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Building Champions: UM-Dearborn's rise to ACHA contender

Building Champions: UM-Dearborn's rise to ACHA contender

By Aarif Deen, Assistant Sports Information Director

DEARBORN, Mich. – Expectations have changed for the No. 2 University of Michigan-Dearborn men's ice hockey team over the last six seasons. Head Coach Chris Haltinner has cultivated one ultimate goal, to graduate champions, on the ice and off.

Haltinner's six-year tenure has seen the Wolverines grow from an unranked-middling team in the ACHA's top division, to a consistent contender and national tournament mainstay. The 2018-19 season is proving to be the Wolverine's best opportunity yet to win it all since the early days of the ACHA.

"I would say this year we're just a well-oiled machine," Haltinner said. "We don't miss a beat. Whether its film, on the road or having stuff ready for the guys, they know that when they come to the rink its hockey and when they go to class its school and when they go home its family."

UM-Dearborn's growth stems from a hard-working coaching staff that works together to make sure every member of the team has what they need to succeed. Assistant coach Rick DeSana joined the Wolverines in 2014. When Haltinner had to take a leave from the team during the summer of 2018, DeSana took over, preparing the talented Wolverines for the upcoming season.

"He's instrumental in the success of our hockey team," Haltinner said about his friend of 13 years. "I, unfortunately, had a surgery that I was out for and had to miss some time. I tend to be a very hands-on person with our team so turning the ship over is tough but turning it over to a guy like Rick is a win-win. I know what I'm gonna get."

But aside from his assistants, which include DeSana, first-year assistant and former Wolverine Mike Scarpello and 29-year UM-Dearborn coaching veteran Rich Gauthier, the Wolverines staff has turned to specialty coaches this season, helping the team prepare for competition in ways never before utilized. UM-Dearborn added power-skating coach Jennifer Matras and strength and conditioning coach Todd Montroy, and according to Haltinner, both have paid off exponentially.

"That's one of the reasons why you come here," alternate captain and senior Tyler Dalton said. "Especially being in the athletics program here, we're supposed to have some of the best resources and this year we do."

Dalton continued: "Mentally, it's making us a lot stronger too. We know that Adrian (College) and Davenport (University) are not doing this. In order to win a national championship, this is the stuff you need to do and it's buying in from the top."

Matras is the owner and head skating coach at Competitive Edge Skating & Strength Training. She has over 25 years of skating experience, which includes a 14-year stint in competitive figure skating where she competed nationally. Along with on-ice coaching, Matras' training methods also help develop self-confidence and positive personal development.

"Some of the stuff that coach (Matras) is incorporating into our routine, I've personally never done or seen before," Dalton added. "At first it took a bit of time to completely understand some of the drills, but now that we're well into the season we've started to see as players that those little things she does for us actually make a huge difference. Whether that's pushing off with your toes or other little things, it's helping all of us excel and become stronger both physically and mentally."

A certified Level 2 Trainer at CrossFit in the D, Montroy joined the Wolverines in 2016 and has taken on a larger role with the Wolverines this year.

"We've worked with him for about three years for training camp," team captain Kevin Bechard said. "But this year it's been more consistent where every week we're working with him. It's a tough Monday when we go from cross fit to power skating with Coach Matras. It's not the most fun thing to do but it's definitely rewarding. We're doing things that other teams are not."


Building a winning culture

While the impact the staff has had on the team's development is clear, it hasn't always been that way.

Haltinner was handed the coaching position weeks before the start of the 2013-14 campaign. He admits that he has had to develop into the coach he is today and believes the only way to do so was through experience.

"We went through a streak of not making nationals. And it wasn't because we weren't good enough. When I first took over the team I was young," Haltinner said about his sudden promotion after serving as an assistant for the previous three seasons. "I was an immature coach. I didn't have a staff lined up as I do now. I'm not saying they weren't great, I just didn't hold myself to a high enough standard and that trickled down to my staff and the team."

Midway through his sixth season as head coach, Haltinner has a record of 120-72-10 with three consecutive appearances in the ACHA Division I National Tournament and three conference tournament titles (two in the GLCHL and one in the WHAC).

Haltinner has evolved in the way he goes about recruiting. It is apparent that student-athletes have respect for Haltinner because of the ways in which he sells the program before they ever touch the ice. His focus has and always will be on academics and the future careers of the student-athletes before it is about hockey.

