dogs gave up two one-goal leads and then yielded a goal in overtime on a defensive breakdown—and a game in which Tech outshot LSSU 44-21—it was again apparent that this year’s edition of the Huskies is a lot like last year’s team.
They just can’t seem to score even when they get a ton of shots and chances.
When they closed off the Lakers on Saturday in a 2-0 win, they again dominated the play with a 30-21 shot advantage. Moreover, the frustration for Huskies’ coach Joe Shawhan was painfully evident in both his Friday and Saturday post-game interviews. And that’s what this week’s Old Dog column is about.
First, A Bit About THG
This season, The Old Dog is trying to expand our readership at Tech Hockey Guide. We’ve got an incredible core of followers, including our fanatical Discord Dogs (anyone can join, just look for the link on our homepage), and the ever-growing legion of both current members of Mitch’s Misfits as well as Misfit alumni—plus quite a few other folks who have an attachment to Them Dogs. All of these people love to read our articles as well as listen to our Chasing MacNaughton podcasts, looking for anything and everything they can find about Michigan Tech’s storied hockey program.
However, content that the Old Dog has been posting this season has also been crafted to appeal to alumni that have lost track of the Huskies, and to even try and reach sports fans who we hope will find Michigan Tech’s history, traditions, and underdog (yes, dog) reputation in the world of big-time college athletics appealing.
Not all of our most-welcome newcomers may understand what THG is about. First, we are NOT affiliated with Michigan Technological University. We work with the staff at the athletic department, and we maintain good relationships there, just as sports journalists everywhere do with “their” teams.
Second, we are volunteers. No one makes any money from our websites; income we receive from our sponsors (here’s a plug for our sole sponsor Fiebke Dental in Rhinelander) and monthly Patreon payments our podcast fans loyally cough up each month all go to improving our podcast equipment and to promoting our website.
While all of our staff love the Huskies and college hockey in general, everyone should know that we do try and maintain a reasonable perspective on MTU’s hockey team. We are not shills who are always positive no matter what. We do like to celebrate Husky success whenever we can, but we are not aiming to be cheerleaders. We can—and we should be critical of the program whenever we think there’s something newsworthy that falls into that sphere.
Nevertheless, we have not become what many sports sites on the web have morphed into, and that’s a point of view that seeks to be highly judgmental whenever we see something that isn’t positive. For the Old Dog, who is fairly Old School about this, I cringe whenever I see web content anywhere that borders on being sensationally vicious to attract clicks. And so, after that bit of background, let’s get on with this week’s commentary.
Tech’s Offensive Woes
In last year’s crazy COVID year, Tech was, to say the least, offensively challenged. They were 17-12-1 and averaged 2.6 goals per game. But that average was padded by blowout wins against the weaker teams in the old WCHA. They had a 0-0 tie and ten losses in which they scored 2 or fewer goals and nine one or two goal losses. This was with a team that had just a few seniors, but still plenty of experienced upperclassmen.
This season started with a bang against Wisconsin, but since then the Huskies have scored just nine times and one was an end-of-game empty netter. So, in their last five games they’ve scored eight goals. For a team that is loaded with experienced and talented players (almost every player who scored last season is back this year), that’s at the very least alarming. And just like last year, Tech is consistently outshooting their opponents. Averaging 1.6 goals per game is not up to the expectations nearly everyone has for this team this year.
Shawhan’s Post-Game Pressers
As is customary for any home game, Joe Shawhan made a brief post-game appearance after Friday’s loss with Dirk Hembroff on the WKMJ broadcast. These interviews often catch Shawhan at the peak of his emotions, and the tone of his comments was, I think, telling. This was a man who was feeling great pain, frustration, and possibly self-anger. He said it was unacceptable to see the same thing over and over again, and that he took responsibility for it.
In the more organized press conference a few minutes later, which you can view here, he was a bit less raw, but in his usual way, he was frank and open. He essentially reiterated his comments to Hembroff, but the edge in his voice was a bit less stressed.
After Saturday’s win, he was careful to give great credit to the players, and to again point out that the lack of scoring was something that was his and his staff’s responsibility. Of course, getting a win against his alma mater soothed the anguish from Friday a bit, but it’s clear he was still smarting from the way this year’s team has performed over the past month. And it certainly seems that his observations are spot on.
Life In Public
For the Old Dog, there were two ways to consider Shawhan’s comments. The first is that he has finally admitted publicly what almost everyone who has carefully watched his teams in the last three seasons has seen. Whatever they are doing in terms of their offensive schemes isn’t working the way it should.
The Huskies tend to make every goaltender they face look great. LSSU’s keepers are both inexperienced and didn’t have particularly great statistics going into this series. But they looked like conference all stars in both games. Shot after shot hit the Laker logo on the goalie’s jersey, and when it didn’t, the shot went wide, high, or occasionally off the goal post or crossbar.
The tactical reasons that the Old Dog thinks this is happening is worth another column, but this isn’t the week for that commentary.
The second way to look, though, is to think about how hard this must be for Joe Shawhan. He loves his job as much as any coach I’ve ever observed. He also adores the Upper Peninsula and has lived his entire life there. And, after playing and coaching stints at the Soo and Marquette, he’s embraced Tech’s Houghton community in a way that few—perhaps none—of MTU’s coaches have since John MacInnes led the Huskies fifty years ago. His heart and soul are inseparable from his career, and he and his assistants spend almost every waking moment during the season working on something related to their team.
Unlike most of us, an NCAA coach in a high visibility position lives his or her life in public. We see this repeatedly in the sports news, and the proliferation of social media and the web over the past 20 years has made the resulting spotlight these people live in white hot.
Try to imagine what Shawhan was feeling Friday. Everyone knows him in the community, and he’s hearing all of the questions and complaints about the scoring drought, and he’s likely also hearing all of the suggestions that Husky Nation’s knowledgeable fans are making, too.
How many of us have a job that evokes as much passion as Shawhan’s does? How many of us would like to have to discuss our failures in public? I know when I was coaching youth travel hockey, a close loss would haunt me terribly; I would have trouble sleeping and the result would bother me for days in some cases. To have to deal with that under the scrutiny of modern media could be excruciating.
We shouldn’t forget, either, that Shawhan had an episode last year when his health was shaky, and that incident was apparently stress-related.
Now, some will argue that this is just part of the gig. You get paid the big bucks, you get the fame and even adulation when things go well, and you become one of the most visible members of your local community—or even more depending on the level of success and public interest in your sport. When it doesn’t go well, you get the other side of that coin.
No matter, the season continues and a major sport DI head coach still has to stand up and face the media and it’s inevitable that emotion plays a role in that duty. We saw a glimpse of that this past weekend.
And it doesn’t let up. Tech’s home and home series with their uber-bitter rival Northern Michigan is next on the agenda. The pressure and the media attention will only increase in the next few days.