How NMU Hockey Came to Be

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MARQUETTE, Mich. (WLUC) - Eight NCAA Tournament appearances.

One NCAA championship.

All under only two coaches.

In its only 41-year program history, the Northern Michigan men's hockey program managed to become a powerhouse since their launch in 1976.

It all began with their first coach, Mr. Rick Comley.

Heard of him?

"He was young, he was a student athlete himself, he was a good student, and we thought that what he had done at Lake Superior State prior to coming here was worthy of us entertaining him as our head coach," said former assistant to the NMU's presidents, Tom Peters.

What many may not remember is the rival Comley used as a model of success.

"I think when we started the program, it was Michigan Tech," Comley said. "That was the standard bearer for us."

"It was a challenge for us to be like them and maybe even better," Peters said.

Comley brought his team to their first NCAA appearance in 1980.

They would make the tournament two more times, until 1991, when they finally won their first NCAA championship.

Peters remembers the whirlwind of emotions attached to the championship run.

"My greatest challenge was keeping the goalie's mother from having a heart attack I think," Peters said. "She was so nervous, Billie Pie's mother and she'd go out on the concourse, and if there was noise in the crowd, she'd say, 'Oh, I hope they didn't score against Northern,' so I had to reassure her her son was doing extremely well, and he did."

Wildcats radio hockey analyst, Dave Danis has memories from the game, fresh to this day.

"Northern was down 3-0 after the first period and [ESPN's Tom Mees] says to me, he goes what do you think now? i said, 'the next goal they win the hockey game.' he looked at me like he was crazy and we did it. it's just something, my spine's tingling now even just thinking about that night."

The championship gave the team an opportunity to visit the White house and meet then President George H. W. Bush.

The team would go on to make the NCAA tournament for the next two years, and another stint in '98.

Having played for Comley for three years, former NMU hockey player, Chris Gobert says Comley taught him lessons both on and off the ice.

"There's kind of one thing that stuck with me in particular," Gobert said. "I mean I think from my freshman year, there was a saying for any meeting we ever had to go to; he always said, 'Five minutes early is ten minutes late.' and that's one thing that i've always lived by since then."

A year later, the program would replace the Lakeview Arena with the new Berry Events Center.

Gobert remembers being part of the first team to play in the arena.

"It was amazing, to be able to come and be the first year in there as a player coming in and growing up here," Gobert said. "I knew [The Lakeview facility] very well, but then you come into a brand new ability with brand new everything, it's something special."

It would only be a few short years later, that the program would experience another shake-up.

Rick Comley was leaving NMU for a coaching position at Michigan State.

"I do want to clear the air completely and say I'm not leaving because i'm unhappy," Comley said in 2002. "I'm leaving because it's an opportunity of a lifetime that I never thought I would be given."

In his place would be NMU alumnus, Walt Kyle.

"There was one name on everybody's minds that who was going to replace Rick," said TV6/FOXUP hockey analyst, Dave Ellis. "It pretty much had to be Walt Kyle. He was a player in the program, he was a captain in the program, was an assistant coach for the national championship team, had been in the NHL, knows all kinds of people all over college hockey; he was the one name that everyone wanted because he understood the community and he understood the school."

The former Wildcat would go on to lead his alma mater to four straight 20+ win seasons, from 2002 through 2006.

"That year we had a total of eight seniors and he kind of let us, I don't want to say take over but he kind of let us kind of run the team as a whole from that standpoint," Gobert said. "There was I guess a little bit more freedom for the guys as Coach Comley was kind of more of a disciplinarian."

Kyle managed to bring the team to at least one NCAA tournament in 2010.

The Wildcats would go on to lose in the first round against St. Cloud State.

NMU finished fourth in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, and 16th in the nation that season.

"Once you're champions of anything, repeating is extremely difficult, and you're never quite satisfied with the results that happen if you're not champions or close to the top," Peters said. "Every once in awhile, it's hard to get the car into gear and so you need a little push and I think that the thought was, that maybe it's time to get a new person to push the car."

Kyle's inability to consistently keep his team on a championship level is what many believe to be the reason behind NMU not renewing his contract.

His last days at the school were announced on March 10th of this year.

But could his replacement be the answer to bringing the NMU hockey program back to better days?

Stay tuned for part two of the series, tomorrow.

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