WASHINGTON -- During a game he stands behind his team like Michael Corleone. He's calm, collected, yet ready to pounce if instigated.
I should know, I once instigated. Well, rather, I asked a stupid question.
It was one of my first assignments for the now-defunct student newspaper the High Street Journal in Oxford, Ohio and following a loss to Michigan State I asked coach Enrico Blasi what his RedHawks team did wrong.
"Wrong? We lost to a better team, simple. Anything else?" And that was it. He walked away after chewing me up and spitting me out. That's what happens when you mess with the don of Miami hockey.
It's that same sense of authority, rather, sense of power that has guided the RedHawks to within one win of the school's first title in any sport. It's the same sense of controlled arrogance that makes Miami what it is.
It's The Brotherhood. The element that makes this group of men more than just a team. It’s a family atmosphere and talking with players it’s the one common thread they identify to explain why Miami is one win away from the greatest sporting achievement in school history.
"I think the most important thing is bonding off the ice," said winger Tommy Wingels, who recorded two goals in the team's win over Bemidji State Thursday night. "You might not play with guys in your previous (junior) team, but spending time with them 250 days a year at the rink and outside the rink, it means a lot to the guys. The better you get to know someone obviously the better chemistry you're going to have. Whether it's older guys, (Raymond) Eichenlaub and (Bill) Loupee, guys who have played before, it's just a connection we have."
It's more than just a connection, it's actually a written and signed oath to abide by The Brotherhood's code. The Code is a document that lives in the locker room and dictates the daily process that the players have developed.
It's about how to approach preparing for the ice:
"When we talk about experience,” Blasi said, “we talk about the juniors and seniors and sophomores that have been there before and played in this environment. It really helps the freshmen understand right from day one what's expected. So every day in preparation, the process is exactly that. There's a purpose to what we do on and off the ice. And so when our freshman are put in these situations, they know exactly what they need to do, because we've done it all year."
It's about how to approach preparing off the ice:
"We hold each other accountable and responsible for each other. It's really what Miami hockey culture is all about."
It's not just Miami's hockey culture. It's Miami campus culture. The school is known in sports circles for the stray professional athlete it produces and its Cradle of Coaches, but it's probably better known at the collegiate level for its dominant fraternity culture. The campus boasts four alpha houses for national fraternities and one alpha sorority. It doesn't sound like a big deal, but it's a rural campus and fraternity life engulfs the 17,000-plus student body. Blasi was a captain on the 1993-94 team and 18th on the school’s all-time scoring list. He's Miami through and through which is why it’s no surprise that a notion like brotherhood could have permeated from his time as a student at one of the most fraternity-laced campuses on the planet.
Or it could just be an Italian thing.
"I've always been a believer in family. Growing up in an Italian household that's pretty much instilled in me."
Whatever it is, it's working, as he's turned Southwest Ohio into a hotbed of hockey. The team is in its fourth straight NCAA tournament, it has the best combined record since the 2005-06 season and has a handful of players on the roster likely bound to join alums like Sharks all-pro defenseman Dan Boyle at the professional level. The team recently moved into a state-of-the-art hockey facility on campus featuring a club level among its 3,200 seats. Tickets to hockey games are some of the more sought-after in the Miami sporting scene and really, the program is legitimate for those who've followed the sport this decade. It was the Gonzaga, or Boise State of hockey. Some weird gem of a program, with some awkward name for a school, in some part of the country few pass through.
And Miami has become so because of Blasi. Because he’s preaches toughness:
“We're a physical team. And when we're on, we're finishing checks and we're doing a good job defensively, and we're getting pucks deep. And we're a good puck possession team, which, again, if we're on, we're wearing teams down just because we're playing well.”
Because he puts the offensive system, defined by his “scoring areas,” above the individual.
“We try to execute our game plan, and if you're in the position where you can score a goal, then obviously we want you to score a goal. I think Bill Loupee, Alden Hirschfeld, they've put themselves in situations (vs. Bemidji). They've gone to what I call the scoring areas in front of the net. And with all the good goaltending, you have to go to the net to score goals. And those guys are certainly doing that.”
Because he expects greatness.
“That's what our program stands for. That's our culture. We want to be the best we can be every day.”
And because he’s consistent. I remember some later conversations I had with Blasi while covering the team in college and he always stressed this notion of family. He’d rather talk to you about that than Xs and Os any day. It’s not something hokey to him. It’s not a cute slogan he’s adopted to shield a team of talented players from expectations. It’s a legitimate way of operating a hockey program. It’s his way of turning a marginal hockey school into something bigger. It’s the edge a school like Miami can, rather must, exploit to compete with the big dogs.
And if his players take down the Terriers Saturday night, he may just temporarily put aside one of his other defining characteristics: his rigidness.
“Maybe,” he says when asked if he’ll smile after a win Saturday.