Column: How did we get here?

“And you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’”
Once in a Lifetime, The Talking Heads

After the euphoria of last night’s WCHA Championship fades, that is a question many Laker fans and fans of college hockey will be asking.  How did Lake Superior State punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament?  There have certainly been stranger things in this strange year, but this is one that deserves exploration.

To see how we got here, we need to go back to the 2013-14 season.  The first season of the WCHA in its current configuration (and its soon to be former configuration) found the Lakers as an afterthought in a conference full of afterthoughts.  The teams of the Big Ten and NCHC had just deserted their former leagues, with the remnants joining together in an attempt to survive.  Nobody really knew how this league would shake out.  For proof, go look at the media poll for that season.  Bemidji State, picked to finish 8th, received a first place vote.  Lake Superior was picked for 9th place, ahead of Alabama Huntsville, who was toiling as an independent the seasons prior.

That season started off promising for the Lakers, with sweeps of Robert Morris and Union (who went on to win the national title).  But, as had happened so often, Lake Superior collapsed in the second half of the season, finishing in 8th place.  By virtue of tiebreaker with the Beavers, the Lakers missed the league tournament.  Head coach Jim Roque, in the final year of his contract, was not renewed.

After a nationwide search, then Athletic Director Kris Dunbar settled on Damon Whitten, who had assistant gigs at Wayne State, Alaska Anchorage and, most recently, at Michigan Tech.  Laker fans knew to expect growing pains, but probably not what they received – an 8-28-2 record and a through dismantling by Minnesota State in the WCHA Quarterfinals.  Technically, Lake Superior shouldn’t have even been in the tourney at all.  Only NCAA sanctions against Alaska (and goaltender Gordie Defiel standing on his head) got them in there.  The lone bright spot of the season was winning the Florida College Hockey Classic, which took some luck in itself.

The following season showed improvement.  While the Lakers still had many issues, they were starting to see an offensive core develop, with guys like Gage Torrel, Anthony Nellis, Diego Cuglietta, J.T. Henke and Mitch Hults.  These young guys were still raw though, and it showed against the league powers like Michigan Tech and the Mavericks, who made a habit of running up the score.  Lake Superior turned many heads with a 2-0 shutout of Mankato in the first round of the league tourney.  58 saves by Defiel forced a game three, but the Lakers could not complete the upset.

2016-17 – my final year as a student and my first covering the Lakers in any capacity – started off with much promise, including a 6 game win streak, a 5-1 win over Minnesota State and the emergence of freshmen Max Humitz, Luke Morgan, Kris Bindulis and Collin Saccoman.  But reality struck back, as a rough November set the tone for the remainder of the season.  Defenseman Owen Headrick defected to the OHL’s Erie Otters midway through the season and the Lakers found themselves short on the back end.  The WCHA Tournament saw an early exit, topped off with a humiliating 8-0 loss to Michigan Tech, leaving many to ponder how a promising start ended so painfully.  Raising more eyebrows were decisions by Bindulis and Hults to go pro early and forward Morgan transferring to Michigan after just one season.

A summer of change swept over Sault Ste. Marie, as the University was dealt the untimely loss of President Tom Pleger.  Athletics saw a shakeup also, with AD Dunbar leaving to become commissioner of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC), where the Lakers’ DII teams compete, and the departure of others.  In came David Paitson, who had an impressive background in pro sports.  Like last season, Lake Superior had a promising start, including a 3-3 tie with defending national champion Denver on the road.  Nick Kossoff set a school record with 63 saves in the game.  However, injuries and midseason departures had an adverse effect on the squad, most notably that of Josh Nenadal, who was suspended from the team for off ice issues.  Overshadowed were the efforts of freshmen Lukas Kälble, Mareks Mitens, Hampus Eriksson, Yuki Miura and midseason acquisition Alex Ambrosio, among others.

