Gatineau – Everyone knew it was coming, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow when the NCAA cancelled it’s winter championship events March 12 – the Big Ten men’s hockey tournament included, where the University of Michigan was primed to do some damage.
After a slow start to their season, Michigan was on a roll, winning 10 of 12 games heading into the tournament.
Full Press NHL recently caught up with the Wolverines associate coach Bill Muckalt from his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The former Hobey Baker nominee dished on the season that was; disappointment for their graduates; recruiting; Cam York, Quinn Hughes, Josh Norris, and ups and downs of an NHL career which ended way too early due to multiple surgeries.
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Full Press NHL: Can you speak about a bit about UMichigan’s season and the subsequent reaction when you knew the campaign was coming to an abrupt conclusion?
Bill Muckalt: We only lost four of 19 games going down the stretch. We knew we had something. You just know, when you’ve been around the game a long time – when a team bonds, when they gel, when the chemistry is right, when the buy-in is there. That was one of those years. We had it two years ago. We had it in Tri-City. We won a championship in the USHL.
But this was a special group. It was a pleasant group to coach. It wasn’t a typical high-scoring type Michigan team. Obviously losing Quinn Hughes and Josh Norris, it was tough to kind of replace those players at our level. Players at that level don’t obviously grow on trees.
It was very disappointing. On a personal level, I was going to have shoulder surgery whenever the season had ended. I had that planned, but more importantly from a team perspective, you just knew you had a chance. I felt so bad for our seniors and our leaders, because of how hard they worked to pull our team together. We didn’t exactly set the world on fire coming out of the gate. We dug ourselves out of a hole. We’re kind of a little bit like the St.Louis Blues. We got off to a slow start, had a lot of unknowns. We probably lost some games we should have won early. Then we found our identity. For those kids, our seniors – a couple of them had an opportunity to sign NHL contracts, and they came back because they believed in finishing out and graduating.
When you lose at the end of the year whether a team gets a break or a call, or you get thumped by another team, that’s the nature of sports we’re used to. That’s what makes winning so special. I think when that got taken away from our guys, that was a real emotional time. Coach (Mel) Pearson was very emotional. And it was so awesome to see his realness, his honesty with our group, it was really sympathetic. It was heartfelt. It hit hard. There were some group texts with our seniors, different things. Having said that, we weren’t the only team in the country that had that feeling or belief. I think it was a tough way for those seniors to end. I think for the underclassmen and everyone else, the whole set of circumstances probably made people reflect. Whatever freedom is, it isn’t a right or certainty. We’re very fortunate. You take things for granted. Until hockey or something you love gets taken away or something you have a great passion for, that’s when you realize how blessed or how fortunate you are. The whole quarantine thing of not being able to leave your house, not being able to do certain activities we all have a passion for, you see that we have been spoiled to an extent, almost entitled.
FPNHL: You had nine graduates who played their final games at Michigan. What was so special about them?
Bill Muckalt: Lockwood, our captain, was phenomenal in our group. He had an opportunity to sign in Vancouver and came back for his senior year. We had Jake Slaker, Nick Pastujov, a kid of out Ontario, Jacob Hayhurst, a transfer from RPI. Early on he (Hayhurst) looked like a fish out of water, but he found his way. The second half of the year, he was one of our best players. We had a couple of unsung heroes that weren’t the flashiest defensemen. Luke Martin (Carolina) led the country in blocks. Him and Griffin Luce (son of Scott Luce, Vegas director of amateur scouting), I couldn’t say enough about those kids – the way they cared about the team, the way they played – their buy-in. They’re really meat and potato guys, just phenomenal kids.
— Bill Muckalt (@wmuckalt) April 2, 2020
FPNHL: How does the unknown of next season affect recruiting players?
Bill Muckalt: We have five guys coming in, some are projected to be top picks. What I worry about is if colleges don’t open and major junior or Sweden, Europe opens, and there’s no hockey, this is a very special class – there’s no doubt about it – all the work put in over the past three years – we don’t know what’s going to happen down the road. We have Cam York (Philadelphia) and Johnny Beecher (Boston) who are first rounders. We could have anywhere from four to six first round picks from this incoming group on our team within the next 15 months.
Side note: Incoming forwards Thomas Bordeleau (son of former NHLer Sebastian), Brandon Brisson (son of player agent Pat) are projected first-second rounders in the 2020 Draft.
FPNHL: Selected 14th overall by the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2019 Entry Draft, Cam York recently earned Big Ten Rookie All Star status on the blue line. Can you describe what York means to the squad?
Bill Muckalt: We think Cam is the type of player who’s got patience, poise, great offensive ability in distributing the puck, has a high hockey IQ. We really like what Cam brings from the back end. He moves pucks. He quarterbacked our no.1 power play this year. He’s cool as a cat. I think there’s some room in his game yet, which is exciting. Every player we have has something they can work on to get better, but he has many tools already. But that’s kind of the exciting part – anytime you get to work with a player like that, it’s how good can he be? He has a lot of potential.
Michigan hockey 1st-round pick Cam York to return for sophomore season https://t.co/74OVfz8YCW
— MLive (@MLive) March 30, 2020
FPNHL: You grew up in the Vancouver area and made your NHL debut as a member of the Canucks – it must be exciting to see Quinn Hughes, a player you coached now playing for your hometown team, and that Will Lockwood is also Vancouver-bound.
