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Mercyhurst making waves atop Atlantic

by Bob Snow
Pencil him in as a possible 2012 Spencer Penrose candidate these next 10 weeks.

If Rick Gotkin's Mercyhurst Lakers become the second team in Atlantic Hockey history to play in this year's Frozen Four in Tampa (Rochester Institute of Technology made it in 2010), he wins the 2012 Coach of the Year honors going away.

On the shores of Lake Erie, Gotkin has been plying his trade for 24 consecutive years. And for most of those at both the Division III and I levels since 2001, Gotkin has steered the 3,500-student school to among the most consistent programs in NCAA history. (See sidebar box.)

Not without a few speed bumps, however. The team finished 15-18-4 to end the 2010-11 season.

Gotkin's 24-year highlights at Mercyhurst

He doesn't get the accolades of Jack Parker or Jerry York or Don Lucia, to name a few in the pantheon of NCAA coaches. But Rick Gotkin, while flying under the coaching radar, has accomplished a resume worthy of national recognition.

And his post-game interviews and quips are among the most colorful and memorable the college game has to offer.

Here's a few snippets of Gotkin's legacy to this point:

* 427 wins across Division I and III

* Top-10 among current coaches in longevity at 24 years and running

* No. 17 in all-time wins and winning percentage among current coaches

* Three appearances in the Division 3 NCAA Tournament

* Since the program went D-1 in 2001, two regular-season league championships in 2002 and 2003

* Three league tournament titles in 2001, 2003, 2005

* Tied with Air Force and Niagara with three Division I NCAA tournament appearances in Atlantic Hockey -- 2001, 2003, 2005

A few memorable Gotkin quotes:

* Before the start of 2001 NCAA regional game against Michigan, Gotkin looked across the rink and thought: "Wow, that's Red Berenson, coach of Michigan. I wonder if he's looking over here and saying, 'Wow, that's Rick Gotkin, coach of Mercyhurst.'"

(Mercyhurst had a 3-2 lead late in the third period before Michigan rallied for a 4-3 win.)

* In the postgame interview after Minnesota pasted the Lakers, 9-2, in the 2003 regional, Gotkin was asked how he could have changed the outcome. "Maybe I should have taken my timeout in the pregame warm-up."

* During the 2005 NCAA regional, Mercyhurst was in a war with Boston College that eventually prevailed, 5-4. In the heat of the game, one of the Lakers turned to Gotkin on the bench and said about BC and now Rangers forward Brian Boyle, "Jeez, coach, that No. 10 is pretty big." "Yeah," Gotkin said relating the size-mismatch in postgame questions, "but we have a game to win; get the kid's autograph after."

-- Bob Snow
"Last year," Gotkin told, "without a doubt was the most trying, stressful, worst year of my professional coaching career."

What was supposed to be the culmination of a solid rebuilding effort in Erie, Pennsylvania, became any coach's nightmare when the chemistry equation turned to poison and discipline issues ruled the Mercyhurst roost.

"That was last year and this is this year," said Gotkin, one of the game's best interviews. "We graduated a good chunk, we said goodbye to a couple, a few chose not to come back. It has all contributed to a much better culture, if you will.

"We cleaned the slate to come in and make an impact, and in one way, shape or form have been able to do that."

They sure have.

The Lakers are in first place in Atlantic Hockey at 10-3-2 and 13-9-2 overall. Their plus-21 goal overall differential in league play is third-best behind powerhouses Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota. Gotkin has 11 scorers in double figures -- best in the NCAA -- and the fourth-best league winning percentage of .733 behind Cornell, Duluth and Minnesota.

"We're real young with 14 freshmen," Gotkin said.

That group is led by Daniel Bahntge (8-14-22), Nardo Nagtzaam (9-12-21), Chris Bodo (7-10-17), Tyler Shiplo, Ryan Mislak, Mathew Zay, Zac Frischmon, Grant Gettinger, Kyle Johnson, Ed DeWald, and backup goalies Jimmy Sarjeant and Jake Williams.

How has Gotkin created that new culture so smoothly?

"We try to let the kids play, not micro-manage," Gotkin said, leading to another one of his colorful quotes. "At the end of the day it's not about the X's and the O's, it's about the Jimmy's and the Joe's. We need our Jimmy's and Joe's to be good. And so far they've done that.

"We really try to put the emphasis on defense; good in our end and very stingy around our goal. And that all can start in the offensive end by not turning over the puck offensively."

Four of Gotkin's "J's and J's" are the core of that effort in seniors Kevin Noble, Patrick Goebel, Derek Elliott and Max Strang, who create an eclectic chemistry that has made life good for Gotkin and crew this season.

"No question Noble and Goebel are leading the charge on defense," Gotkin said. "Kevin Noble is having an exceptional year, very physical and vocal leader. And Patrick Goebel is another absolute great kid; he's a warrior. Maybe 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds soaking wet, but an unbelievable competitor. And plays with Crohn's Disease. He's a great story who runs over guys 220 pounds. He's had to control his diet since freshman year when he had a bad bout with it and was in the hospital for a week. We were really worried about him. He's an inspiration to all of us; comes to the rink with a smile, doesn't say boo, and love to play. And plays and deals everyday with this terrible condition."

Elliot is third on the roster in scoring, but adds a few other unique talents.

"Another great kid with a great head and pulse for the locker room, who's a great story," Gotkin said. "He's an artist and art major. Has four or five goalie masks out there he paints -- a little cottage industry doing it. And he juggles and plays the guitar. He's a really neat kid."

Then comes Strang between the pipes with a 2.74 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.'s Top 10

1. Minnesota-Duluth 15-4-3
2. Boston University 13-6-1
3. Boston College 14-8-1
4. Minnesota 16-8-1
5. Ohio State 14-6-3
6. Merrimack 12-4-5
7. Notre Dame 13-8-3
8. Western Michigan 12-7-5
9. Cornell 10-4-3
10. Michigan 14-8-4
"All four have been superb leaders," Gotkin said, "but goaltending is about 75 percent of this great game; some of these really good goaltenders make for some really smart coaches. Max hasn't really gotten his chance until this year, so to see him do what he's waited so long to do is an absolute credit to him."

What creates the excitement for the Mercyhurst Lakers these next two months?

"We feel like we've pretty much erased last year," said a very upbeat Gotkin, "but we're a small school from a small conference. We think we can compete with anybody, and on any given night we can win. That's a great feeling; our team knows that.

"Our first goal this season was to be in the top eight. The goal now is to find a way to the top four. We still go one game at a time."

It's a long shot, but one that possibly goes all the way to Tampa and a Spencer Penrose Award.
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