There’s something different about Miami hockey heading into its first weekend of play for the 2018-19 season against Alabama-Huntsville. And it’s not just the three new coaches, eight freshman and two graduate transfers.   

“There’s just a lot of energy and a lot of different energy around the locker room than there has been in the past few years,” senior forward Josh Melnick said in a press conference. “I think that’s something that’s really exciting for us.”

Head coach Enrico Blasi bangs his stick on the ice after a good chip out of the zone at practice, and he brags to the players, smiling, after he stick-handles a wild puck between drills.

New associate head coach Peter Mannino, assistant coach Joel Beal and director of hockey operations Dean Stork crack jokes during practice too. The staff challenged Blasi to reevaluate his coaching style in the off-season, and the result is a well-liked coaching staff because of its emphasis on relationships and development.

“Since Day One I would say that, you know, I think our work habits, our energy, our commitment to each other to get to a certain level has been real good,” Blasi said in his weekly press conference. “I’ve been very pleased with the way they go about their business. I don’t know what that means yet. Obviously, we haven’t played any games, but I think in terms of how we’ve structured the fall here and in the preseason, the guys have responded very well.”

The staff’s energy matches that of the players they recruited, especially graduate transfers defenseman River Rymsha (Dartmouth) and goaltender Jordan Uhelski (Alabama-Huntsville).

Six-foot-three Rymsha adds height and depth to a depleted Miami blue line after defensemen Louie Belpedio signed with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild in March, and Scott Dornbrock graduated in May.

Uhelski threatening junior Ryan Larkin, Miami’s long-time starting goaltender, for playing time will force Larkin to elevate his game from last season’s .886 save percentage and 3.12 goals against average. Blasi said Uhelski’s collegiate experience (3.05 GAA, .907 pct) and athleticism will provide relief in net when needed.

Uhelski adds a sense of humor to the competition between him and Larkin. At practice, the two goalies take shots at each other’s net from opposite ends of the rink. Uhelski tips Larkin’s shot, but it hits the post and they both laugh.

Of the eight other additions to the RedHawks, only one is a true freshman. An alumnus of the U.S. National Team Development Program, Jonathan Gruden is a six-foot forward drafted in the fourth round by the Ottawa Senators. Gruden’s recruiting class consists of four other forwards and three defensemen.

The newcomers will turn to seniors and co-captains forward Josh Melnick and defenseman Grant Hutton. Both turned down offers to play professionally in the spring, though interest hasn’t waned.  

“Everyone knows Miami is a special place, and the Brotherhood kind of speaks for itself,” Hutton said. “But we’re focused on the season at hand and, obviously, our first games against Alabama-Huntsville this weekend. I think we have a really good group. It’s super exciting.”

Hutton led the NCAA’s defensemen with 13 goals last season and was ranked fifth on the RedHawks in points (27). He will will attempt to fill the offensive-defenseman void left by Belpedio (9 goals, 21 assists).

Co-captain Melnick ranked just above Hutton in points last season (10g, 19a), and just behind forward Kiefer Sherwood who signed with the Anaheim Ducks in the spring.

Luckily, junior right winger and the RedHawks’ leading goal-scorer and points-getter, Gordie Green (15g, 18a) returns to help fill the void left by Sherwood.

“I think our two senior captains and the senior class did an unbelievable job in the spring and summer of just kind of re-establishing our culture and the way we want to do things on a day-to-day perspective,” Blasi said.

The RedHawks finished eighth (14-20-5, 6-14-4 NCHC) of eight teams in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and were picked to finish last in the NCHC’s preseason poll. Their re-established culture will be put to the test this weekend against the Alabama-Huntsville Chargers.

The Chargers were picked seventh by the media in the the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s preseason poll after finishing 12-23-2 (10-16-2 WCHA). Senior defenseman Kurt Gosselin is UAH’s most productive returner, as he finished third in points last season for the Chargers with 16 (5g, 11a).

“We got to be ready to go right when the puck drops every night,” Melnick said. “And I think this weekend’s a good opportunity for us to do that. It’s super exciting, but just play hard, play fast and play simple and get started off on the right foot.”

Puck-drop is 7:05 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday.