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Tough Times at the 'Zoo

So columnist Rick Shanley wrote a column for the Kalamazoo Gazette on the state of Western Michigan's hockey program. You can find the article here. Or at least you could find it there between the times of 2:53am and about 8:30am Wednesday morning, at which time the article was pulled off the website. Apparently it never made it into the paper either.

Why was it pulled? I'm guessing the headline "Western Michigan hockey cycling between mediocre and awful" didn't help. You can read the full article here.

Culhane's contract was set to expire this summer, but in November, he received a three year contract extension. There was quite a bit of displeasure in Kalamazoo after this season, however, when Western finished the season in last place in the CCHA, and had a major conference-worst 4 league wins. But on Tuesday, athletic director Kathy Beauregard announced that Culhane would not be let go, reportedly because the school wasn't willing to pay the buyout on Culhane's contract.

Fan frustration seemed to increase when WMU's women's basketball coach, Ron Stewart, was let go after the season, despite finishing the year with a 13-19 overall record and 9-7 conference mark. It left many fans scratching their heads wondering why their hockey program wasn't held to the same standard.

So are the criticisms valid? One of Shanley's biggest criticisms was:

"The Broncos haven't won a championship of any sort since Ronald Reagan was in office."
The teams besides Michigan and Michigan State that can say they've won a championship since Reagan was in office are: Lake Superior(nothing since 95-96), Ferris State(one regular season title), Miami(one regular season title), Northern Michigan(one WCHA title and NCAA title in the same year), Notre Dame(one playoff title), and Ohio State(one playoff title). Other than Lake Superior's dominance in the early '90's, nobody outside the big two have really racked up the hardware, other than the occasional crazy good year. I'd say this one is somewhat valid. They're not seriously behind the rest of the league, but haven't really been close to anything. Culhane's best year still saw the Broncos on the road in the playoffs(in a series where they scored 15 goals over 3 games and still didn't win the series.)

The next criticism is:
Not when Bowling Green, Ferris State and Northern Michigan -- schools that don't have it any better -- are waving as they whizz by.
Over the last four years, here is the average league finish for each of those teams: Western Michigan 9.75, Bowling Green 9, Ferris State 8, Northern Michigan 5.75. Valid criticism? Again, yes the evidence isn't good, but I doubt you could say they're "whizzing by".

And it's obvious that Shanley thinks WMU should be doing better at hockey. He says WMU has many advantages:
"For a program that should have so many built-in reasons for success -- smack-dab in the middle of a recruiting hotbed, nice university with a great campus in a hockey town that's close to Canada -- there are too many incorporated excuses for mediocrity."
Is that true? We'll look at these one-by-one.

Recruiting hot-bed: Eh. I wouldn't say western Michigan is crawling with lots of Division 1 hockey talent. The best players from that area are usually going to grow up as Michigan State fans anyway. Certainly metro-Detroit has a lot of talent, but I'd think Western is on equal footing with just about everyone else there.

Nice university with great campus: It is a nice campus, but how many hockey players are going to choose a school with a really nice theatre, but below-average hockey arena? I think the facility plays a huge role here.

Close to Canada: This is the big one. Yes, it's only about a two-hour drive to Windsor, but so what? Up until very recently, Western Michigan recruited pretty heavily out of Canada, and were drawing some of the better players out of Ontario, but there just weren't enough good players in Ontario with college eligibility left. The talent pool in Ontario really dried up thanks to OHL expansion and the smaller CCHA schools really suffered. In recent years, they've adapted and started recruiting out of the USHL more, something that I think will pay nice dividends.

In relation to the USHL recruits, WMU has also seen a nice upswing in recruiting, thanks in large part to some nice work by their assistant coaches, but have also been bizarrely hit by a wave of unexpected departures you don't normally see at a school like Western. Aside from losing Mark Letestu after just one year, they also lost two highly-regarded recruits in Tyler Murovich and Josh Bemis to the OHL. You've got to think that getting good players like that is a positive sign, and eventually those kids will start making it to school.

So overall, is Shanley's criticism valid? He's probably correct in pointing out that Western Michigan hasn't had very much success, and is probably slightly behind some of the other schools in the conference. But ultimately, I think the issues run much deeper in Kalamazoo. A school like Western Michigan could be successful at hockey, but they can't do it casually. It takes a serious commitment to the sport from the school to be successful, and I don't really think that commitment has been there. Western's athletic department has always seemed more interested in trying to build up their football and basketball programs, while hockey has taken a bit of a backseat. Compare that to Miami, who seems to have picked hockey as one area where they can make a real splash nationally, and really committed to winning by building a beautiful new facility, and doing everything they can to promote their program.

Firing the coach may help things somewhat, but if the next coach doesn't have the right resources at his disposal, it's probably unlikely that he'd do that much better.