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Grand Forks native Grant Potulny maps out plan at Northern Michigan

Grant Potulny speaks at a press conference after he was named head coach at Northern Michigan. Photo by Ryan Stieg/The Mining Journal.

Grant Potulny’s thoughts drifted back to his childhood as he stepped foot in Marquette, Mich., this summer as the new head coach at Northern Michigan University.

He was in a smaller town, and a university was at the forefront of it.

The hockey program -- not the football or basketball teams -- was what attracted the most attention from the community.

And everyone seemed to be involved with it.

“It’s not that much different from Grand Forks,” Potulny said. “At a Big Ten team, you’re always the school’s team. You’re always identified as the school’s team. In a community like Grand Forks or Marquette, you’re the community’s team. People are really invested in the program. People are really excited to have a winning program that can compete with the bigger schools.

“I go back to Tony Hrkac, Bob Joyce, Ian Kidd, Steve Johnson and the craze around Grand Forks when those guys were doing what they were doing. People really, really care about the Wildcats here, just like they care about UND in Grand Forks. That’s fun for me. You can really build a fever if you do it the right way.”

That’s the plan for Potulny, who left his post as an assistant coach at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, this summer after eight years.

Potulny helped the Gophers to the Big Ten regular-season title in each of the last four years and also won two gold medals as an assistant coach for the U.S. World Junior Championship team.

Despite the success, Potulny always thought about what it would be like to run his own program and call his own shots.

“I was very fortunate to be in a place where I got to work with elite players, got to be around one of the best coaches in the history of college hockey and be at my alma mater,” Potulny said. “It had to be a pretty good situation to want to walk away from that. This scenario is that. There’s tradition here. I think you can win here.”

Northern Michigan won a national championship in 1991 under coach Rick Comley, but hasn’t been able to consistently stay in the mix in recent years.

The Wildcats have only reached the NCAA tournament one time in the last 18 years.

But in the revamped Western Collegiate Hockey Association, there’s a opportunity to bring back old glory days, just as Michigan Tech has done 100 miles down the road in the Upper Peninsula.

Potulny started by giving the players a clean slate and by playing no favorites.

“The necessary evil of all sports is that you put a premium on guys who are first-liners, power-play guys, top-pair D-men,” Potulny said. “I want to make sure, this month, until we start playing games and have to put guys in those slots, every guy on the team is as valuable as the guy sitting next to him. That’s been really enjoyable for me.”

Just a couple of months into the new job, Potulny reached back to his hometown to land a recruit -- Grand Forks Central star and North Dakota Mr. Hockey Grant Johnson, who will play for the Bismarck Bobcats this year.

The recruitment of Johnson signals what type of team Potulny wants to build in Marquette: speed and skill.

Just like those teams Potulny grew up watching in Grand Forks.

GRANT POTULNY

School: Northern Michigan.

Position: Head coach.

Hometown: Grand Forks.

Age: 37.

Of note: Potulny is the second-youngest head coach in college hockey this season behind 36-year-old Mike Gabinet at Omaha.

Brad Elliott Schlossman

Schlossman is in his 13th year covering college hockey for the Herald. In 2016, he was named the top beat writer in the country by the Associated Press Sports Editors. He has voted in the national college hockey poll since 2007 and has served as a member of the Hobey Baker and Patty Kazmaier Award committees.

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