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Enrico Blasi of Toronto coaches RedHawks to No. 1 U.S. college ranking

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The work Enrico Blasi of Toronto is doing with the Miami RedHawks speaks volumes for what it takes to be a successful hockey coach - at any level - these days.

Blasi gets it. His coaching philosophy works, and the Redhawks' ranking for five consecutive weeks as the No. 1-ranked team in U.S. college hockey proves as much.

"My biggest thing is that you need to have a relationship with each player and understand them not only as players but as people," says Blasi, 35. "Once you establish that you are able to give them feedback.

"It's not about getting on them."

Constructive communication, without intimidation, pays off.

Having the right role models helps, and Blasi had them. Stan Butler, now coach of the OHL's Brampton Battalion, and George Izzard were his coaches through minor and junior hockey.

"They were a big influence on my life," says Blasi.

Blasi played at Miami from 1990 through 1994 and earned a phys-ed degree. When his attempt at being a pro player didn't pan out, Izzard asked him to assist with the Wexford Raiders juniors, for whom Blasi had played.

Blasi quickly became an assistant at the University of Denver after his coach at the University of Miami took over the Pioneers, and he was there for four years before landing the head coaching post at Miami. He's now in his ninth year behind the RedHawks' bench.

The school is located in Oxford, Ohio, 50 kilometres south of Cincinnati. It is named after a First Nations tribe that inhabited the region. The hockey team plays in the 3,642-capacity Goggin Ice Arena.

The RedHawks are 13-1-0.

Blasi has been coach of the year in his conference three times and nationally once, in 2006.

"You go through some tough times along the way," he says. "We established our philosophy early and tried to build our culture of family, with everybody buying into the team concept.

"Our assistant coaches have done a good job recruiting and we've got some good players. It's just been a good place to be over the last four years. We're still building the program."

He's built his roster into an aggressive puck-possession team.

"We have some big forwards and defencemen who are mobile," he says. "We don't sit back.

"Sometimes it gives you grey hair but it's fun to watch when it's working."

It's working.

Captain Ryan Jones of Chatham, Ont., has 11 goals and seven assists in the team's 14 games.

"If there's anything anybody needs, he's the first to step up," Blasi says of the leadership traits Jones possesses. "He's well-respected in our locker-room.

"He's a consummate power forward. He'd rather go through you than go around you and he's got a pretty good stick in front of the net."

The 23-year-old senior was selected by the Minnesota Wild in the 2004 NHL entry draft.

"I wouldn't put it past him," Blasi replies when asked if Jones can make it to the NHL. "I really believe in him.

"He's got that ability, for sure."

Alexander Lacombe of Orleans, Ont., has two goals and four assists so far. The 21-year-old forward is in his third year with the team.

"Alex struggled the first couple of years finding his game and what he can bring to the table but as a junior he's really contributed," says Blasi. "He's a great kid.

"He works and works and works. It's nice to see someone who's struggled a bit to start reaping some of the benefits of hard work."

Justin Vaive, the son of former NHL player Rick Vaive, is a RedHawks freshman. He was born in Buffalo but calls Toronto his home town. He's six-foot-six and full of potential, which the Anaheim Ducks recognized when they picked him in the 2007 draft. He has two goals and three assists so far.

"He's really played well for us," says Blasi. "He's a big kid who is growing into his body.

"He has great hands for a big guy. When he gets going, he can really skate. He's a Ryan Jones but bigger. He's a team player. He really fits into our family. He's got a really bright future."

Rick Vaive, who works as a TV hockey analyst and coaches a minor midget team in the Toronto region, shows up for many of the RedHawks' games.

Jeff Zatkoff, a 20-year-old Michigan product, is the No. 1 goaltender. The Los Angeles Kings prospect has a .940 save percentage and 1.37 goals-against average. He played on the U.S. world junior team.

"He likes to think of himself as out of a mold of a Ryan Miller," says Blasi.

Blasi loves the college coaching lifestyle. He has a young family and is content in Oxford.

"If you grow up in Canada, you dream of making it to the NHL and I'm no different," he says when asked about his coaching aspirations. "But we're really enjoying our time here and not worrying about what's going to happen in the future."

It is the everyday contact with his players that gives him the most enjoyment in his job.

"It's not about money at our level. It's still about the game of hockey, life and making sure these guys are ready when they leave this place, whether they go to the pros or not. If it works out in hockey, great, and if it doesn't they've got a degree and friends for life."

They also will have the knowledge they've received the best coaching and guidance into adult life that they could get.

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