Haltinner added that the culture on this team is a brotherhood and family-like. And that has become the main selling point for each and every student-athlete. Every little thing makes a difference, even something as small as walking a student to his car.

Dalton, a native of Northfield, Ohio, chose UM-Dearborn because of the first impression Haltinner made.

"It was one of the coolest experiences I've had," he said. "After giving me a tour of campus he sat me down and asked 'what's important to you,' and I thought that was awesome. I've never had a coach ask me what's important to me. Nobody else asked about my academic goals and where I see myself in five years." 

"From that point forward, I had made up my mind that this is where my heart is. When I went to shake coach Chris' hand and tell him, he still went above and beyond and walked me to my car and literally closed the door for me. He's such a big family guy and I experienced that first-hand."

Talent has never been an issue for the Wolverines. UM-Dearborn has boasted some of the ACHA's highest-scoring players on a yearly basis. The Wolverines have a history of success in the ACHA with 19 national tournament appearances, the most successful coming in the organizations first season. UM-Dearborn finished as the national runner-up in the ACHA in 1991-92. 

This year's version of the Wolverines has a mixture of talent and a winning mentality. And as the first full class recruited by this coaching staff, Haltinner has a special pride in this group of Wolverines.

"Our penalty minutes are among the fewest in the country, our misconducts have gone from multiple each year to not having one in the last two and a half years," he explained. "My players have high standards for themselves. I have a team now that'll compete every single night. This team is not about how can I score goals and get my number retired, it's 28 guys that are working to win a championship as 28 guys, not as individuals. And that's the biggest difference with our team this year."

The winning culture would not be possible without the leadership the Wolverines have in the locker room.

Bechard was named captain after his sophomore season with the Wolverines. The senior appeared in five games for UM-Dearborn in 2012 before returning in 2015 as a freshman. It was at that time that Haltinner knew Bechard would be a leader in the locker room for years to come.

"Kevin and our alternate captains know what we want from them and it trickles down to our players," Haltinner said. "They hold each other accountable and make sure that there is no one playing going off in their own direction. And Kevin plays a large part in that."

On the ice, Bechard has been one of the highest scorers in each of the past three seasons. This year, the native of Trenton, Mich., has 23 points in 17 games. But his greatest quality, his leadership, has not gone unnoticed among his peers.

"He's incredible. He's a brother. One of my best friends," Dalton said about his captain and teammate of four years. "Just one of the best guys I've ever met. I don't know what else to say beyond that. I love the kid to death."


Among the Leaders & Best 

The 2018-19 season has been a success thus far as the Wolverines are 14-2-1 through 17 games, including victories over No. 3 Adrian College, No. 6 Davenport University and sweep of No. 16 Stony Brook, all on the road. Leading scorer Billy Brock, a sophomore, has dominated opposing teams offensively throughout his short tenure with the Wolverines. Brock has 10 goals and 40 points, 11 more than linemate, Tyler Groat.

"(Brock) is an unbelievable player," Haltinner said. "Like all of our guys, we try to put them in situations that set them up for success and it's no secret that he has great linemates. Playing with Groat and (Zach) Nichols has helped him evolve into a more complete player this season instead of just a pass-first guy."

Groat's 18 goals lead UM-Dearborn at the midway mark of the regular season, including his 100th career goal, which came on Dec. 14, 2018, against Davenport. His 29 points along with Justin Dunn's 28, join Brock and Bechard atop the Wolverine scoring list.

In goal, the Wolverines have been backstopped by the exceptional play of Thomas Proudlock. The junior from Southgate, Mich., has appeared in all but one game this season. His .927 save percentage and his 2.08 goals against average are among the best in the nation.

"To be a top team you need a goalie that can battle and keep you in the game every night," Haltinner said about Proudlock, who has recorded 27 wins since the beginning of last season. "Sometimes it doesn't matter how much you prepare, you're gonna have off nights and your goalie needs to be there to pick you up and he's certainly done that. I feel Tommy is one the best goalies in the ACHA, top-three for sure."

Whether it's the growth and development of Haltinner and DeSana behind the bench, the additions of Montroy and Matras, or the winning culture in the Wolverine locker room, UM-Dearborn has become a staple among the ACHA's top teams.

While it may never be reached, the Wolverine version of 'Perfection' boils down to one thing, a national championship banner hanging in the UM-Dearborn Ice Arena.

"Making nationals is not success anymore, that's expected," Bechard added. "We want to win. And we want to win this year."

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