Hockey looks back on lessons learned after inaugural Division 1 season


Erin Ledyard | Courtesy NIU Hockey

NIU salutes the fans after its 3-2 win over Maryville University on Feb. 29, 2020 at Canlan Ice Sports in West Dundee.

By Matt Boecker

DeKALB — The Huskies reflect on the program’s first season at the American Collegiate Hockey Association’s Division 1 level and talk about expectations for next season.

Before the season started, Head Coach Mike Rucinski realized NIU’s first season at D1 would be about building the program’s foundation. With 18 of the 22 players being new to the team, the second-year coach knew it would take time for the players to mesh.

The team’s 6-26 record was reflective of that, but Rucinski thinks losing is a necessary part of the process.

“I think in order to win, you need to learn how to lose,” Rucinski said. “A lot of these kids are [really] successful from where they came from — successful seasons, successful programs. Now, they were thrust into a situation where it was an unknown.”

Despite the losing season, Rucinski is happy with what he saw on the ice. Before the season opener against Western Michigan University, he made it clear wins and losses weren’t the measuring stick for success. The experience gained was much more valuable for the young Huskies, who had only one upper-classman on the roster. 

“We definitely got our asses handed to us a couple of times and it didn’t look good — it hurt, it was embarrassing,” sophomore defenseman Zach Huggins said. “But at the end of the day, we did learn something from it, and there’s a lot of things that can be learned from these tough losses. We’re going to be much more experienced next year. All these true [first-year players] are going to have that to look back on.”

The team had some rough patches during the season, including seven and nine-game losing streaks. When times got tough, the team knew it was important to keep morale high in the locker room, Huggins said.

“We didn’t win a lot of games this year, so frustrations [were] high, and we just tried to combat that with being as positive as possible and reinforcing that we’ll have another day, we’ll have another fight,” Huggins said.

Huggins noted the team gets along with one another extremely well and it helped to push through the trying times.

Looking forward to next season, the Huskies will only lose senior forward and captain Brad Krauser, who was the fourth highest offensive contributor this season. Rucinski said he’s aiming to bring in about a dozen players to reload the rosters for the D1 and D3 teams.

For the D1 team, Rucinski said they’re looking for recruits willing to take on the challenge of growing with the program. He realizes it’s not easy building the foundation for an up-and-coming team.

“It takes a special kind of a character kid to be willing to come in and grow with the program,” Rucinski said. “It’s a lot easier for a kid to go to a well-established D1 program and be a little more comfortable there. So it takes a different character kid.”

After losing in round one of the inaugural Midwest College Hockey postseason tournament, Huggins expects the team to far surpass that next season. He predicts NIU will be in the conference championship, or at least very close to it.

“We’ve already gone through this experience, which has not been easy, it’s been tough,” Huggins said. “If we can get through this, we can get through anything and we’re going nowhere but up from here. I think we’re going to have a very competitive team next year and we’re going to be miles ahead of where we were [this season].”