In April, Steve Rohlik was appointed head coach of the Buckeyes after spending three years as associate head coach under Mark Osiecki. Ohio State is Rohlik’s first college head coaching job after assisting at Minnesota-Duluth (2001-2010) and Nebraska-Omaha (1997-2000). Coming off a 16-17-7 campaign as part of the CCHA, the Buckeyes return the majority of their roster, including team captain Curtis Gedig on the blue line and forwards Tanner Fritz and Ryan Dzingel, who finished one-two on the CCHA point leaderboards last season.
Although the team graduated First-Team All-American goaltender Brady Hjelle, there’s reason for optimism in Columbus.
Q: You played at Wisconsin and are entering your fourth year coaching at Ohio State. What does it mean to have a Big Ten hockey conference?
A: We’re pretty excited about being in the Big Ten. We think it’ll have a huge impact, especially at a school like Ohio State with the sports here. Everybody associates Ohio State with the Big Ten, so I really think people will start associating Ohio State hockey the same way. The resources, from athletic to academic to a campus standpoint-the overall experience and package of a Big Ten school is second to none. That’s reason for excitement, and with the Big Ten Network and the presence we’re going to have across North America, the exposure will only help college hockey, Hopefully our push will help grow some other colleges, they’ll join and the sport continues to grow.
Q: At a school like Ohio State known for its football and basketball, how do you plan to drum up interest in hockey?
A: The main thing here is the people, and the passion they have here in Ohio about Ohio State and the Big Ten. Playing in the Big Ten Conference, I think people can associate with that. It’s our job to continue to put a product on the ice that’s entertaining. Hockey is on the rise here with the Blue Jackets around here that have done a great job with youth hockey–it’s getting better every year. You see the Blue Jackets a few miles down the road and you saw what happens when you win: last year you couldn’t have asked for a better atmosphere at Nationwide Arena when they were battling for the playoffs. I think the people are here, they’re learning and will be passionate about hockey. We just have to put the product on the ice and win games. We have 50,000 students here, that’ll be a big piece.
Q: Talking about that product on the ice, how much does it help to return so many players?
A: The foundation is in place. We made another big step last year in getting home ice (in the CCHA tournament quarterfinals against Ferris State) and to get to Joe Louis arena (against Notre Dame in the semis), our guys are believing in that. Now we have to continue down that path. It’s not going to get any easier stepping into the Big Ten, but certainly you need to have a belief, and I think our players have that. We have to keep adding pieces to the puzzle, but we can’t live with what happened last year. We have to make ourselves better going into this year and continue to improve. That’s the biggest focus this summer, our attitude, our want. We need to show up and be the better team this coming year. Having a lot of these guys back is very important to that.
Q: How will you replace Brady Hjelle in net?
A: We lost a first team All-American goaltender, so there will be big shoes to fill. We have a returner in Collin Olson and we have Matt Tomkins coming in who was a Chicago draft pick (seventh round, 2012), so we’ll have very good competition. We’ll have two great kids battling it out and both are going to get their opportunities to be in there. I think they’re both going to contribute, and when you have competition that’s something that will make the other guy better. With their personalities, I think it’ll be a great thing for us. Last year, Brady was an unknown going in. We knew he was a good goalie, and next thing you know he’s an All-American. With coach (Joe) Exter here who specializes with goalies, these kids are certainly going to get the opportunity to develop. We think it’s going to be a great competition.
Q: Tanner Fritz led the CCHA in scoring last year. What do you expect from him this time around?
A: Tanner’s a quiet, kind of unassuming kid. He’s one of those guys that every day, game or practice, he brings it. He’s got sneaky ability–you don’t think he’s that fast, but he’s fast enough. He’s got a great shot, great knack, (is) a very good all-around player. I think he hasn’t even scratched the surface of where I think he can end up, and he has to have a very good summer. If he can get in elite shape, we certainly put him in a lot of different positions, to win faceoffs, power plays, killing penalties. He’s one of those go-to guys that I expect big things out of for the next two years. He’s a quiet leader, not a rah-rah guy-he just kind of goes out and does it, and that’s where I think he gains a lot of the respect from his teammates.
Q: The Big Ten will see some great rivalries renewed. How does the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry (both were part of the CCHA) translate to the ice?
A: Michigan, as they say down here is the team up north. It’s amazing when you start comparing the rivalry, and let’s not kid ourselves, it starts with football. That rivalry is right up there with Yankees-Red Sox. It’s a pretty special thing, and that trickles down into every sport. Our rivalry with Michigan feels that way with the fans, the players. From our perspective, you know that if you go out there and beat Michigan, you beat one of the best. You see what Coach Berenson has done in his career and their success, when you compete against Michigan you’re competing with one of the best, and that’s a great measuring stick for us.
Q: What characterizes Ohio State hockey from the pack?
A: One of the biggest things with our team is they never quit, they always compete. That’s one thing, day in and day out, that we’ve talked about since we’ve been here. If you have that attitude in you, you’ll compete and give yourself a chance to win, and that’s been one of our mainstays. Give yourself a chance. I think we’ve, for the most part, done that, especially when you look at how many games have been one goal either way in the last three years.
Q: What’s the most exciting thing about your transition to head coach?
A: Every kid that’s coming in here to play hockey at Ohio State is given a fantastic opportunity at an unbelievable university, and I look at that the same way now being the head coach here. I have to continue to put my best foot forward, surround myself with good people, and I certainly feel strongly about that. I’m excited to move forward, I know there’s going to be mistakes along the way, but it’s what you take from those mistakes to make yourself better.
Editor’s note: Jeremy Woo is a special contributor to BTN.com who spent the summer reporting and writing on the inaugural Big Ten men’s hockey season.