D secret is simple for U’s Crowley

Michael Rand

For the first two-thirds of the Gophers hockey season, whispers about defenseman Mike Crowley were commonplace.
Psst. What’s wrong with Crowley? He’s not scoring. He doesn’t look the same.’
Then the junior from Bloomington Jefferson blew up for eight assists last weekend against Michigan Tech. The sounds were quite different.
Ahh. It’s about time he found his form. Everything’s back to normal.’
“It’s funny, but this weekend I really didn’t play any different than I have all season,” Crowley said.
Former Gophers assistant coach Bill Butters had some fun with the topic of public perception after Minnesota finished practice on Tuesday afternoon.
Butters, who is now the hockey coach at Bethel College, was leading his players through a practice at Mariucci Arena late Tuesday afternoon when he noticed Crowley sitting on the Gophers’ bench.
“You play good defense for 10 games and nobody wants to talk to you,” Butters said. “Then you score a bunch of points and everyone does.”
Everyone was concerned, but was anything ever wrong with Crowley? It is easy to get the impression that he was struggling by looking at his statistics.
Crowley scored 17 goals and had 46 assists last season. His 63 points were the most ever scored by a Gophers defenseman. He was an All-American and a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
When a player has this type of year as a sophomore, the tendency is to expect the same and maybe more the following season.
This year he has four goals and 27 assists — numbers greatly boosted by his outburst last weekend but still down from last year.
His supporting cast, however, is much different. Not to take anything away from the current Gophers team — after all, first place in the WCHA speaks for itself — but last year’s team had a couple of players that will never be replaced: Brian Bonin and Dan Trebil. These two players had a hand in 38 of Crowley’s 63 points last season.
“It might surprise some people to hear this, but I miss Dan Trebil a little more than Bonin,” Crowley said. “He knew what I was going to do, and I knew what he was going to do.”
Trebil was Crowley’s defensive partner in high school and college. Indeed they were an inseparable and deadly duo, but when Crowley slides the puck across the blue line this year, it hits an unfamiliar stick. The impact of playing with less experienced defensemen is two fold.
First, the puck doesn’t find the net after a pass with the same frequency that it did last year because new players need time to adjust to Crowley’s habits. It’s no coincidence that Crowley’s big point total this year came on the same weekend that freshman defenseman Ben Clymer broke out of a scoring funk to net four goals.
“Other people finally started finishing off for him,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said. “It’s tough when you play hard every week and nothing seems to change.”
Second, Crowley can’t rush the puck into the offensive zone as much as he did last year, when he knew Trebil would be there for back-up on defense. Crowley said he doesn’t mind lagging behind on offensive rushes, but it does decrease his scoring chances.
“I’m probably more defensive-minded this year because Dan’s gone, but defense comes first,” he said. “I’ve grown up to play good defense. People may think I’m the second center on the ice, but my first priority is to play defense. People may think defense is just making big hits, but that’s not all there is to it.”
There was a time right before Christmas when the whispers and the low point-total started getting to Crowley. The Gophers lost at home to St. Cloud State and the player expected to carry the team was 15 points off of his pace from the previous season.
“I didn’t think I was playing any different,” Crowley said. “But it was frustrating, especially when the team wasn’t winning. Once you start pressing, it gets even harder.”
He kept a pretty even keel, though, even through the difficult times. Senior Nick Checco, who played with Crowley at Bloomington Jefferson and is currently one of his roommates, said he hasn’t noticed a difference during the year.
Checco also laughed at the idea that Crowley’s eight-assist weekend was some magical transformation.
“He’s just a great player to begin with. He’s always going to be that way,” Checco said.
If Crowley got half the number of points he had last year, Checco said, he’d still be doing well.
Crowley’s trick will be convincing everyone else that Checco is right.