Ask Western Michigan Broncos’ goaltender Frank Slubowski what the biggest difference is playing in the team’s new higher-tiered NCAA division and his first answer isn’t the skill level.
“Longer road trips,” the Rupertite sighed over the phone.
Indeed, anyone who’s ever played minor and school sports can relate to Slubowski’s claustrophobic bus rides.
Though the stiff competition does come to mind in NCAA’s Division 1, even if after the sore bottom.
“I’d say it’s a lot more skill throughout the four lines,” said the third-year.
“It’s a really competitive league.”
Slubowski’s Broncos were elevated to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) after their old conference was disbanded thanks to a re-alignment of the divisions.
WMU’s new NCHC division features the deadly University of North Dakota, which has won seven national championships, most recently in 2000.
The division also hosts the University of Denver, the guilty culprits who eliminated the Broncos from playoff contention in 2014.
That loss to the Denver Pioneers stung.
“It was a tough one,” said Slubowski.
“It was back and forth the whole game, and then the last goal that they scored late in the third (period) was tough. (The puck) took a bad bounce off a defenceman and it was kind of a breakaway there, so a bit of a heartbreaker.”
Slubowski stopped 19 shots in that game, but it was timely scoring that propelled the Pioneers over Slubowski’s Broncos, 4-3.
The Broncos finished tied for fourth in the NCHC with a 19-16-5 record.
“I think some of the pre-season polls put us last in this conference so it was a big step for us to come out with the season we had even though we didn’t get the finish we wanted,” said Slubowski.
Slubowski won 10 of those games, which was a drop off from last year, but last year the goalie played every single game, which is extremely uncommon.
“(Our other goalie) Lukas Hafner battled and worked hard all summer, so he deserved to play. And it’s good for a team to have to have two goalies who can go,” said Slubowski.
“It’s only to our advantage.”
Coached by the tenured Andy Murray, the veteran bench boss of 10 NHL seasons, Slubowski has thrived at WMU.
“I think I’ve always known I wanted to go the college route,” said Slubowski.
“As a goalie, just playing more years of hockey will give me a better chance of playing pro hockey,” said Slubowski, who will look for an NHL contract this year while also returning to the North Coast.
“I’ll probably go back home for a little break (this summer). The fishing’s better there.”