Mike Eaves doesn’t just train hockey players. He raises them.
“It’s like watching one of your own kids play,” Eaves said. “You’ve been with them through good times and bad times. So it’s very much like watching your own kids play.”
After coaching at Wisconsin for over a decade, the former Badger and NHL player is not a stranger to saying goodbye. At the conclusion of every season, the senior class departs.
This year, nine seniors left the team. However, so would two underclassmen, junior defenseman Jake McCabe and sophomore forward Nic Kerdiles.
Yet after you’ve been a coach as long as Eaves has, the notion of players choosing to forgo their NCAA eligibility and continue in the pros is hardly anything out of the ordinary.
“It’s my 12th year at the college level,” Eaves said. “We’ve gone through this twice, both in 2006 and 2010. So I don’t think that we’re shocked or in awe.”
With the total number of players leaving now at 11, a rebuilding process is beginning. The team has undergone a shift not unique to hockey. It started out stacked with veteran talent. Now, there’s work to be done. New leaders have to emerge.
This is usually the time that a team would be voting for new captains, but Eaves said that they will wait to vote this year until after the summer training session.
“Guys are asking, ‘What can I do, and what can we do together? Where’s the leadership going to come from next year,’’ Eaves said.
The biggest hole Wisconsin must fill, statistically, is its offense.
With Kerdiles gone, along with forwards Jefferson Dahl, Mark Zengerle, Michael Mersch and Tyler Barnes, getting goals on the board might prove to be a challenge.
“The big question mark is up front,” Eaves said. “Where are we going to find production?”
Once an offense is established, the next riddle comes in finding the right combination of players to keep it effective.
“It’s going to take time to find chemistry up front,” Eaves said. “When we find the right combinations, it may not be until Christmas.”
Wisconsin has no lack of potential goal-scorers up front. Forwards Grant Besse, Joseph LaBate and Morgan Zulinick all have the skill to keep the Badgers a strong team up front.
“[Those guys] will be able to step up, and it’s a matter of capitalizing on the opportunity,” Zengerle said. “Be the go-to guy.”
For Zengerle, his time with Wisconsin is not easily summed up into a few words. But through the highs and lows that tend to accompany a hockey season, there has been one constant for the Rochester, N.Y., native: coach Eaves.
“Personally I’ve learned so much from him,” Zengerle said. “One thing I learned from [Eaves] is taking care of the little things, and the little things add up to the big things. He’s so smart and passionate about hockey.”
The idea that players are more like sons to Eaves is not lost on Zengerle. In fact, according to the Big Ten conference’s assists leader, it’s simply a part of who the coach is.
“He cares so much about us, and wants us to do well and succeed,” Zengerle said. “At times he can … help you out, and he’s very concerned about your well-being and you as a person away from the rink. He’s a very caring guy.”
As he has done in seasons passed, Eaves will welcome new kids into his family at the start of next year. Some will play all four years until their time is up, and some may choose to venture out into professional arenas a little earlier.
But what these incoming players may not realize just yet is that they won’t simply be gaining a coach, but a father figure as well. Because to Mike Eaves, the boys on the ice will always be more than just players.
“It’s fun to watch them,” Eaves said. “They might as well be a surrogate son.”