A reserved parking spot sits empty at the Goggin Ice Center and so does the Steve “Coach” Cady Arena, as both await the arrival of Miami University’s head hockey coach Enrico Blasi.
Blasi pulls in just before 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 9 for the Miami RedHawks’ last home hockey game of the season and what would be Blasi’s last home game at the helm of Miami ice hockey.
But the emotion of the 2018-19 regular season finale doesn’t cloud Blasi’s judgment or alter his routine, and Blasi feels no sense of dread for the future.
He’s concerned with the immediate future, thinking of Game Two against the Western Michigan University Broncos and his team’s response to the 5-1 loss from the night before.
Blasi pulls into his reserved spot and makes the short walk from his car to the service entrance of the arena to his office, passing the weight room, locker room and the meeting room titled “The Champions Room.”
He passes a wall of “Miami Moments” — every one of them he had been a part of except one dated 1981. He continues past photos of Miami teams who had postseason success — every one of them he had been a part of dating back to Miami’s first conference championship when he was a junior skater.
He turns his back to the photos and opens the door to the coaches’ room, ignoring the commemorative wall of “Coach of the Year” plaques to his left, though six of the 10 bear his name.
When fans enter the arena in several hours, they will not be reminded of the program’s past success as Blasi is, but they will walk through the lobby of the Goggin Ice Center and walk under the National Hockey League jerseys hanging on the walls above their heads.
The jerseys bear the names of former Miami hockey players who now play in the NHL. Blasi has coached almost every Miami player whose name has been stitched onto the back of a professional jersey.
Blasi doesn’t like to think about past successes or failures unless it influences the future. The past success of the RedHawks hasn’t been replicated for the past four seasons, and Blasi concerns himself with the game at hand.
The RedHawks’ co-captains arrive minutes after Blasi and the equipment manager delivers a medium, Starbucks, dark roast coffee as he has been for the past 20 years of Blasi’s tenure.
Blasi didn’t sleep much the night before. Though he has no problem falling asleep, he wakes up almost every hour replaying last night’s game in his head.
Sitting at his desk in the coaches’ room, Blasi sips the coffee and goes over his game plan, printing notes on the line-up card he’ll hold with him during the game. He re-watches video from the game before, refreshing his memory and trying to look for anything he had missed.
The basement of the Goggin Ice Center becomes busier as it gets closer to the 7:05 p.m. puck drop. Associate head coach Peter Mannino and assistant coach Joel Beal arrive around 4:30 p.m., and players trickle into the locker room soon after.
Players tape sticks, kick a soccer ball, stretch and practice stick handling in the weight room before filling the locker room at 5:30 p.m. – exactly an hour and a half until puck drop.
Blasi leaves his laptop at his desk in the coaches’ room, notes in hand to deliver the pregame speech. Mannino and Beal follow.
After the 5-1 showing the night before, Blasi strides to the front of the locker room and adjusts the RedHawks’ offense and defense. His 5-foot-7 frame commands the attention of the 28 players seated in front of him, and the seriousness of the situation sets in.
Of the 28 players looking up at Blasi, six will skate in their last game at the Steve “Coach” Cady Arena for Senior Night. The RedHawks have lost four in a row, and the postseason looms.
“We have to respond,” Blasi says. “A lot is on the line tonight. We have to respond.”
Blasi takes a total of six minutes of the players’ time and leaves them to continue their pregame rituals.
Though Blasi remembers his routine as a player, as a coach, he isn’t committed to one. Tonight, he leaves the Goggin Ice Center and walks next door to Phillips Hall to talk to the Red & White Club booster members.
His mind largely preoccupied with the game ahead, he’s brought back to last night and the decision he made to pull the RedHawks’ goalie with eight minutes left in the third period, down three goals.
In Friday’s post-game press conference, Blasi acknowledged the failed plan that led to another Western Michigan goal, saying: “[It’s] 4-1 and I try to pull the goalie and try to get some offense, and it’s probably a dumb move on my part.”
Now, a Red & White club member asks if pulling the goalie was a good idea.
“Let’s do this, how about I ask you, you be the coach,” Blasi says. “You’re not generating any shots on net, any offense, you’re down by three and you’ve got eight minutes left. Would you pull the goalie?”
“Not a chance,” the member says.
