On Monday, U.S. College Hockey Online released its weekly rankings — the gold standard for NCAA hockey. And following a 7-1 start, a weekend sweep of Western Michigan and upset losses sustained by Minnesota and St. Cloud, the Michigan hockey team leapfrogged three spots to seize the No. 1 ranking. The Wolverines, for at least a week, are the king of the hill.
And so on Tuesday afternoon, after a practice, I asked Michigan coach Brandon Naurato about the distinction. He gave me a very straightforward answer.
“It means nothing,” Naurato said. “We don’t want to sit on that.”
His players echoed this sentiment.
“It doesn’t really mean anything right now,” sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich said. “We’re just keeping it in the back of our head. … The real work starts now.”
They’re all right to be unimpressed by the ranking. It’s a cute distinction, it likely feels good and it shows that the Wolverines do indeed have talent. But it says next to nothing about how far Michigan can go, especially when it has yet to face off against the meat of its schedule. Being ranked No. 1 — especially in November — genuinely, and in the truest sense of the word, means nothing.
That is, for everyone except Brandon Naurato.
It’s easy to forget that Naurato is still, quite literally, interviewing for his job. He’s an interim, a first-time head coach and he’s only two and a half months removed from being named to the helm following a calamitous summer.
In our first conversation in September, Naurato brought up the interim tag for the first time. While unbothered by it, there was a very real sentiment of a desire to acquit himself.
“I’ve got this interim tag, and I don’t think about it much,” Naurato said. “But I’m thinking about proving (myself) this year.”
That desire is warranted. A second year was not guaranteed to Naurato for a reason, precisely because he is young, relatively unknown and the product of an abrupt coaching search. That image isn’t easy to shake, especially when recruiting.
“For sure it’s harder, 100%,” Naurato said Tuesday. “I feel like we might not have gotten certain players, … like every single family brings it up. … It is what it is, but it’s definitely more difficult.”
But through eight games, Naurato has done exactly what he set out to do. And you can clearly see a growth in confidence, in him and in the program. Right after proclaiming that the No. 1 ranking doesn’t matter an ounce, Naurato contradicted himself a little bit.
“If I was talking to a recruit right now,” Naurato said. “I’d look, and I know this sounds bad, but I’d look at him and say, ‘Do you think our staff’s gonna be around?’ Like we’re No. 1 in the country and 7-1.”
And just hours after that conversation, the dominoes started falling into place. The Wolverines landed a major recruit in Nick Moldenhauer late Tuesday, and they secured another big recruiting flip Wednesday in Tanner Rowe. Just like that, the recruiting class went from mostly empty to well-stocked.
Naurato now has a reason to act confidently, and those around the program have a reason to trust him with their confidence. Already, articles are being published calling for Naurato to be hired permanently, the fanbase is rabid and recruits are flipping to the Wolverines.
Michigan very well could fall back to earth, and fans could turn on a dime against Naurato’s characteristic innovation the moment it stops working. But for right now, there’s a sense of ease about the program and its current leader. That’s the only reason why the No. 1 ranking matters.
Naurato’s still interviewing for his job, and a No. 1 ranking is something he can add to his resume.