In Year 1 of the Potulny era up in Marquette, Michigan, Grant and his family were in attendance at a youth hockey tournament, sons playing, parents spectating. Hockey mom Melissa shared an astute observation.
“How come there are Junior Ramblers and Junior Lakers, but no Junior Wildcats?” she wondered.
And like all good husbands, Grant paid heed. The very next season, thanks to some vigorous fundraising led by the Potulny Pasta Party at the Berry Events Center, Marquette Junior Hockey became Marquette Junior Wildcats Hockey. Mites, Squirts, Pee-Wees, and Bantams are now all sporting the iconic Northern Michigan Wildcat on their respective chests, and winning with pride.
“It’s been awesome,” said ‘Cats pee-wee coach Mark Janofski from a recent tournament. “About two years ago they did the re-branding, and all of a sudden we had new uniforms.”
If you look carefully at their new threads, you will see a Wildcat snarling from each kneecap, something which even the flagship varsity squad cannot boast.
“They do look sharp,” said coach Potulny, who embraces the local hockey culture, striving to make it one cohesive community. On Mondays and Wednesdays, members of his varsity club trek half a mile from practice at the Berry Center to Lakeview Arena to hang on ice with the baby ‘Cats.
“Sometimes athletes forget how much fun it is to get out with the youth players and be around them,” said Potulny, who cited his captain Phil Beaulieu and goalie Nolan Kent as regulars over at Lakeview. The fun is undoubtedly double-edged.
“It’s been awesome,” said pee-wee coach Janofski, who singled out Kent for his contributions. “After practicing two hours, he came on the ice helping our goalie. He came the weekend after he got his first win at Boston University. We gave him a big congratulations; it’s just a big happy family.”
Building fraternity was Potulny’s goal from the moment he planted his flag in Marquette in 2017.
“In a community like ours, it’s not just a university’s team — we’re a community’s team,” said the third-year NMU coach. “It’s an intertwined relationship.”
The fruits of that melding have both intangible and trackable returns.
“If we’re not playing, we’re at the games, seeing Division I hockey,” said Janofski, whose junior ‘Cats treat the Berry Center as a virtual hockey school on varsity game nights.
“Watch these players — this is how we need to play,” is Janofski’s mantra to his charges. He’s convinced it is working. “We see it on the ice there. I think it really does bring them up.”
The results are impossible to ignore: junior Wildcat squads bagged state titles in both the pee-wee and bantam Double A levels last year; both teams advanced to the nationals. Although Grant’s varsity Wildcats were shut out of the NCAA Division I tournament, the coach did attend the youth hockey version of the “Big Dance” to root on his son Jack.
“I did get a chance to go to the national tournament in South Bend with them,” Potulny said. “It was awesome, a great event.”
Potulny watched his son’s junior Wildcats battling for a national title, wearing uniforms nearly identical to the WCHA powerhouse. His wife Melissa was at his side, the catalyst for the wardrobe change nearly three years ago.
Although unscripted, the immersion into life in Marquette — a foreign outpost to Potulny three years ago — faithfully follows his philosophy.
“You live where your feet are. Now you’ve been here for three years — it’s kinda who you are,” said the man forever associated with college hockey glory at Minnesota as a player.
Now in the second year of an eight-year contract with Northern Michigan, Potulny envisions the junior Wildcats someday becoming a feeder for his college squad.
“The goal is to get local talent, and have them part of who we are, on the University side.”
It’s not unrealistic, as Potulny pointed out that there were once nine Marquette locals playing varsity hockey for the Wildcats.
That dream is shared from the grassroots level as well.
“The uniforms are junior Wildcats,” said pee-wee coach Janofski. “I’d love to see the junior Wildcats transition into Wildcats. That would be the ultimate goal.”
Tim Rappleye is the author of Jack Parker's Wiseguys: The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice. He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.