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Sean Leahy

Puck Daddy chats with Miami University's Tommy Wingels about Brendan Burke, life in Miami and unfinished business in NCAA

Sean Leahy
Puck Daddy

This weekend is the NCAA Frozen Four in Detroit. Leading up to this weekend's events, we're chatting with one player from each of the teams involved. Our final interview is with San Jose Sharks prospect Tommy Wingels, a forward for Miami University.

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One minute. That's all that was left before Miami University would claim its first NCAA hockey title. Leading Boston University 3-1 in the third period of the 2009 championship game, another minute and the RedHawks would be champs. The Terriers, however, waged a furious comeback, scoring twice in the final minute to force overtime and then the title-winner 11:47 into sudden death.

It was a heartbreaking way to lose, let alone lose a national championship. The game has stuck in the mind of the returning Miami University players, including junior forward Tommy Wingels.

"It's set in that we're going back to the Frozen Four. That's something we've been focused on. It's not something you try and focus on until your conference tournaments are finished, but it's something we've thought about since our last game at the end of last year."

Wingels, a sixth-round pick by the San Jose Sharks in 2008, is one of Miami's captains and most reliable players. Having not missed a game in his three-year career, Wingels is as durable as they come and scored 17 goals and 42 points this season for the RedHawks.

We spoke with Wingels last week about dealing with the Brendan Burke tragedy; The Brotherhood at Miami; and unfinished business.

Q. Going back to February, the day after Brendan Burke's passing, the team had to go out and play against Lake Superior State, which you wound up winning 10-4. How tough was it to block the sadness of that tragedy out of your minds and try to focus on hockey that night?

WINGELS: You know, it was pretty difficult. You don't see an event like that happening and you've got to deal with it the best you can. I don't think guys slept much that night. Hockey's just a game and event like that, that's real life and it makes you step back and look at your life. You can't take anything for granted. You've got to live each day you can and make the best of it.

Fortunately, the team was able to get focused. I usually get focused day before and the day of. I don't think the focus came until we stepped on the ice. All the thoughts were about Brendan and his family and friends. The way we played that night showed a lot about how the team reacted and the character of the team.

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Being around him the last few years, what can you tell me about Brendan that most people might not know?

He was the most well spoken young man any of us had ever met. You can say his life was just getting started.

Having come out just a year and a half ago, he had so much to do, so many lives to touch, and so many kids he could have helped out. He's going to be missed. It's unfortunate people aren't going to see the kind of impact he could have had.

The Brotherhood at Miami. Is that something that's hard to explain and one of those things you just have to experience to understand?

It's a little bit of both.

It's the way we're taught. Guys come here at age 18 and haven't lived away from home ever in their life; it's the first time away from their parents and family and we've created this Brotherhood we call it. It's a way to rely on guys on and off the ice. It's to look in the eyes of the guy next to you and know that they respect you and can be relied upon and at the same time, they expect the same out of you. It's something we do on the ice and something we incorporate in our class and into our lives. It's a culture you have to live and something you can really teach someone. You have to live through it to be able to understand it.

What's the student life like at Miami?

It's unbelievable. The support we get from the students at the games ... I think we've got the best fans in college hockey. Hearing the reports of how the students were when we were playing against Michigan, they were all uptown at the restaurants and bars watching and it's cool to hear those reports at how excited they were and how nuts they went when we finally scored in overtime. The support's great. In classes, the teachers compliment you, saying they watched the game and everyone around campus, it's definitely hockey season around here.

What keeps you busy away from the rink?

A lot of hanging with friends. Outside of hockey it's about building relationships. I like to golf, watch some movies, and I don't mind school. I enjoy learning something new. It's a challenge, but you learn a lot of life lessons.

The team didn't really stumble at all this season. What can you attribute that consistency to?

That's our coaching staff. Each week they refocus us and tell us that we can't look ahead and respect each opponent that you play, whether it's conference opponents or someone out of league. As much as you want to think ahead, you can't. You've got to get better day in and day out and worry about those games each weekend, every Friday and Saturday night and however those go you can worry about playoffs after that.

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After losing in tough fashion in the title game last season, has the theme this year been "Unfinished Business"?

That thought is in the back of your mind, but ultimately, we stressed that we got to get better every day; you can't worry about what happened in the past or what's coming up. You just gotta focus on getting better day in and day out. I think that's in the back of our mind, but you can't be thinking about that. We've got to be thinking about each weekend and you can't look past anyone, because if you do, your chance of making the tournament won't be very good.

You spent a year with Cedar Rapids of the USHL before coming to Miami. Did you work on any specific aspect of your game there?

You gotta work on everything. Coach [Mark] Carlson was real good. He knows what it takes to get to the next level and how difficult it is. He made it hard on guys; he teaches lessons that don't just pertain to hockey, but growing up as individuals -- because that's the first time kids move away from home and it's getting younger and younger.

Kids are going at 15 now and to have to deal with living on your own and going to school without your parents is a big step. Mark Carlson stressed that greatly. Offensively, defensively and work ethic and what it takes to get to the next level. He was really good at that.

You were named Best Defensive Forward in the CCHA. Is being a two-play player something you've strived for?

Yeah, I definitely think it is. There's a lot of skilled guys in college hockey and on our team. I don't think I'm the most skilled of all of them, so you've got to do something else to be effective out there and if it's blocking shots or having good sticks in lanes or hitting, you've got to be able to do all that. I think it goes to show how good our team defense is. As a group, I think our forwards are pretty good defensively. I think it's more of a team award. Myself, I got recognized for it, but it goes to something we've stressed as important to the team.

Boston College: What do you know about them?

They're very skilled. They're experienced and been in the tournament before. We're going to have to a great job of getting pucks in deep and not making mistakes and turning pucks over. They like to transition. They're on the smaller side, but their guys have got a lot of skill and speed, so if you turn a puck over they're going to put a puck into the back of your net. Muse has given up a few goals, but we know he's experienced out there and he's a real good goaltender.

How often do you speak with anyone from San Jose since they drafted you in 2008?

Pretty often. Every couple weeks with a phone call or email. They've got a lot of guys in the Midwest and a couple of scouts in Detroit for the CCHA whenever we play up there. They do a great job of keeping in touch, but at the same time letting you deal with college and how this team is doing. They put a little input in, but it's ultimately how Miami's doing is, that's all they worry about.

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What did you take away from participating in one of their prospect camps?

Theirs is a lot about development. The guys have the skills, but then you've got to battle. They stress importance on skating, being able to shoot the puck and they do a lot of little things. At that level every guy can skate and shoot, so it's about maybe putting your stick this way in this situation or how to accept a pass on the boards here. It's little things like that that differentiate players at that level.

Do you get a chance to watch a lot of Sharks' games during the season?

I do. I try and catch as many as I can. I'm a Blackhawks fan growing up in Chicago, so I've got the NHL package and usually watch a game or two a night. I try to make them San Jose or Chicago games, but it doesn't always work out.

Being a Chicago Blackhawks fan, what do you think about their goaltending issues?

It's tough, but I think their defense and offense will be fine. I think they're good enough. They've got a lot of guys who can put in goals, but if they need to win games 6-5, 6-4 instead of 1-2 nothing, then that's the style that they can play.

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