It’s a small world after all. Well, at least the hockey world is.
Friday’s first-round matchup of the NCAA tournament will be the first time the No. 14 Ohio State Buckeyes and the No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs have faced off since 2013, but ties between the coaching staffs ensure that unfamiliarity will not be a factor.
OSU coach Steve Rohlik was an assistant at Duluth under Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin for 10 years before joining the Buckeyes in 2010. Beginning in 2008, Duluth assistant coach Brett Larson was also on the Bulldogs’ staff along with Rohlik and Sandelin before he departed for the United States Hockey League in 2011.
After a two-year stint with the Sioux City Musketeers, Larson joined Rohlik’s Buckeye staff when the latter took over as head coach in 2013. Larson served as an associate head coach at OSU for two seasons before reuniting with the Bulldogs once again in 2015.
“It’s crazy that we’re meeting up in this game,” Larson said.
During his 10 years with Duluth, Rohlik coached in two NCAA tournaments — highlighted by a Frozen Four appearance in 2004. According to Rohlik, the experience coaching under Sandelin helped him develop into the coach he is today.
“I wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t get the opportunity from Scott Sandelin to have a chance to go up there and learn from him and be a part of that organization and help put the program somewhat a bit where it’s at right now,” Rohlik said.
Sandelin said he was happy for Rohlik and OSU when he learned they made the tournament, citing the Buckeyes’ “high-end forwards” and Rohlik’s skills as a coach as reasons for their success.
“(Rohlik) worked hard, he was a good recruiter, he obviously had great knowledge of the game and I think that’s shown in some of his successes there,” Sandelin said.
Rohlik’s ability to recruit and knowledge of the game as a veteran assistant had a strong impact on Larson.
“I just learned so much from him about recruiting and coaching, how to handle myself as an assistant coach,” Larson said. “I was really lucky to come into that situation and be able to work with a guy like that because I learned a ton from him.”
While the coaching staffs are intertwined through their pasts — Buckeye associate head coach Mark Strobel also spent time with the Bulldogs — Larson stands out by having a connection to current players on both squads.
“Obviously with coach Larson being here with me for two years, he recruited a lot of these guys, he coached a lot of these guys for two years. So I don’t think they have to watch too much video, I think they know exactly who we are,” Rohlik said. “But I think we know who they are as well, so I think it’s exciting for both sides.”
Having recruited players for two teams with at-large bids is a point of pride for Larson.
“I got a call from (former OSU hockey player and coach) J.B. Bittner … he said I might have set the record for having the most players recruited in one game because there’s kids on both teams,” Larson said. “I do take a little pride in that… I feel like I helped maybe put a couple of building blocks in place for (OSU), to help move in the right direction over the last few years with some of the kids we recruited.”
Despite Larson’s familiarity with the Buckeyes, Sandelin said he is not falling back on those ties while preparing for the game.
“(Larson) knows some of the players, maybe he knows some of the tendencies of how they play, but that was two years ago,” he said. “We’ve got to go out and play our game and do the things we need to do.”
While the coaches have exchanged congratulations after the matchup was announced, they aren’t letting friendship and old allegiances get in the way of the game.
“I enjoyed my ten years (with Duluth), I’ll have that forever,” Rohlik said. “But you know when you move on, you become a part of this you do everything you can for Ohio State and that’s what I’m thinking about right now.”
Larson, who said he’s followed the Buckeyes closely since returning to Duluth, feels the same.
“Other than my team here in Duluth, I’m always pulling for the Buckeyes,” Larson said. “I really respect what Steve is doing there and I really like the kids that are playing there, so normally I’m a huge Buckeye fan. But not on Friday.”