Bill Muckalt: Obviously with me playing in Vancouver, being from Vancouver, it’s really exciting to see what he did, and the year he had in Vancouver. He’s just a special talent. As for Will Lockwood; he’s an energy guy, strong on his skates, leads by example. Plays a lot like Michael Peca.
FPNHL: As an Ottawa Senators contributor, I would be re-missed if I didn’t ask for your thoughts on another Michigan grad, Josh Norris.
BM: I knew with Josh coming off shoulder surgery, it was going to take him awhile, but what a year he had – was dominant in the American Hockey League and got called up. He’s going to have a bright future. He had an unfortunate injury, but was great for us. You can tell why he’s going to be a great player. The injury probably set him back a bit, but he’s definitely knocking on the door. You look at his track record. If you can score 30 in the AHL, you should be an everyday NHLer.
🇺🇸 Josh Norris had a dominant 2019-20 AHL season with the Belleville #Sens, leading rookies in goals (31) and points (61) in just 56GP. League-wide, he was 3rd in goals and tied for 3rd in points.
— Sens Prospects (@SensProspects) April 12, 2020
FPNHL: You were involved in a pair of major NHL trades, first; dealt by Canucks to the New York Islanders with goaltender Kevin Weekes and forward Dave Scatchard for netminder Felix Potvin and 2000 second and third picks, then swapped by the Islanders to the Senators along with Zdeno Chara and the 2001 second overall pick (Jason Spezza) for Alexei Yashin. You have a story to tell about that.
Bill Muckalt: I wasn’t happy leaving Vancouver that’s for sure. I loved living in New York. We had a great group of guys, but I wasn’t excited about going there at the time. I can you tell that. I had three surgeries in New York. (GM) Mike Milbury wanted to meet with me and asked about Zdeno Chara. Believe it or not, we were so far ahead of what the National Hockey League was doing, even at the University of Michigan, at the college level, especially using video. They wanted Zdeno to play against Lindros, Lemieux, Bure, and he was coming out of the Western League as a young kid. He really wasn’t getting a lot of development. Mike goes “What do you think of this kid?” I said “Mike, he’s going to be fine. No one is working with him. You’re putting him in the position to fail every night. A good veteran NHL defenseman would fail having to cover those guys.” You’re throwing him into the deep end of the pool without teaching him how to swim.
Six weeks later on Draft Day, I get traded. I’ll be honest with you. I loved the guys I played with, but I was the happiest guy because I wanted to win. We were so far away from being competitive. I had a chance to win with Ottawa.
FPNHL: The Senators had a successful 2001-02 regular season, but were bounced in the opening round of the playoffs in seven games versus the Maple Leafs. It was also a strange season for yourself as you couldn’t buy a goal, not scoring in 70 games. What was the campaign like for you?
Bill Muckalt: The team was so unbelievable and exciting. I didn’t even care (that I didn’t score). I just wanted the team to do well. You couldn’t even argue with Jacques Martin, our head coach. We had Marian Hossa, Marty Havlat, Chris Neil coming into his own – providing a lot of value in what he brought to the game. We were very deep on the right side. I had always scored everywhere I’d been. It was frustrating for my confidence – that part was hard. I felt that I always had the best interests of the team, and my best hockey was still to come. I always thought. once we got into to the playoffs, I would score the biggest goal of the year. I just really believed that in my heart, the whole way through. At the end of the year I thought, no one was going to remember who scored what, we were going to be Stanley Cup champions in my opinion. We practiced 45 minutes and no one would miss a pass.
We were up three games to one (versus Toronto). I think with that style, you have to enough skill in the regular season, but you have to have enough grit in the playoffs. I still think we had the personnel to nullify some things that went on. Ultimately, we were up three games to one and took a five-minute major that changed the whole series. Give Gary Roberts credit, he carried that team on his back.
FPNHL: What did you take, if anything from a season where you didn’t score a goal? Also many people may not be aware, the following year you had an excellent start in Minnesota. However, you suffered an unfortunate shoulder/neck injury which resulted in your 11th surgery. That injury led you to retiring prematurely at age 29.
Bill Muckalt: When I got hurt I had eight points in four and a half games. I had five goals. Then I came back the last three games and played. Obviously, when you miss that amount of time, it was different. But it was interesting, how do you go a whole year without scoring in the NHL? All of a sudden, you score five times in four games plus a period. I had eight points. (Muckalt had eight points in 70 games with Ottawa in 2001-02).
Looking back as a coach, it’s about the role you were in, the situation. That’s the one thing I reflect on. Now as a coach I really try to encourage, make guys continue to feel good about themselves. It’s hard if you’re playing behind guys. You don’t get that opportunity. But it probably helped me in my coaching career. I’m glad I went through it. At the time, I certainly didn’t think that would be the silver lining in it. That’s what you take from it. You have to be optimistic and grow from it. It was a little embarrassing, but I think anyone who played with me and guys I lined up against the next year were laughing. I always had the knack to shoot the puck and score goals, but for whatever reason it didn’t happen. I’d go through it all over again if we won our last game of the season in a heartbeat.