The Process continues:  Tommies begin third season in CCHA 

St. Thomas’ Tim Piechowski jaws with a Lake Superior State player during a game in Mendota Heights in November, 2022. (Photo by Shannon Stieg)


MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. — Turning a longtime Division III program into a competitive Division I one isn’t an easy task, but St. Thomas head coach Rico Blasi seems to have the Tommies on the right track as they enter their third year in the CCHA.  

After only managing three wins during their first DI season, the Tommies defeated every CCHA squad at least once last year, picked up their first sweep and almost picked up their first playoff victory. That’s some big progress in a short period of time and Blasi said his team is hoping to carry last year’s success over to this season.  

“I think you always want to build on things that you’ve done in the past, especially with the inexperienced team that we had a year ago,” Blasi said last week. “So, those guys are now a year older, and there’s a certain comfort level knowing what to expect from a day to day operational aspect, to practice, to they know when we’re traveling. All those things are going to be just a year more refined. Our culture’s in a good place, and I think we continue to grow and mature in that. I think we’ll take a lot away from what we did a year ago, but at the same time, it’s a new team and a new year. We’ve got to build from what we’ve learned and what we can and can’t do. We’ll certainly take away some of the positives and learn from the negatives for sure.” 

Colorado College transfer Noah Prokop skates with his new St. Thomas teammates during a recent practice. (Photo courtesy St. Thomas Athletics)

Some of the positives coming into this year are the six incoming transfers. The Tommies have landed two players from Wisconsin in forwards Ryder Donovan and Liam Malmquist, two Colorado College forwards in Matt Gleason and Noah Prokop, Ohio State defenseman James Marooney and Niagara goalie Jake Sibbell. Blasi also got a strong group of young newcomers to join the roster including former Wisconsin football player Jake Ratzlaff.  

“Every decision we make has a certain intention involved in it,” Blasi said. “We were very focused with some of our freshmen on the D side of things. That was a plan that we had in place when we first started. We had recruited some kids that needed another year of seasoning, and we weren’t going to rush that development for them. Then we were fortunate enough to get some transfers up front and obviously, that’s going to help balance out your team.” 

Wisconsin transfer Jake Ratzlaff skates during a recent St. Thomas practice. (Photo courtesy St. Thomas Athletics)

Looking at the Tommies’ schedule, it’s an intriguing slate. First off is a home and home series with St. Cloud State, which has been the opening series for both teams the past two seasons, and has the potential to become a fun nonconference rivalry series.  

“Right now, it makes sense for us to play home and home,” Blasi said. “Obviously, they’re a great program and have been in the mix for quite some time now. So it gives us an opportunity to try to understand how we can close the gap to be one of those teams that can compete at a high level. It’s a very good learning experience for our team and we’re looking forward to it again this year. We’ll see where we are in our process, but certainly they’re going to be a top-notch team again. So, it should be exciting.” 

The main event on the schedule though is the big showdown against national runner-up Minnesota. UST has tangled with the Golden Gophers once before in DI, but that was just an exhibition game in South St. Paul. This time, it’s an actual series with the first game taking place at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, while the following night’s contest will be at the Gophers’ home rink.  

“Hopefully, this becomes something that our fans and their fans look forward to,” Blasi said. “We’ve got to a lot of work to do to get to that level. So, it’s just another opportunity for us to understand how to play at that high level and how do we continue to grow and mature as a program so that we can have the conversation where it’s a rivalry.” 

The other two nonconference series are at home against Lindenwood in October and a road matchup at Vermont over the winter holidays. Blasi said both series have an interesting aspect to them.  

“Lindenwood is kind of in the same boat that we’re in,” he said. “They’re building their program and they’ve got some really good momentum. So that should be an interesting series. Vermont was rebuilding and they had some really good success in the playoffs last year in Hockey East. We’re looking forward to that trip and then they’ll return the year after. It should be an exciting series at Christmas time.” 

St. Thomas goalie Aaron Trotter stuffs a USNTDP player during an exhibition game in Mendota Heights in October, 2022. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

The final event on the schedule that should draw people’s attention is the exhibition game against the USNTDP U18 team. The Tommies hosted the US squad last year and this year, it travels to Plymouth, Michigan for what should be an entertaining game.  

“Hopefully, we can continue this relationship because it is an important group of young men that get to see your campus and things like that, especially when we open the new rink,” Blasi said. “Having played there against them in the past, it’s a good atmosphere and it’s a good trip. You know that the games are going to be high level skill. It’s better than practicing on your off week, so we’re going to take advantage of that.” 

As far as the CCHA goes, Blasi expects the conference to be a “grind” as always and when it comes to his own squad, he likes what he sees so far.  

“Right now, everybody feels great,” he said. “As the weeks go along here and we start to try to hone in on game time, we’ll have a better indication of where we’re at, but I like what we have. I like our depth, I like our size and the skill that we’ve added.” 

St. Thomas’ Cooper Gay skates into the Minnesota State zone during a game last season in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Shannon Stieg)

Sometimes when a team enters its third season, expectations start to change where the emphasis switches from building the program to focusing entirely on wins. That isn’t the case with the Tommies and Blasi said his team’s process remains the same.  

“I think our program and our culture is driven to do one thing and that’s to win the whole thing,” he said. “Every day is a process toward that and every decision we make is toward that. Our daily goal is to get better every day. That’s our daily intention. There’s ups and downs throughout the game and throughout the year, and throughout the day, and throughout the practice, and you’ve got to navigate through that. That’s the fun part. That’s the journey that everybody remembers. It’s not so much the outcomes. So, we don’t focus on that. We just want to make sure that every decision we make is geared toward being the last team that’s standing. In order to do that, we’ve got a lot of work to do, and I think our guys are up for the challenge and we’ll navigate through it.” 

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