Hockey aims to grow under Rucinski

By Roland Hacker

There are new faces behind the bench for the DII ice hockey team with Head Coach Mike Rucinski taking the reigns in an attempt to strengthen the program.

“With the connections and name [Ruscinski] has made for himself over his many years of coaching, he has already got his foot in the door with great travel and junior hockey programs,” General Manager Ian Kalanges said. “When hockey players are looking to continue their careers in college, previous coaching relationships Rucinski has are directing players our way to show that NIU is a solid option for their college career. I think in the next year or two, our program will reach new heights.”

Rucinski was a professional ice hockey player before he began coaching. He played in four different leagues from 1986 to 1990, including the National Hockey League as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks.

“A coach with Rucinski’s credentials is huge,” Kalanges said. “Not only was he a great hockey player in his playing days, but he has been an amazing teacher of the game ever since he played. He sets the team up with success with the knowledge of hockey he has.”

Rucinski started coaching at the youth hockey level after his playing career. He has 28 years of coaching experience under his belt.

“I stayed at [the youth hockey] level because my kids were playing, so it was a lot easier on the family,” Rucinski said. “Now that they’re older, I have more time to coach a team like Northern.”

As a coach, Rucinski said he preaches professionalism and hard work. Kalanges said the results are already evident in the program.

“He expects the players to work hard and be disciplined at all times [and] that has translated to success on the ice early this season,” Kalanges said.

Rucinski has made it a mission to get everyone involved to take hockey more seriously. He said he thinks involvement will lead the team to both long and short-term success.

“[I wanted to implement] a different atmosphere, something more serious,” Rucinski said. “I want my players to be serious about it. It makes a big difference when you have everybody on board and on the same page. So, there’s a more professional approach. The kids know I’m not there to be their friend, I’m there to be their hockey coach. If a player asks, ‘How is that program at NIU,’ I want us to be able to say that it’s professionally run and serious. I think that will play a major role in the type of recruiting we’re able to do.”

Kalanges said he was thrilled when the possibility of adding Rucinski as head coach became reality. Previously, the team was coached by someone still in their 20’s with only ACHA hockey playing experience.

“Rucinski does a great job teaching all the players and [teaching them] to learn from their mistakes,” Kalanges said. “We have had positive film sessions to make adjustments and learn from our mistakes to grow as a team.”

Team Captain senior forward Eric Svejda agreed, saying the players are getting more from practice under Rucinski.

“Our practices have definitely changed,” Svejda said. “We’ve gotten much more productive practices [under Rucinski]. Practices used to be lackadaisical over the last two years. Now, they’re more structured; we get a lot more done. He gets everyone on the same page; there’s no messing around.”

Svejda said the players are able to take the coach more seriously because of his background as a professional player.

“Everyone feeds off [Rucinski] and takes him more seriously because he knows what it takes to get to the next level,” Svejda said. “We know his methods work [because] what he did got him all the way to the NHL, so the basics he’s teaching this year are what’s going to take this program to the next level.”

When Rucinski came aboard, he brought his previous assistant coaches Andy Wallace and Jim Bristol with him. The trio has coached together for 12 years.

“We have the same philosophies, and that’s why we’ve lasted so long together,” Rucinski said. “That was something I wanted when I came aboard was to be able to bring my assistants. We know how to do it as a team.”

The hockey team is 5-9 on the season, but some of the opponents faced are DI teams and the Huskies are still holding their own. The season is still young for the future DI team, but Rucinski is already encouraged with what he’s seen from his team so far.

“We play good, fast and clean hockey,” Rucinski said. “We’re the least-penalized team in the league. It’s a great group of guys, and I think we have this [program] moving in the right direction now.”