Even after four seasons with under .500 records, Blasi stands at the front of the room as the winningest hockey coach in Miami history. He has the experience to know pulling the goalie early can pay off, and it can backfire.
Sitting down, the fan can’t handle the gamble.
Blasi doesn’t miss a beat.
“That’s why you’re sitting down and I’m standing up.”
“Rico” Blasi didn’t used to arrive so early to the hockey rink on game days.
When he played youth hockey in Toronto, Ontario, his father left his cabinet-making job early and braved rush hour traffic to get Rico to his games 10 minutes before puck drop.
After his first year with the now-defunct Wexford Raiders and the harried routine to get Rico on the ice, his dad sat Rico down and said, “Hey, listen, if you want to play, you have to be closer to home.”
Home for Rico’s father and mother had been southern Italy before immigrating to Canada in the late 1950s. They knew nothing about hockey and still don’t speak the best English.
But everyone in Canada plays hockey at some level, and the Blasis were no different. When Rico was four, he skated on an outdoor pond with his older cousins. When he was seven, he began to play for the Raiders.
His dad, still unfamiliar with the sport but a new Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens fan, drove Rico through rush hour in support of his love for the game.
Rico, the oldest of three and a family man before he was old enough to be a man, agreed to play closer to home for a season before returning to the top-ranked Wexford Raiders.
His team won provincial championships and big tournaments every year Rico played for them.
The team’s success led to heightened NCAA Division I college hockey interest, and the then-Miami hockey head coach George Gwozdecky noticed the hard-working, small, Italian centerman.
“He wasn’t the highest scoring player,” Gwozdecky said. “He wasn’t the fastest player. Obviously, he wasn’t the biggest player, but he played with a tremendous deal of intelligence and played with a lot of heart and grit.”
The cheer has lost some of its gusto over the past four years, as attendance has thinned amidst losing streaks, but students still holler Blasi’s name.
Blasi returns to Goggin 20 minutes later, soaked from an evening storm. He strides back to the coaches’ room to take off his raincoat, before meeting radio play-by-play announcer Greg Waddell for a pregame interview in the Champions Room.
Waddell has known Blasi for 13 years, and they’ve developed a good working relationship. Yesterday, Blasi and Waddell talked about Bon Jovi, Blasi’s favorite musician, and Blasi swore off taking his daughter to another G-Eazy “rap” concert.
Tonight, Blasi is tighter lipped and in a greater hurry to get back to his notes and more film.
At 6:45 p.m., Blasi and the players’ preparation is interrupted for the pregame Senior Night ceremony.
Nine minutes and six ceremonial final laps later, Blasi heads back to the coaches’ room and the players head back to the locker room to pull jerseys over their heads.
The song “Mo Bamba” by Sheck Wes floods the basement, and players holler the lyrics before heading back to the bench.
Seven minutes before puck drop, Blasi walks out the tunnel to stand behind the bench, line-up card in hand, careful, all-capital printed notes lining the page. Mannino stands near the defensive end, on Blasi’s left, and Beal stands near the offensive zone, to Blasi’s right.
The Steve “Coach” Cady Arena crowd turns their attention to the national anthem and public address announcer Scott Shriver reads off the starting lineups first for Western Michigan, then for Miami.
“Director of hockey operations for Miami is Dean Stork,” Shriver says, voice booming. “Assistant coaches are Peter Mannino and Joel Beal and, in his 20th season coaching at the helm of Miami ice hockey, is head coach Enrico Blasi.”
The student section wastes no time and answers Shriver’s announcement with the routine screaming of “RICO.” The cheer has lost some of its gusto over the past four years, as attendance has thinned amidst losing streaks, but students still holler Blasi’s name.
Not one to listen to the crowd unless his team is winning later in the game, Blasi takes time to cringe before dialing in.
Standing behind the bench, hands behind his back, Blasi doesn’t say anything before the referee drops the puck. He wants his team to focus on the game, instead of anything he says.
But a WMU goal 57 seconds into the game finds Blasi’s voice.
“Where’s our forecheck!?”
And he thinks, Let’s get it back.
Off the ensuing faceoff, WMU camps out in Miami’s zone, and Blasi yells, “Where’s our D!?”
Not five seconds later, a save by goaltender Ryan Larkin on a shot the D should have prevented forces Blasi to look skyward in early exasperation. His eyes don’t leave the game for long, and he turns back to watch the RedHawks attempt to survive WMU’s early onslaught.
When the RedHawks rush up to the offensive zone, players stand and Blasi steps up to stand on the bench. Early excitement and anticipation from his perch turns to frustration a minute later.
An opportunity to even the score comes for Miami on the power play, but Blasi watches an offensive-zone turnover, rolls his head and kicks the boards behind him. The bench doesn’t flinch.
When the power play ends, Blasi leans back against the glass behind him and crosses his ankles on the bench in front of him. He leans on his right elbow resting on the lip where the boards meet the glass. He faces the offensive zone, though his eyes track the puck all over the ice.
Blasi steps up and down off the bench as the teams play on and occasionally yells for a specific line to take the ice.
With 6:06 left to play in the period, WMU jumps to a 2-0 lead.
“Don’t back in!” Blasi yells to the bench, his lips pulling back so that his ears twitch. “Why did we back in? Fuck. Jesus fuck, why are we backing up for? Stay in his face. If you back off, he’s going to pass through you, if you stay in his face…” Blasi trails off.
Again, he thinks, Let’s get it back.
The period ticks along and Blasi tries to energize his team with a quick, shouted, “Let’s go!” after an effective penalty kill.
He’s shouted the phrase throughout the years in practice and during games en route to victory and defeat. Sometimes it works. Recently, it hasn’t.
When the horn sounds, the coaches file off the bench and the players file into the locker room down 2-0.
One player re-tapes his stick, another re-chalks his and one talks with the equipment manager about the successful penalty kill.
With eight minutes left before the start of the second, Blasi walks back into the room and relays further adjustments he wants the RedHawks to make.
“Let’s go. Let’s fucking go. Play with some passion. Fucking do something. Let’s go.”
Most of the time, he’s angry with the officials and lets them know it, but tonight he hopes his anger shows his players he refuses to quit.
Though Blasi’s 2018-19 Miami team struggled for wins, when Blasi was a freshman skater, his 1990-91 team finished with only five, a record he still remembers.
“Yeah, we sucked really bad,” Blasi said, then laughed, though he didn’t find it funny. “Like, we weren’t even close. We were terrible – losing games 11-1, 9-4, 8-1 that kind of thing.”
On the Monday after Blasi’s freshman year team lost their last weekend of the season, Coach Gwozdecky got a call from the team’s strength and conditioning coach.
“Hey,” the coach said. “I just want to let you know that we had three of your hockey players in the weight room today asking me to train them so they could get bigger and stronger and faster because they never want to have the kind of season they just had.”
Blasi was one of those players because, for him, effort is everything.
“That’s how I was brought up,” Blasi said about that Monday almost 30 years ago. “That’s how I played. That’s what I believe in. My parents are right off the boat, they had to claw and scratch for everything we had. Not only that, but being a smaller player, I had to fight for everything. To me, it’s unacceptable when someone doesn’t work hard.”
So Blasi worked hard, and took a hockey class with his teammates just so they could be on the ice for more minutes during the day.
Professors came to know him as a responsible student, while Gwozdecky learned Blasi found more joy in helping others than scoring himself.
“He’d go flying into the corners to get the puck, come out with it and pass it to someone who was standing wide open and they’d shoot,” Gwozdecky said.
Blasi’s play with and without the puck, on both the power play and the penalty kill units, and in the corners helped Miami to 18 wins and an over .500 record his sophomore season.
When Blasi was a junior, the RedHawks wrote “Respect everyone. Fear no one.” on the wall and someone penciled in “The Brotherhood” next to the mantra. The team won their first Central Collegiate Hockey Association Championship in 1992-93.
Gwozdecky remembers the championship, and he remembers how Blasi wasn’t the super star, nor the fastest, nor the biggest player, but he had the highest hockey IQ and the biggest heart.
“When you see me frustrated, for me, it’s always about working a little bit harder and that’s something that you can control,” Blasi said. “When guys are not doing what they’re supposed to out of effort, to me, that’s not acceptable.”
Miami starts the second period with a carry-over power play from the first, and Blasi stands behind the bench, resting his left foot on it, his elbow on his knee and his chin in his hand.
