By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
Teams start their season in one of three categories: favorite, contender or underdog. So excuse the pundits and experts if they placed the expansion Michigan Warriors in the underdog category to start last season. Playing in the eight-team North Division with the likes of St. Louis, Traverse City, Janesville, Springfield and others, the Warriors were a longshot to make the playoffs let alone win.
However, in their building process the Warriors did several things right. The first was hiring an experienced coach like Moe Mantha. Mantha, who had 12 years and 656 games of NHL playing experience, also had over a decade of coaching experience including stops in the major junior Ontario Hockey League and the professional ‘AA’ ECHL and ‘AAA’ American Hockey League.
After a somewhat average start is wasn’t until October that things started to click and the Warriors started to win. Then came another realization in January that would take the Warriors all the way to the National Championship game. That was the emergence of a goaltender named Robert Tadazak. The Warriors run to the National Title game was a team effort, but it was also due in large part to Tadazak, who would end up as the NAHL MVP and post the highest single-season save percentage in NHL history.
“It showed what can be done with character and what happens when you have a goalie that really played superhuman and up to his ability each and every night,” said Mantha. “Yes, I felt like we exceeded expectations, but it wasn’t just circumstance. We had a group of guys who worked well together and bonded at the right time. It was a magical run that really put our team on the map.”
The run included winning eight of their last nine regular season games, to wind up in 3rd place, two points ahead of 4th place Janesville. That meant instead of facing division champion St. Louis, the Warriors would play the Traverse City North Stars in the North Semi-Finals, whom they dispatched in four games. In the North Finals against St. Louis, every game was decided by one goal, but one. In the fifth and deciding game, it was Tadazak shining again as the Warriors would advance to the Robertson Cup play-in series against Bismarck. After another Tadazak shutout in Game #1 against the Bobcats, it was a double OT win in Game #2 that sent the Warriors to the tournament.
The Warriors, who played an NAHL high 16 games in the post-season, held a 2-1 lead in the final six minutes of the National Championship game before Fairbanks would score three goals to win 4-2. “It was heartbreaking, but motivating at the same time,” said Mantha. “I think any guy on that team that is coming back this year has a great attitude and will remember that experience forever.”
Michigan enters 2011-12 having to replace many key positions. Besides Tadazak, the Warriors lost almost their entire defensive core and an impressive nine players to the NCAA. “One of the other benefits for us with our success last season is now prospective players know that if you play for the Michigan Warriors there is a good chance they will have success and get a college placement.”
Brach Tiller, who was kind of the forgotten man throughout all the success had by Tadazak, will get the chance to start the season as Michigan’s #1 goalie. He had 18 games and over 1,000 minutes played last season in the NAHL, so he should be ready. Up front, the Warriors return A.J. White, who not only had a good regular season, but who had an incredible post season. He led the team in +/- in the playoffs and had five points in the Robertson Cup Tournament. Other veterans that Mantha singled out were Tyler Perpich, Chris Eckler, Bobby Bodette and Mantha’s nephew, Robert.
As for any new players Warriors fan can expect to see make an impact this year, Mantha points to their 1st round draft pick in this past year’s draft, forward Chris Murray. Another player is NAHL veteran and Flint, Michigan native Cody Damon, who had 16 points in 30 games with the Chicago Hitmen.
It is entirely conceivable that the Warriors could again make another run to the Robertson Cup Tournament, or at the very least be considered a favorite to win the North Division, but it will take a new group of players making it their own, while leaning on the remarkable experience from a season ago.
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Minot Minotauros.