Risky business pays off

ncaa frozen four • uw vs. rit • thursday
2010-04-05T02:45:00Z Risky business pays offAndy Baggot | 608-252-6175 | abaggot@madison.com madison.com

Mike Eaves was gambling. He knew it then. He knows it even more so now.

What the University of Wisconsin men's hockey coach couldn't know that October weekend is how much his small world would change because of two risky decisions.

Two young talents blossomed.

A good team became one to reckon with.

A season that began with the perception of promise just might end with tangible proof of greatness.

For the second time in his eight seasons as coach at his alma mater, Eaves has maneuvered UW within two wins of a national championship.

The second-ranked Badgers play Rochester Institute of Technology in an NCAA Frozen Four semifinal game Thursday at Ford Field in Detroit. The winner faces top-rated Miami (Ohio) or Boston College in the title game Saturday.

For just the second time in program history, dating back to 1921, UW will go through a season without having lost back-to-back games. That remarkable consistency didn't result in a Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular-season or playoff crown, but it could set the stage for the seventh national title since the school joined the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in 1969.

Eaves ran the show in 2006 when the Badgers won their sixth national title. That one was special to him because it climaxed a difficult rebuilding job, the Frozen Four was held in Milwaukee and the 2-1 victory over Boston College gave the school its first national title since 1990.

This Frozen Four is promising and not just because Eaves won an NCAA title in Detroit as a Badgers center and tri-captain in 1977. He spent some of his youth in nearby Windsor, Ontario - his father, Cecil, still lives there; his brother, Murray, played three NHL seasons for the Red Wings; and his youngest son, Patrick, currently skates for the Original Six franchise.

But it's reasonable to assume UW wouldn't have reached the Frozen Four again had Eaves not rolled the dice nearly six months ago.

Going into a season-opening WCHA series with Colorado College at the Kohl Center, Eaves made two critical personnel decisions that could have derailed a season before it began.

He decided senior right winger Michael Davies didn't deserve to be in the lineup even though Davies is immensely skilled and was the top returning career goal-scorer for the Badgers.

"Everyone had seen glimpses Michael Davies' ability with the puck," Eaves said. "But Michael was at the point in his career here with us where he was at the abyss.

"It started in the summer of last year in terms of his weight and his work ethic and what he was he really going to commit to. Michael and I had talks and unless he met certain parameters, he wasn't going to play."

En route to a 3-2 loss to CC in the series opener, Eaves watched junior defenseman Brendan Smith make two aggressive, costly mistakes that led directly to goals that erased a 2-0 lead.

"Brendan is such a high-spirited, emotional young man and sometimes those emotions were getting the best of him and hurting him and had the potential to hurt this team," Eaves said.

As such, Eaves and assistants Mark Osiecki and Kevin Patrick thought it best to sit Smith for the second game of the series, a decision that triggered an angry, tearful reaction from Smith.

"There was a risk factor," Eaves acknowledged.

Davies could have tumbled into the abyss and become a cancer in the dressing room. Instead he did a 180-degree turn and not only tops the Badgers in overall scoring, he's respected by teammates for his grit and energy.

Smith, a first-round NHL draft pick of Detroit, could have pulled up stakes, either signing with the Red Wings or opting for a Major Junior club in Canada. Instead he listened to the counsel of his parents, Lester and Deidre, and became the Defensive Player of the Year in the WCHA while being the top-scoring defenseman in the nation.

"You look at it now and say, ‘Geez, how could they both be scratched like that?' " UW sophomore center Derek Stepan said.

During the course of the season, Davies and Smith have referenced that first weekend as keys to their performances. Each speculated that they wouldn't have attained such heights for the Badgers had they not been forced to confront their issues from the sidelines.

UW senior right winger Ben Grotting acknowledged the risks involved with such a move and commended Davies and Smith for responding as they did.

"Guys take it for what it is," he said of being benched and criticized. "They could write it off as nothing or they could take it as a little wake-up call and get themselves going. Obviously they took it that way."

It was mentioned to Eaves that his gambles couldn't have worked out any better.

"Not only for me as a coach and us as a team, but these are lessons that'll serve these young men well for their whole lives," he said.

The decision explains why Eaves followed his father's footsteps into teaching and coaching.

"We have that ability to influence young people's lives," he said. "We're in there with the blood and the guts and the heartache and tears and the joys. Being in the mix of that - as hard as it is sometimes - there's nothing more rewarding."

That sequence also helps explain why Eaves, 53, keeps putting distance between him and the idea of coaching in the NHL. A former NHL player and assistant coach, he came to Madison with a reputation as a vagabond of sorts - nine coaching jobs between 1987 and 2002 - but has allowed his roots here to grow deeper thanks to a five-year contract and an annual compensation package in excess of $250,000.

"I won't tell you that it's completely out of the realm," he said, "but I certainly don't yearn for it. I think the reason is I'm not fooled by what it is. I know what it is by being in (the league) both as a player and assistant coach.

"If anything, (the feeling has) dissipated. I don't have any grand illusions about what it is. And I quite like doing what I'm doing."

Eaves had to deal with another personnel issue deeper into the season. Sophomore center Matt Thurber was arrested Feb. 8 and charged with misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct, circumstances that led to him being suspended as part of the UW student-athlete discipline policy. Dane County Circuit Court records show he pleaded guilty to both charges March 23.

According to the criminal complaint, Thurber choked a woman described as his former girlfriend and, at one point, threw her over his shoulder and threatened to throw her off his apartment balcony on the sixth floor.

Eaves subsequently dismissed Thurber from the team Feb. 12, telling him he could remain on scholarship until the end of the season.

Stepan said UW players had a meeting in wake of the dismissal to deal with the ramifications.

"It's tough," he said. "Losing one of your teammates, it's like one of your family members."

Eaves declined to discuss the situation other than to say "it was a most difficult decision because, once again, it influenced a young person's life and those are not done lightly."

The role of mentor and guardian will take Eaves down an uncharted path later this year. He and his wife, Beth, will become grandparents when 25-year-old son Patrick and his wife, Katie, deliver their first child in August.

"I can hardly wait," Mike Eaves said. "I love to take the little ones for a walk and just get on their level and crawl. When they nap, I'll nap. When they're up, I'll be up with them."

Ben Street was a freshman center for the Badgers when they reigned as NCAA champions in 2005-06. Now, thanks in part to a medical redshirt taken because a knee injury in 2008-09, he's a senior left winger and tri-captain with a unique view of Eaves.

Some things haven't changed in five years: "Trying to fire us up in the middle of practice with the mountains," Street said of Eaves, whose climbing-the-mountain analogies are frequent and a bit worn.

Some things have changed about Eaves between runs to the Frozen Four: "I think he's gotten a bit mellower," Street said. "Part of that comes with having a mature team."

Eaves, one of 10 finalists for National Coach of the Year, leans on his seven seniors, most of whom came to UW as raw projects. The only one who had an NHL pedigree was center and tri-captain Blake Geoffrion, a second-round draft pick of Nashville in 2006 and Hobey Baker Award finalist this season.

Eaves spoke recently about how he'd like to have a few more years to work with the less-heralded seniors, identifying center Aaron Bendickson as an example because of his dramatic growth from nervous rookie to confident leader.

"It's fun to see them blossom," Eaves said. "I know there's even more inside them."

Grotting said his time with Eaves will be remembered for the tutorial about hockey that disguised as a blueprint for handling the real world.

"He knows the game so well and he's able to teach it to us in ways that we can understand and it helps us develop as players," Grotting said. "We can use everything he's taught us in life."

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