He stays that way for a minute before shaking his head at the unsuccessful power play.
Blasi’s hands shift to his pockets after five minutes and, after WMU scores again, Blasi leans back and purses his lips, eyebrows pulling together only slightly.
And, he thinks, Let’s get it back.
Blasi’s quiet again until the Broncos take too long to complete a line change for a faceoff in front of the Miami bench.
“Hey,” Blasi calls to the ref, “Is that a warning?”
Though Blasi’s frustrated with the play, he hopes his chirping at the ref gets the guys going. Most of the time, he’s angry with the officials and lets them know it, but tonight he hopes his anger shows his players he refuses to quit.
Other times, Blasi’s silence is more powerful.
Larkin comes up with a big save with just over 13 minutes to go and Blasi says nothing, rubs his face and steps off the bench.
Two more WMU goals silence Blasi and seat the RedHawks, leaving only four players to stand watching the play with five minutes left in the period.
A big hit pulls everyone to their feet and Blasi back on top of the bench three minutes later, but the 5-0 score forces players back to their seats and Blasi back to leaning against the boards.
The five goals against quiets the locker room during the intermission, and Blasi’s speech about the Xs and Os is short.
No music plays, but players fill the air with words of encouragement for each other:
“Win this period.”
“Lots of time.”
“Don’t fucking quit boys, let’s win this period.”
Blasi and his teammates consider themselves the class that turned Miami hockey around, but the minor professional leagues didn’t care, especially during the 1994 NHL lockout.
Players fell from the NHL to the minor leagues taking spots that might have belonged to Blasi, hindering his opportunity to play professionally.
Blasi called Gwozdecky, his youth coach and his parents and decided to return to Toronto to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
A nine-to-five job inputting series into Excel for his uncle, Blasi quickly learned, wasn’t it.
“I thought, ‘This is awful, I can’t do this the rest of my life,’” Blasi said. “‘This thing sucks – it’s boring, you can only drink so much coffee a day, you’re looking at the clock waiting for an hour to go by so you can get home and do something you like.’”
He liked coaching the Wexford Raiders in the evening, and Gwozdecky, then the head coach at the University of Denver, continued to recruit from the team. When he was in town, he got lunch with Blasi and propositioned him:
“Have you ever thought about going to grad school?”
“I don’t know if I’m smart enough to go to grad school,” Blasi said, only half serious.
“Why don’t you come to Denver?” Gwozdecky asked. “We’ll get you into grad school and you can be our volunteer. We’ll take care of the schooling, and we’ll give you a stipend and you can be the graduate assistant.”
“OK,” Blasi didn’t hesitate.
Blasi broke the news to his incredulous parents – “Are you crazy? You’ve got no money. What are you going to do?” – packed his bags, and set off for Denver.
The new job wasn’t a nine-to-five, but Blasi no longer found himself staring at the clock, wishing the hours to tick faster.
Blasi still knew Gwozdecky as “Coach,” and “Coach” assigned him to work with goalies for his first year.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Blasi said. “I just tried to call everybody I knew who was a goalie and tried to learn as much as I could.”
Though Blasi was largely inexperienced, his player attributes and communication skills translated to his early coaching style and made him a top assistant coach candidate after one of Gwozdecky’s assistant coaches left.
Blasi became Gwozdecky’s new assistant coach, quit his master’s program and started recruiting.
“I did all that work that first year for nothing,” Blasi said and smiled wryly, “but I got a job out of it and three years later [Miami’s] job opened up.”
Two years later, when Miami started looking for a new head coach before the 1999-2000 season, Blasi was far from a top candidate. Only 27 years old with three years of assistant-coaching under his belt, two coaches turned down the job and three others were interviewed before Miami seriously considered Blasi.
“I was definitely not the No. 1 choice, and I knew that,” Blasi said.
Getting the job was only half the battle. Getting coaches and players to work for the youngest coach in NCAA Division I hockey history was more arduous.
“[I was] scared to death,” Blasi said. “I did a lot of things in those early years out of fear because I didn’t want to fail and didn’t want to let anybody down who took a chance on me.”
Amidst negative recruiting, Blasi was conscious of how he talked, walked, skated and carried himself – wanting to model the culture he was trying to create. A culture the introvert wanted to keep solely Miami hockey’s.
