Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Head Coach Candidate: Jim Fetter

Fetter and former Wayne State goalie Lindsey Park, after the two helped helped the West team win the NCAA Skills Challenge at the 2010 Frozen Four in Detroit

Fourth in a series taking uninformed, uneducated guesses at the candidates to become the first head coach of Penn State's NCAA women's team. Previously: Mercyhurst coach Mike Sisti, Lady Icers coach Mo Stroemel, Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller.

It turns out that I timed this short series perfectly, because with this post, I've officially exhausted the list of names I've seen associated with the Penn State women's job (and this connection is of the particularly weak message board variety). But the good news: according to Mark Horgas, the final interviews are this week, and the coach should be named by this weekend. As we saw on Easter, you can't go on break from 5 p.m. Friday until 8 a.m. Monday, weekends and holidays are fair game for an announcement.

So are any of the four coaches I've mentioned among the final interviews? I have no idea. Unlike with the men's coaching search, this one's been all about jumping on absolutely anything I see, put together with more guessing than even I'm accustomed to. So in the likely event that I haven't posted about the person who gets hired, I'll first post the PSU press release, then follow up by digging a little deeper, as I try to do in these posts.

Anyway, today's subject is Wayne State head coach Jim Fetter, a Waterloo, ON native and 1995 University of Lethbridge graduate who has resided in Detroit since August 2003.

Most men who coach women's hockey can trace their history with the women's game to a very specific point. Fetter's no exception. He got into coaching right out of college with a couple different (men's) midget programs, but quickly grew frustrated and decided to take a year off to evaluate his career choices.
In 1998, after taking a year off from coaching, his alma mater was just starting out its women’s hockey program. For weeks leading up to the new season, Fetter received continuous phone calls requesting he take the position as head coach, yet he refused.

“I kind of wanted to take the year off to evaluate what I wanted out of coaching if I wanted anything out of it, and during that time I was looking to go to major junior,” Fetter said.

Fetter admits he was skeptical about women’s hockey. By late August, Fetter received yet another phone call asking to help run a weekend practice.

“I went out to run practice on a Saturday, it was an hour and a half, and I was kind of impressed,” Fetter said. “Came back the next day designed the practice a little tougher, kind of put on a test physically, mentally and again they rose to the occasion and kind of impressed me.”
He never looked back. After that first year with the Pronghorns, he made one more transition - to U.S. college hockey - as one of Rick Filighera's assistants at Maine in 1999-2000. That turned out to be another single-season stop on the way to Mike Sisti's staff at Mercyhurst from 2000-2003.

We've already seen the tremendous success the Lakers have experienced, and Fetter was pretty close to the ground floor as he started there in year two of the program. More specifically, he was there for the beginning of Mercyhurst's ridiculous (and still active) ten-year streak of winning both the regular season and playoff championships, first in the GLWHA, now in CHA.

It's not uncommon for women's hockey coaches to have experience starting a program in the relatively new sport, but Fetter has helped get two off the ground. Perhaps Wayne State AD Rob Fournier had that in the back of his mind when hiring him from Mercyhurst in 2003. After all, the Warriors had a pretty new program themselves (founded 1999), but original head coach Tom O'Malley stumbled to a 21-86-5 record, leading to the job opening.

On the surface, it was a slow build at WSU - the Warriors lingered around .500 for Fetter's first four years. But underneath, there were signs of progress. In Fetter's third year (2005-2006), he was the CHA coach of the year as the Warriors finished second in the CHA standings, but had a pair of freshmen - Melissa Boal and Sam Poyton - tie for the league scoring title and take home first-team all-conference honors. The next year brought a trip to the conference championship game, WSU's first-ever win against a ranked program, and a co-CHA coach of the year honor for Fetter.

Former captain Lindsay DiPietro
The major breakthrough was 2007-2008 with a 22-9-3 mark. The Warriors snapped a 33-game winless streak against Mercyhurst - and even chipped away at their conference dominance by tying for the CHA regular season title and winning the top seed for the playoffs by virtue of a winning record against the Lakers.

Boal, boosted by playing for an improved team, elevated her game to an even higher level and was named a Patty Kazmeier Award top ten finalist. Boal and linemate Poyton were again first-team all-CHA, along with senior goalie Valery Turcotte. And yes, Fetter was coach of the year for a third straight time. However, the dream of winning an NCAA tournament at-large bid (remember, no autobid for the CHA) ended with an overtime loss to the nemesis Lakers in the CHA championship game.

21-9-2 was the follow-up to that in 2008-2009, but once again, Mercyhurst blocked the way to even greater success - WSU was 0-5-0 against the Lakers, the last defeat again coming in the conference title game. To be fair, Mercyhurst made the NCAA championship game that season, so there are worse teams to go 0-5-0 against.

After that? The bottom completely fell out. 17-39-6 is what the last two seasons have produced. So what happened? You can probably start with losing 2009's senior class, which included Boal, Poyton, captain Lindsay DiPietro and defender Natalie Payne - the team's top four scorers by a wide margin (Payne had 1.6 times as many points as fifth-place Veronique Laramee-Paquette). You can probably continue with the fact that Wayne State isn't the easiest place in the world to win - the school dropped their men's program after 2007-2008, and the team plays at an off-campus public rink with 500 seats.

Basically, the facilities, finances and name recognition at Wayne State aren't bottom of the barrel. The barrel is in fact resting on top of them. The death of former Warrior Brandi Frakie undoubtedly put a damper on this past season as well.

Really, guys?

Whatever the case, I'm pretty sure Fetter didn't forget how to coach overnight. If that was the case, he wouldn't keep receiving calls from Hockey Canada.
In the summer of 2006, he was selected to Hockey Canada's National Women's Program Coaching Pool. Fetter served as an assistant coach for Team Canada's Under-18 squad for 2007-08 and has also worked summer evaluation camps with the U-22 and National women's team. For the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, he was chosen as an assistant coach for the Under-22 team before being selected head coach in 2010-11.
Fetter would be a nice hire in my opinion - one who has been successful, one who could blossom with the chance to be a part of a big-time athletic department, and perhaps most importantly, one who won't cost all that much. We'll find out soon enough if the Penn State administration agrees.

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