For being such long endeavors, it’s odd that sports seasons are supposedly defined by their end results. It makes more sense to take a more holistic approach and look at the big picture — at the sum of all those little moments that go unnoticed.
An event that was noticed was the 2014 Big Ten Hockey Tournament Championship in St. Paul, Minn. The first season of Big Ten hockey came down to one final game between Ohio State and Wisconsin, where the Buckeyes led 4-2 with less than seven minutes left March 22.
The man behind OSU’s bench was Steve Rohlik. An associate head coach for three years with the Buckeyes, the 2013-14 season was Rohlik’s first in the top job. He had led his team through an 0-3 start and a goaltending reshuffle to bring the team within striking distance of its first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years.
His seemingly calm demeanor didn’t reveal the tension of the encounter, nor his own personal details that made the situation more compelling — this was not only a game in his hometown, but it was also against his alma mater. The script almost writes itself.
But, without warning, that script disappeared. The line between success and failure — one the Buckeyes had toed all season long in their 18-14-5 campaign — became clear. The Badgers scored twice in 28 seconds during the third period to tie the game, and less than eight minutes into the overtime period, Wisconsin was the Big Ten champion.
“I couldn’t have asked much more from our guys. They laid it on the line,” Rohlik said last week. “Ultimately I think we were 6:52 short of doing something pretty darn special for this university, for the alumni here, and for this program.”
That wasn’t the whole story, though. Instead, it was simply the end of the journey for a team and a coach that stressed the small things, and few could’ve imagined the Buckeyes would finish where they did after the upheaval of the previous spring.
Before Rohlik stepped into his new role, Mark Osiecki was fired just over three weeks after the end of the 2012-13 season because of what athletic director Gene Smith called in a press release “a difference of opinion over the management of the program that could not be resolved.”
It was Osiecki, Rohlik’s teammate at the University of Wisconsin, who brought him to Columbus as an associate head coach. Rohlik was named coach on an interim basis the day after Osiecki was let go, and then about a week later, was confirmed as the ninth head coach in program history.
“I’m truly honored, humbled and very blessed,” Rohlik said at his introductory press conference April 24, 2013. “When I sat down with the administration, and they told me the support they had moving into the Big Ten, I knew this was the place I wanted to be.”
Despite being an assistant coach for 16 years, Rohlik displayed leadership qualities at a young age. Captain at both Hill-Murray High School in St. Paul, Minn., and the University of Wisconsin, he had loads of experience in leading hockey players.
“From a young age, I was a captain of every team I’ve ever been on. In high school, in every sport I was a captain, my buddies called me ‘the captain.’” Rohlik said. “It was just in my blood. I love to put my neck out there, I love to try to do things the right way, and I love to give it 110 percent and do whatever it takes to help the team win.”
Just like leadership, hockey was also in Rohlik’s blood. Growing up in the “land of 10,000 lakes,” he said there was always a pond to skate on, and Rohlik described the sport as “a way of life.”
The dream for most kids was to play in the Minnesota state championship game. Rohlik played in two.
From there, he crossed the state line and attended the University of Wisconsin, captaining the Badgers in his junior and senior seasons, with his final campaign culminating in the 1990 NCAA Championship.
“I might’ve been the guy with the ‘C’ on his sweater, but we had so many great leaders, and all the hard work kind of accumulated to our senior year,” Rohlik said. “To win the (Western Collegiate Hockey Association), to win the WCHA playoffs, and then to win the NCAA Tournament … you can’t write a book any better than that year.”
Rohlik had a short stint as a professional before returning to his alma mater, Hill-Murray, as coach at the age of 23. Growing up, Rohlik’s father served the school in administrative position, so he said his dream was to play at Hill-Murray, making his appointment as coach even more meaningful.
Five seasons in St. Paul were followed by Division I assistant coaching jobs at Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth. Then in 2010, Rohlik got the call from Osiecki, and in just three years he’d become the coach.
“I think I’ve tried to take everything over my experiences as a player for so many years and as a coach for so many years. I just try to compile all those experiences,” Rohlik said. “Throughout all those years, you continue to ask yourself, ‘what would you do in that situation?’ I try to put myself in that spot, and ultimately when you get called upon (to be head coach), you try to surround yourself with good people.”
One of those people is associate head coach Brett Larson, a man Rohlik got to know at Minnesota-Duluth, and who Rohlik brought to OSU upon his appointment last year. Larson said Rohlik’s passion coupled his with genuine nature makes him a natural fit for a coach.
“The players can see how much he cares, how passionate he is. He wants to push everything to the next level,” Larson said. “It’s a great part of our culture, and you always say that the head coach leads the culture of a program. Being so passionate and so genuine are two things that make the players really want to play hard for him.”
The switch in coaching might have been tricky, but junior forward Tanner Fritz — who played under Rohlik as an assistant for two years — said the familiarity was actually beneficial.
“When he was the assistant coach, he was always the guy in the room after practice talking to the guys. He still does that — he’s a great player coach,” Fritz said. “He’s very involved in the team. I think he’s tight with every one of us. It’s good to have a coach that’s approachable and can talk to you outside of hockey.”
Besides his management skills and personability, Rohlik wants to instill in his players that passion Larson and so many others see clearly in him. Judging by what players like Fritz have to say about it, he seems to have succeeded.
“His passion for the game is — bar none — one of the best I’ve ever seen. The guy loves the game, he loves being at the rink,” Fritz said. “(The players) feed off that energy. We’re hard-working and we play with a lot of passion, and that comes from the coaching staff.”
That might not have come through at first, however. Three consecutive losses to start the season, an injury to freshman goalie Matt Tomkins and another goalie, then-sophomore Collin Olson, leaving the program in November threatened to derail the entire season.
But things changed with the addition of freshman goalie Christian Frey in net and the competitiveness of the Big Ten conference. Each game seemed to bring out the best in the Buckeyes as they finished fourth, behind three top-20 squads.
Freshman forward Nick Schilkey, who was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team, said the coaching philosophy of Rohlik and his staff was a big factor in righting the ship.
“He focuses on a lot of details. We focused all year on sticking together and sticking to the gameplan the coaches had set in place,” Schilkey said. “Over time, we grew into that gameplan and it showed during the second half of the year.”
Those details came together in many instances, including the upset of then-No. 1 Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal. Even if the season could be considered a success though, Rohlik knows there’s more to come from this team and this program.
“Were we satisfied at the end? Absolutely not. Were we satisfied with where we were at in the league? Absolutely not,” Rohlik said. “There’s certainly always room for improvement, and we know we’ve got a long way to go.”
And though he’s building a program, Rohlik sees his job as much more than that.
He cites the examples of junior forward Ryan Dzingel and senior forward Alex Lippincott as proof of what the sport’s biggest impact can be. Dzingel just signed a professional contract with the Ottawa Senators of the NHL, while Lippincott recently got his first job as graduation approaches.
“You see the power of what Ohio State can (do), be it moving on with the hockey or moving on because of the academic side of things,” Rohlik said. “I think that makes it pretty special for us to be involved with.”
Now, with one season under his belt, Rohlik is aiming to make things even more special around the OSU hockey program.
If he continues to get some of those little details right, it’d be hard to overestimate how far he can take it.