“If [staff] went to Kroger and someone asked how the team was, it was a generic answer,” Blasi said. “If they’re Uptown and somebody asked about someone, it was a generic answer. I didn’t want anybody to know what was going on in our program except our program.”
The first year, Blasi’s inherited players struggled to listen to the 27 year old’s gameplan, and the team finished 13-20-3 and eighth in the 12-team conference standings.
The second year: “We finished second [in the conference], and we probably shouldn’t have finished second, but we did,” Blasi said, then laughed. “So everyone’s thinking, ‘Oh geez, Rico’s really good now, right?’”
Expectations hesitantly rose, but “The third year, we shit the bed,” Blasi said, then laughed again. “Right back in the tank.”
During Blasi’s fourth year, he wrote “The Brotherhood” on the wall. His first recruiting class was juniors, and guys were starting to buy into what Blasi was selling.
“We wanted to be different and how do we be different?” Blasi said. “To me, you create your own brand. ‘The Brotherhood’ was creating our own brand.”
But he didn’t define “The Brotherhood” quite yet. He waited three more seasons, until after the 2005-06 year, to define Miami hockey.
Blasi gives the net to senior goaltender Jordan Uhelski for the third period, and 200 feet away and three minutes into the final period of the final home game of the season, sophomore forward Ben Lown scores.
The bench jumps to their feet, and fans sing Miami’s fight song, though the players’ lackluster celebration on the ice matches the mood about the 5-1 score.
Blasi’s forehead unfurrows minimally, and now he thinks, Let’s get another one.
But the RedHawks wouldn’t and WMU would, commanding a 6-1 lead for the last game of the 2018-19 regular season.
Fans lose interest and head for the exits, and Blasi only rocks onto his toes to see Miami’s occasional offensive-zone play.
With one minute left to play, he calls for the seniors to stay on the ice for the remainder of the game, and the players breathe hard as the remaining fans cheer: “Thank you seniors.”
Blasi listens, silent and thinking of what to say and how to get better.
Before Blasi heard the cheers in the Steve “Coach” Cady Arena, he heard them in the old Goggin Arena where the RedHawks played their last season in “the old barn” in 2005-06.
“You couldn’t write it any better,” Blasi said. “We were No. 1 in the country, won the league, the place was packed every night.”
After his team played in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years, Blasi was ready to define “The Brotherhood.” The team was already calling themselves “The Brotherhood,” the players were bought into the mission, the vision and the processes of playing the game the right way.
A leadership consultant visited Oxford and helped Blasi define the phrase: team dynamics, daily behaviors and accountability. The consultant recommended the phrase be trademarked and copyrighted, and so it was.
“The Brotherhood,” which defined Blasi’s turnaround team of the early 1990s, came to define his culture as a head coach.
The culture helped the team to another NCAA Tournament appearance, and the program’s first tournament win in 2006-07.
So Blasi finally took a vacation.
“Most people dream about beaches and vacation,” Blasi said. “I dream about what drill we’re going to do tomorrow. It’s sad. It sucks,” Blasi said, but smiled. “It’s hard, but it’s also rewarding and fun. I don’t think I would be doing anything different, other than maybe being a barista at Starbucks. I don’t know how to do anything else.”
Blasi met his wife, Susan, in Denver and they were engaged the summer after Rico took the job at Miami. They were married within the year and Susan was pregnant with their first daughter soon after.
They didn’t take a family vacation for the first eight years in Oxford.
“Athletics doesn’t stop,” Susan said. “They don’t recognize holidays. They don’t recognize evenings. He’s just always working. His boss would be over in the evenings, talking to him at eight o’clock at night and knocking on the door and showing up. It’s a crazy life.”
Blasi’s two daughters, now 15 and 17 years old, help quell the craziness because, to them, he’s always been “Dad.” As they’ve gotten older, they’ve come to understand why “Dad” gets stopped uptown to chat about hockey, and they pick out his suits before game days.
Except Blasi’s ties because, if a tie loses, Blasi refuses to wear it again that season. If the loss is bad enough, he won’t wear it ever again.
As the years have gone on with many ties resigned to the back of the closet, Blasi has learned how to leave work at the rink. He goes to church at least twice a week. He recharges at home by walking Romeo, the family’s Havanese Poodle, or by attending his daughters’ cheerleading or soccer activities.