Despite a late season rally, the Lakers missed the playoffs in the final year of Whitten’s original deal, leaving many to wonder if he would be brought back.  It was apparent the team was talented, but record wise, they were still mired in the depths of the league.  Perhaps this was why many in college hockey were so shocked when it was announced Whitten had received a four year extension.  Paitson defended the decision, explaining the Athletics Department had a problem with stability and such an extension would help alleviate that (others, such as men’s basketball coach Steve Hettinga and volleyball coach Dave Schmidlin, had also been extended earlier in the year).  Nonetheless, doubts were sown in the minds of many.

2018-19, the first year on Whitten’s new contract, was a year to prove something to the league.  The Lakers did just that, with a great start that never slowed down.  Winning the Great Lakes Invitational in December capped off a promising first half.  Lake Superior did not disappoint in the second half either, finishing in 4th place in the league standings and hosting a playoff series.  A sweep of Bemidji State led to a semifinal series in Mankato, where the Lakers’ season came to an end.  Regardless, the critics had been silenced and Cuglietta became the first Laker in the Whitten era to join the 100 point club.  Ashton Calder and Pete Veillette were key contributors among the freshmen.

Virtually everybody outside of Sault Ste. Marie believed the Lakers were a one hit wonder.  After all, the team lost a ton of scoring to graduation and it was hard to see where the goals would come from.  Unable to overcome injuries, Lake Superior settled down the standings like many believed they would.  Despite Louis Boudon, Dustin Manz and Arvid Henrikson making fine debuts, the only real highlights the season had to offer were Humitz notching his 100th point and a game against Alabama Huntsville in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, an attempt to promote Laker hockey to fans across the St. Mary’s river.  The Lakers fell in 3 games to Bemidji State in what turned out to be the only round the WCHA played, as the Coronavirus epidemic began sweeping across the country right after.

And that brings us to this year, the season that was.  For starters, most leagues played their entire schedule within the conference to avoid unnecessary travel.  This meant the Pairwise, the ranking system used to determine who will qualify for the NCAA Tournament, was virtually useless.  The committee would effectively be making the decisions in “a smoke filled room.”  The only sure way to qualify was to win the conference autobid in the league tourney.  After a solid season that saw Lake Superior finish in 2nd place, the Lakers went on a strong run through the WCHA Tournament, defeating Alabama Huntsville, Bemidji State to set up a championship matchup versus Northern Michigan, who was on a Cinderella run.  Lake Superior took care of business with a 6-3 win and Ashton Calder was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

There is a ton to like about this team.  A proven netminder in Mareks Mitens, with a strong defensive core in front of him.  Will Riedell and Lukas Kälble headline the blue line corps, with Jacob Nordqvist, Mitch Oliver and Arvid Henrikson playing as sturdy as they come.  Up front, the top two lines (especially the Veillette-Boudon- Calder unit) are a threat to score at any time, while the 3rd and 4th lines can eat up clock and can score themselves when the occasion calls for it.  In particular, transfers Brandon Puricelli (Minnesota Duluth) and Jack Jeffers (Alabama Huntsville) stand out, with Puricelli heating up of late.

The national media has not been impressed with Lake Superior, viewing them as the afterthought they’ve come to accept them as.  Despite having better head to head records against Bowling Green and Bemidji State, the Lakers have trailed both teams in the polls all season.  Even as late as last week, after the Falcons had been upset by Northern Michigan, Bowling Green was viewed as more tournament worthy than Lake Superior.  But those who have watched the Lakers play see them as a solid squad, as a complete team.  With their win over the Wildcats, Lake Superior State has left nothing to chance — their return to the national stage will not be denied.

Tonight the Lakers will find out who they face in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.  How ever this plays out, it has been an incredible season.  Years ago, I read in USA Today’s NHL preview (I forget the year) the following line: It takes a crockpot, not a microwave, to cook up a contender.  With this team, that has proven true.

Hopefully by next season, fans will be permitted to attend games in person.  The lucky few that did this season (either on the road or in an official capacity) bore witness to something special.  They may not be flashy, but flashy doesn’t guarantee results.