FARGO, N.D. -- One of the first things Ohio State coach Steve Rohlik mentioned when asked about his ties to Duluth this week was the fact his three kids were born there, while he worked for UMD as an assistant to head coach Scott Sandelin.
"It's a huge part of my life," Rohlik said this week. "I enjoyed my ten years there. I'll have it forever."
Unquestionably, it's a place Rohlik is still fond of, but he hopes to be on the right side of the scoreboard Friday, when his Buckeyes face UMD in the first round of the NCAA West Regional at Scheels Arena.
Asked if the college hockey world has ever felt smaller to him, Rohlik laughed and pointed out "hockey is a small world.
"Certainly, this is a little different. I wouldn't be sitting up here without the opportunity Scott gave me. To help me grow and develop as a coach, a tremendous opportunity."
Rohlik took over for good friend Mark Osiecki, who had recruited Rohlik to join him at Ohio State when he got the head job after the 2009-2010 season. When he got the head job, he needed to fill his old job as associate coach, and in came Brett Larson. The then-former UMD assistant had been working with Sioux City of the USHL, cutting his teeth as a head coach and general manager in juniors.
"First and foremost, he's a guy that cares," Rohlik said of Larson. "He's a soldier in the room. I think every guy in our room that he's coached or recruited can tell you that. When you have a guy on your staff like that, players believe. It's contagious."
Larson, at the minimum, had a hand in recruiting much of Ohio State's current roster, while coaching all the upperclassmen for a couple years. He told KBJR this week there might be "butterflies and the strange feelings," but once the puck drops, it's "just another hockey game."
The fact it's a playoff game of the "Win or go home" variety, that probably helps shake some of the feels away.
(Another UMD tie: Rohlik needed to replace Larson when the latter left to return to UMD, and in came Mark Strobel, who was with Rohlik on Sandelin's first coaching staff at UMD in 2000 and left the program in 2002.)
"I'm excited for them," Sandelin said of Rohlik and Strobel. "They're good coaches and doing a great job."
In his fourth season with Ohio State, Rohlik has seen a breakthrough. The Buckeyes are plus-seven in wins this year, going from 14 to 21, improving from eight to 11 wins in Big Ten play. A big reason for the Buckeyes' presence in the national tournament for the first time since 2009? A 10-2-5 non-conference record in the regular season that included losses only to Robert Morris and Miami. Ohio State opened the season by beating Denver at the Ice Breaker in Denver, then tied NCAA-bound Air Force in the championship (lost in a shootout, but the game counted as a tie). Going 4-3-1 combined against the other Big Ten teams -- Minnesota and Ohio State -- that made the tournament doesn't hurt much.
"It's a surreal moment, very humbling," Rohlik said of getting into the tournament for the first time as a head coach.
Saturday, Ohio State needed Penn State to win the Big Ten title in order to get in.
"When we lost the game (in the semifinals to Wisconsin), we didn't know if our season was over or not," Rohlik said. "When that goal (Penn State won in double overtime), what a feeling. We earned the spot. We won 21 games. We deserve to be here."
(UMD went through the same thing a year ago, only a little different way it played out. The Bulldogs were behind 2-1 to St. Cloud State in the NCHC title game when Michigan closed out a Big Ten tournament title win over Minnesota. That Wolverines win officially clinched UMD's NCAA bid, and thankfully so, since the Huskies ended up beating the Bulldogs that night 3-1. And no one on the UMD side was about to apologize for how it got in the national tournament, nor should they have been. Same for Ohio State. The Buckeyes needn't apologize to anyone for getting in.)
And what a way to get back in for Rohlik. His first tournament game will be against a head coach who helped get his career in college hockey going, and an assistant who was a big part of the build that's paying off for Ohio State now.