And, he’ll sing Bon Jovi lyrics wrong.
“In general, people don’t know that he’s really goofy,” Susan said. “The kids get a kick out of it, but I don’t think he shows that side to many other people. He’s singing around the house and always have the wrong lyrics to the song, but will always belt it out anyways.
“Most people, when they think of him, they think he’s very serious and intense and they don’t get to see that side.”
Post-game, Blasi sounds as exhausted as his players look, his voice dropping to deliver his comments.
“How did we lose this one?” Blasi says quietly. “Think about that on Monday [at practice]. Do things we’re supposed to do. You’re gonna look back and it’ll bite you in the ass. The opportunity is now, we have a second season. You embarrassed us, our fans, on senior night.”
After the Blasis’ vacation, the team went on an eight-year run marked by two conference championships, two conference tournament championships, seven NCAA Tournament appearances, two Frozen Four appearances and one National Championship appearance.
“It was great up until 2015,” Blasi said.
The 2014-15 season was the last time Miami hockey played in a national tournament and, for the first time in Blasi’s career, there were four consecutive seasons with more losses than wins.
“When we lose, I suck,” Blasi said.
Losing 20 years ago when he first led the program sucks just as much as it does now, and Blasi is still the same coach he was 20, 10 and five years ago – voice raised at practice, calling out a lackluster effort.
“He’s more intense,” 2018-19 co-captain and senior forward Josh Melnick said. “He holds guys accountable a lot more than any other coach I’ve had. Sometimes that’s like getting on them and yelling.”
Fellow co-captain, senior Grant Hutton chimed in to say, “People don’t realize it’s a care-level thing, it’s not just like he’s yelling to yell or just getting mad to get mad.”
“He’s yelling because he cares,” Melnick said.
“It’s easy to overlook that, like, ‘Oh, here’s this guy yelling at his guys,’” Hutton said.
Blasi is aware.
“I think I’m sometimes hard to play for,” Blasi said. “I always tell our recruits when I meet with them: ‘I’m a hard guy to play for, but I’m also an easy guy to play for. I’m a hard guy to play for if you don’t do the things you’re supposed to be doing because that really irritates me. That’s my pet peeve: when you don’t do something that’s expected of you because of lack of effort, not necessarily lack of execution, but because of lack of effort and focus.
“‘Those are things you can’t take for granted. That’s on you. You manage your own thoughts. I can’t be in your head. If you can’t bring those two to the table, then you’re going to have a tough time with me, I don’t have the time of day for you and I’m going to be upset. But if you do those things, you and I are going to get along great.’ I think that’s why I’m an easy coach to play for.”
Last year, after three consecutive losing seasons and a last place finish in the conference, Blasi reevaluated.
He hired new assistant coaches, needing them to recruit players that matched his passion, his intensity. He named Melnick and Hutton co-captains. He started playing “Orange-Lemon” again – a shootout game where the winner eats an orange and the loser sucks on a lemon.
His practices, still punctuated with a raised voice and accountability, included silly calls of “bend your knees,” “looping’s for losers” and “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
But, Blasi still likes to win and doesn’t take losing “Orange-Lemon” lightly.
“He was pissed,” Hutton said. “I think he didn’t want to talk to anybody. He was legitimately mad. It was supposed to be fun and games, but he was not happy.”
Post-game, players don’t have cool downs. They leave their “Earn the ‘B’” workout shirts in their locker room stalls, leaving the “Coach” Cady Arena in suits, seeking solace with their family members.
Why, after 20 years, is the program back to “earning the ‘B’”?
“I feel like our program’s at a point where we’ve forgotten what this is all about,” Blasi said on March 11, two days after the Senior Night loss. “So that’s my effort to start to implement the new culture of ‘why are you here?’ of earning ‘The Brotherhood,’ earning to be a part of this.”
Blasi, seated in “The Champions Room” purposefully glanced around.
“It’s a special thing. You’ve got to earn it. It’s not a god-given right. It’s not like you were born into it. You have to work for it. We’re getting better at it. We’re not there yet.”
“It didn’t work, huh?” Blasi said and smiled wryly. “Nothing worked this year. I went from genius status to idiot status in about four years.”