Underachievement is something that can be often noted or quietly swept under the rug. When a team is a perennial loser, a lackluster season may go unnoticed. But when you've won three national titles in five years, underachievement is glaring — a painful light that can be so blinding, you can't help but notice.
That was the 2008-09 season for the Oakland University hockey club. The team finished with a 13-17-4 record last year, and failed to qualify for the Collegiate Hockey Association Division I national tournament for the first time in nine seasons.
A new coach has entered, preaching a new attitude at the Onyx Ice Arena in Rochester. Long-time assistant and former Lake Superior State Captain, Jeremy Bachusz has taken over head coaching duties, after Sean Hogan resigned in the spring.
The new coach comes in with a respectable resume. Bachusz carries five years of Division I collegiate hockey experience as well as two years of professional experience in the East Coast Hockey League. In his final year with the Lakers, he was the only senior, with the challenge of looking after a young team — something that Bachusz will again have to face as head coach for the Grizzlies.
One of the first priorities for Bachusz has been pinpointing what went wrong in last year's surprisingly bad season.
"The players' chemistry is the first thing that needs to change. A lot of that was lack of maturity but we've grown. Chemistry will get you a long way," Bachusz said.
Chemistry seemed to be a buzzword in OU's training camp. Not only did coach Bachusz cite what was going on behind the scenes, assistant coach Gordie Sheaffler also saw it as an issue.
"There were a lot of new faces. Guys were losing the message as a whole and some were getting clicky," Sheaffler said.
Senior forward Brett Haugh, who has been there through the good and bad years in the program, noticed the changes from the championship years to last year.
"We tried to go out and do stuff together as a team and not everyone was into it. Not everyone was into the team concept. But I think Bachusz will straighten that out," Haugh said.
Oakland not only has a new coach this season but almost an entirely new regime in place.
Will McMahon will serve as the new general manager for the club. McMahon is more than a familiar face in the organization. He is the all-time leading scorer and was an important player in all three Oakland championship teams. His younger brother Kyle is a senior on the squad.
"It's a tough transition, I obviously want to be on the ice but I love being in the atmosphere," McMahon said about moving upstairs. "Basically I handle the budget and set up road trips and fundraising."
His duties cannot be underestimated, as making sure the players come into an opposing arena with the right mindset is crucial. But McMahon hopes to use his influence to bring in the right in game mindset.
"The teams I was on knew how to win. I'm hoping to bring that character back and help any way possible."
McMahon plans on taking a step back in what happens on the ice but is always willing to add his two cents. "When Jeremy [Bachusz] needs any input, I would be happy to give it."
McMahon's teammate on the championship Oakland teams, Jon-Paul Ferrari, has joined as a new addition to the coaching staff. The former OU defenseman is hoping to cast a positive influence.
"I know what it takes on ice and off to win, and balance school and hockey together for six months to get a championship."
The Grizzlies will be returning a healthy amount of players. OU's leading scorer from a year ago, Kevin Kranker, returns for his junior season. He recorded a team high 14 goals and 20 assists last season.
Also returning are Jesse Worrell and Cody Austin, who each contributed 13 goals in 2008-09.
Sophomores Brandon Johnson and Jordan MacDonald will look to improve upon promising glimpses shown in their freshmen campaigns.
Sheaffler had praise for McDonald at the pre-season camp.
"Jordan slimmed down and will be able to get to the net a lot better. It really is noticeable out there," he said.
Sheffler also mentioned Jon Conners, a transfer from Salem State, as a player with a lot of potential.
"He's a big body who will add a scoring threat, along with playing physical."
Defensively the Grizzlies will look to be stronger and quicker in front of their net. Sheaffler, who mainly works with the defensemen, noted the impact of conditioning.
"Being in better shape will help them make better decisions," he said. "Colin Ronayne got stronger and worked on his skating. Dennis Capa was always fast but he's in better shape now and will be a lot faster. The improvement in conditioning will help them handle wear and tear."
Last season was a shaky year for goaltending. Colin Chase, a junior goalie who was in net for Oakland's last championship, quit the team midway through the season after a rough start.
First-year netminder Alex Pikunas stepped in and showed much promise as an exciting, dependable goalie, and was named as the team's newcomer of the year.
Coach Bachusz emphasized that the starting position is up for grabs with two new goaltenders in the system.
"Goaltending has already improved," Bachusz said. "All three are good goalies. We have Matt Toter who is a transfer from Liberty University and also Trevor McDougall who played a bit last year and looked good in camp. I'm not just going to give it to Pikanus to start. All three will be competing."
Despite the disappointment of last season, the bar has not been lowered. This is a team with 15 returning players, and three transfers. The new assistant coach and general manager, Ferrari and McMahon, wear multiple championship rings on their fingers. Sheaffler, the returning assistant coach, is one whom the players respect and understand.
Most important is their new head coach Bachusz, who general manager McMahon described as "someone who brings intensity and commands respect from players and coaches alike. He's played at a high level, he knows the game in and out. Everybody listens to him."
Oakland will open the season with a pair of games against a tough, high-scoring University of Michigan-Dearborn squad Sept. 25 and 26.