Erika Hadley

During the last four years, the Miami University men’s ice hockey team has garnered more wins than any other college hockey program, gaining the respect of the nation and cementing its reputation as a powerhouse program. Now the RedHawks enter the 2009-10 season with a tangible symbol of that national respect – a No. 1 ranking in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Men’s College Hockey Poll.

Blasi’s boys, who closed out last season with a ledger of 23-13-5, were also picked to be third in the CCHA’s preseason.

Six months ago, the brotherhood skated to the brink of bringing home a national title in Washington, D.C. and fell one minute short of capturing the championship. It was a devastating, heart wrenching moment for the team and the RedHawk faithful. Winning would have been the perfect conclusion to an incredibleCinderella season, but in the end it was not to be.

Following the loss, an emotional Head Coach Enrico Blasi paid tribute to his team and looked to the future for hope and reassurance.

“Right now I just want to make sure that we focus and pay tribute to this team, because nobody gave them a chance,” Blasi said. “And I’m proud of them and they did a great job … And it doesn’t feel good right now. But the sun will come up tomorrow and the guys will realize what they accomplished.”

Now that the sun has risen on a new season, Rico’s RedHawks are putting that bittersweet experience behind them and looking ahead to grow and achieve new levels of success in 2009-10.

“You have to put it behind you,” Blasi said. “It was a great experience for our guys and hopefully if we get in that position again we’ll hopefully hold onto those experiences and hopefully make it a little bit different. But you have to focus on this team and this leadership group and the team dynamics that we have now … Part of our program, part of the growth of the program, is to put it behind us and focus on what we’re doing this year.”

The 2009-10 squad is substantially more experienced and balanced than last year’s group, with 11 upperclassmen and 15 underclassmen. Though the team will miss the talents of Brian Kaufman, Justin Mercier, Kevin Roeder and the rest of the graduated seniors, 17 players from the 2009 national runner-up team are returning to the ice, joined by a crop of fresh young talent.

“It’s always a work in progress early on, but we do have some veteran guys now,” Blasi said. “We have some key guys that are juniors and seniors and sophomores – guys that gained a lot of experience from what we were able to accomplish last year … It’s just a matter of getting better every day and making sure that we’re focused and that we’re not getting too ahead of ourselves.”

Junior Tommy Wingels will be stepping into a key leadership role as team captain this year.

“It’s an honor to be named the captain, to know that all my teammates think I should be the one, and I’m the one that was chosen … to follow in the footsteps of Kaufman, Jones and Andy Greene before that, so it’s obviously a humbling honor,” Wingels said.

Beyond that, no assistant captains have been named. This decision is a tribute to the depth and integrity of the RedHawk squad.

“We have so many guys, we don’t want to slight anybody at this point, so Tommy (Wingels) will wear the ‘C’ and represent everybody, and really everybody else is the assistant captain,” Blasi said. “Really, that’s the way we feel about our team. Everybody’s a leader right now and so everybody has a certain job. They all are different leaders in their own respect, and so everybody will have a role and a responsibility as co-captains … It’s where we want our team to be, when you can get 26 guys all taking some kind of leadership role.”

Renowned for its depth, the Red and White are stacked from front to back, with each line possessing dangerous scoring potential.

“I think all around team-wise, every position we have guys that are going to stick out,” senior Gary Steffes said. “We’ve got amazing skill up front, we’ve got amazing defense …We have the depth, we have the team that we want – it’s just a matter of whether we come out and we play like it.”

Hobey Baker candidate Carter Camper returns to lead the forwards this season. Recently, Camper was unanimously selected to be part of the CCHA’s Preseason All-Conference Team and last year he led the team in scoring with 20 goals and 42 points.

Joining the junior from Rocky River, Ohio, on offense are five of the Red and White’s other returning top scorers. Juniors Pat Cannone, Andy Miele and Wingels and seniors Jarod Palmer and Steffes add depth to the brotherhood’s fearsome front line. New recruits include Steve Mason and Devin Mantha, along with Dallas Stars draft picks Reilly Smith and Curtis McKenzie.

“Frankly, Curtis McKenzie and Reilly Smith and Steve Mason and Devin Mantha are all guys that we brought in for a reason – to fill a need,” Blasi said. “They all are pieces to the puzzle, and hopefully when they become older they’ll be the leaders to this team as juniors and seniors. They’re very skilled.”

Defensively, the RedHawks stack up as a force to be reckoned with. Rising sophomore Chris Wideman – a fourth round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators who boasted 26 assists and a team best plus-11 last year – will be looked to as an enforcer this season. Sophomores Will Weber, Matt Tomassoni and Cameron Schilling and junior Vincent LoVerde add strength and size.

This faction of the team in particular has come a long way since last season when four rookies comprised more than half of the D-corps. Newcomers this year include Joe Hartman, Garrett Kennedy and Steven Spinell.

“They’re all very capable of playing in our line-up every night and it’s going to be a battle back there with lots of competition, as it is up front,” Blasi said.

Finally, the RedHawks’ stellar sophomore goaltending tandem of Cody Reichard and Connor Knapp returns to the net for a second season. Reichard backstopped the brotherhood all the way to the Frozen finals and finished out 2008-09 with a save percentage (SP) of .914. Knapp, a draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres, stayed strong between the pipes throughout last season, concluding with a .904 SP.

“(One of the biggest things to look for will be) our goalies,” Steffes said. “They’re incredible, just like they were last year. I’ve got a lot of faith in them. They’re going to carry us this year, I’m excited to see how they do … we’re excited to have them.”

With a team that boasts 26 leaders and boundless talent, anything is possible. Behind it all, the deep commitment that each member feels for the culture known as the brotherhood is a driving force that aids the team in its simple goal of getting better everyday.

Reflecting on his personal goals for the season, Steffes summed up what it means to be an individually contributing member of Miami’s hockey culture.

“I want to be the best teammate I can be,” Steffes said. “I want to be a guy that people feel they can count on, a guy that people feel that they can come to. I want to be a guy that’s making a difference every night, and hopefully inspiring other guys to do the same. That’s what I want to do.”

The Red and White will return to the ice for the first puck drop of 2009-10 in an exhibition game versus Windsor. The game will start at 8:05 p.m. Saturday in Steve Cady Arena.