Ricky Lindsay: Hockey program’s rebirth on display as pen met paper

Donnie Nagle, Collin Flynn, and Jeff McFarland sign their letters of intent to play hockey at the University of Michigan-Dearborn next fall. (Brianna Frisch/MJ)

Donnie Nagle, Collin Flynn, and Jeff McFarland sign their letters of intent to play hockey at the University of Michigan-Dearborn next fall. (Brianna Frisch/MJ)

Editor’s note (July 3, 2014): Collin Flynn is no longer a member of UM-Dearborn’s incoming freshmen recruiting class.

By RICKY W. LINDSAY, Sports Editor

One by one, the future entered through steel-colored sets of doors, onto the concourse, and up the stairs. Glossy posters featuring athletes from each sport line the walls of the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Fieldhouse, remnants of a rebranding effort. A quick tour of the trio’s new home separated pen from paper, the goal of this destination.

Behind them, a zamboni circled around, readying the ice for students awaiting open skate. Soon, that would be their ice, their sanctuary, for the next four years.

Collin Flynn and Jeff McFarland walked into the Fieldhouse on a frigid January afternoon with wide smiles of excitement. In the conference room across the rink’s doors, Donnie Nagle awaited his future teammates’ arrival before signing their letter of intents to join the Wolverines this fall.

Each day, students and faculty alike take these same steps with no attached sentiment, racing from a plump parking lot to a crowded classroom. As always, they took to their usual routine.

But on this day, things were different.

They buzzed past, gazing into the conference room, the site for signing day. On the table lay shirts with the Wolverines name for the trio, as well as fresh, white jerseys for next season. Behind it, a navy UM-Dearborn banner glistened as the hazy yellow lighting struck its fabric.

After the sport they love took them all over the country, to many junior league arenas and new sights, the opportunity to play ACHA Division-I college hockey brought Flynn, McFarland, and Nagle home.

“This is your Yost (Ice Arena). This is your Ann Arbor. Embrace it,” first-year hockey coach Chris Haltinner said.

***

The efforts of a new marketing campaign by the athletic department had finally culminated. From Wolves to Wolverines, the name change finalized last winter was in the midst of what had been hoped for all along.

Years of athletic struggles on a campus primarily designed for academic success had suddenly become obsolete. Like with many athletes at UM-Dearborn before them, education played a role in the trio’s decision. But newfound success and support sealed the deal.

Nagle turned down baseball scholarships to Michigan State and Indiana to continue his hockey career, eventually leading him to UM-Dearborn. A win against No. 4 Adrian on the road, one of the league’s top teams, quickly became a memorable piece in the hockey program’s history.

It also marked the program’s turning point.

This wasn’t the same hockey team from years’ past. After years of coming up short, the Wolverines were finally provided the opportunity to improve the program. In-depth recruiting was now possible. Scholarships quickly followed. Schedules were refined.

Before, UM-Dearborn was a destination for players to continue lacing up their skates. Now, it was all about business. All about winning and accomplishing goals.

“They get treated like they’re playing D-1,” Haltinner noted. He too, was a former junior leaguer during his playing days, dealing with initiation tasks rookies all-too-often go through.

Right away, junior forward James Marchese made the trio aware of the raised expectations once he stepped foot into the conference room. Years ago, he had experienced the old, passionless culture before becoming a leader for the new-look Wolverines this season.

“We want to win and we want to to go nationals,” he announced.

***

As pen met paper, national championships were on the mind. With the absence of a football program at UM-Dearborn, the weight of expectations and excitement that are often found on a gridiron lay on the freshly-shaved ice.

“You’re the football team here,” Haltinner said.

Four times, the program had reached the national championship game. All four times, they had fell short, finishing as runner-ups.

“I’ve come so close in the past. I feel like we’re due for one,” Flynn said.

The trio knew why they were here, donning UM-Dearborn jerseys. As experienced freshman, expectations will be high. But they knew that all along.

“Our goal is to go to nationals and win a national championship, and that’s why you’re here,” Haltinner declared, regarding his trio of signees.

When pen met paper, the quest for a national championship —as well as the opportunity to play college hockey — brought Flynn, McFarland, and Nagle home.

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