Third-year Northern Michigan coach Grant Potulny was raised in the old school of the WCHA: high school player in the shadow of North Dakota and a dozen years with Minnesota’s Golden Gophers, four as a player, eight as an assistant coach. When he got his long overdue break to become a head coach with Northern Michigan in 2017, he turned to the family of Wildcat hockey for wisdom.
“As a first-year coach, you follow your gut, right, wrong, or indifferent,” Potulny said between courses at Marquette’s legendary Donckers eatery. “But there are times you want to bounce it off somebody outside the room.”
So Potulny reached into Wildcat hockey’s bulging Rolodex and chose three Northern stalwarts go help him with his Division I growing pains: Don Waddell (1976-80), Dallas Drake (1988-92), and Justin Florek (2008-12).
“Donnie [Waddell] is one of two guys who have played in the NHL, coached in the NHL, and have been a president in the NHL and been a general manager, so a wealth of knowledge,” Potulny said. “Dallas is the greatest player in the history of our program, Stanley Cup champion, and a phenomenal human being. And Justin Florek is a guy who came from Marquette, all the way up, youth hockey, played for Northern, made it to the NHL. The support that those guys have given me and our program, the willingness to be available for me, has been incredible.”
Drake found time to accept Potulny’s offer to visit the Northern locker room in the midst of a big series with Cornell last fall in Marquette. The second-year coach spent time in the video suite to prime the room before Drake’s entrance.
“I cued up a highlight tape of him,” Potulny said. “You remember Red Wings/Avalanche, Detroit/St. Louis, the way those wars were fought, and how he played—reckless abandon.
“To have him come in and spend a morning speaking to our team was phenomenal, their eyes were this big!” Potulny said.
Despite suffering a rare series sweep in Marquette to Cornell that weekend, Potulny’s formula of bridging three generations of Wildcat hockey is working. The ’Cats have won 46 games in the first two seasons of the Potulny era, finishing second each year in the WCHA’s grueling regular season. He loves that the troika he’s dubbed his “Leadership Group” can penetrate the narrow focus of today’s current players.
“Athletes are in a bubble sometimes,” Potulny said. “You’re so consumed with academics and athletics and trying to have a bit of a social life, you might not always understand the support you have and what you mean to the community. Having those types of players come back and speak to that is invaluable, because you know who they are, you know what they did. You want to hear how they did it.”
As Potulny stated from the outset, there are plenty of times that he still relies on his “gut.” A month into his second year of coaching, Potulny sensed a virus in his room, and he took extreme measures to remedy it. Projected star Darien Craighead and returning All-American defenseman Phil Beaulieu were slumping, both in performance and attitude. After a disheartening Friday night loss in Lake Superior, Potulny took drastic action: he scratched his two studs for the Saturday game, putting them in street clothes up in the press box. This required no calls to Waddell, Drake, or Florek; Potulny’s gut ruled the day, at a crucial point in the Wildcats’ young season.
“When you’re at Lake State, you look up, and the non-dressers are sitting right across the bench from you in the press box,” Potulny, whose club spent most of that Saturday night sweating out a one-goal lead, said. “I’m looking up there thinking, ‘I’m sitting out an All-American and a guy who has the ability to be a 20-goal scorer, we better win!’”
Thanks to selfless team defense and a superb performance in goal by Atte Tolvanen, Northern won a 2-1 nailbiter. It accomplished two things: three vital points in the standings, and more importantly, gave Potulny unquestioned control of his team. “I respected the move,” Craighead, now a senior, said. “I wasn’t playing well.”
So Potulny, the man who appeared destined take the reins at Minnesota, is now a coaching force in the Upper Peninsula, 330 miles northeast of his alma mater. He has wisely embraced the culture—and the former legends—of Northern Michigan hockey, as he grooms his ’Cats for the next step.