Category: Opinion

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.

Opinion/Thoughts on: Lake Superior State Are Your GLI Champions!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WOOOOOOOOHOOOOOO! THE LAKERS WON THE GLI.

*deep breath*

Sorry, I had to get that out of my system. I’ve been flying high (mostly) since Monday evening, and needed to take some time before writing about my time in Detroit, and the GLI itself. 

WARNING: What follows attempts to be structured, but may look like word vomit. I am still excited, and just wanted to get my real feelings on this event out there.

Ever since the news came out that the Lakers were going to be playing at the GLI, and the final dates were set, I’ve been moving full speed ahead towards going to the game. Making sure my colleague at work would cover my on call, seeing who was all going, figuring out where to stay & how the hell to move around the city. But was it worth it.

First, let me say that I was really impressed with Detroit. The city was lovely as were the people. The food was good. The only bad thing I will say was the traffic a few of the nights, but I guess that can’t be helped.

As for the tournament: Having only been in 1 NHL stadium before (the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia), I was pretty impressed by Little Ceasers Arena. Mostly. From the road, it would be easy to miss that you have a stadium where it’s at, since the facade is made to look like a set of restaurants or bars from the street. Now, I understand that it’s not for everyone, but I thought it was a clever use of the space.

An aside: Despite the history of both the Red Wings and the Pistons, there was a distinct lack of memorabilia. Under some of the escalators featured some pieces, the store had a few, and they had the player statues from the Joe. But with the amount of dead space on the walls around the stadium, they could certainly add more, in much the same way as the Flyer had done.

ANYWAYS!

We made it to the stadium about halfway through the second period of the Michigan Tech-Michigan game, and it was very entertaining. It’s always fun to see former CCHA rivals in person, though we did see them earlier in the year. But despite it being a good game, lets face it, I wasn’t there for Tech or Michigan…I was there for our boys in blue.

Despite Michigan State being a much worse team (on paper at least), they certainly kept up with the Lakers, forcing overtime to make it that much more interesting. And until that overtime goal, I had been trying my best to not imagine the Lakers being in the final. My heart wouldn’t have been able to handle that kind of heartbreak.

But woo boy. Onto the all U.P Final.

The consolation game was all I ever wanted to see from a Michigan-Michigan State game, essentially a line  brawl, with a goalie thrown in the mix. Of course, not having a clear cut winner of the game was disappointing, but that would’ve delayed what we were there to see…

 

Lake Superior State University at Michigan Tech!

 

The Lakers certainly looked good out of the gate, but allowed the Huskies to come back and tie it up, both at 2-2. The Lakers would go on to get two more, going up 4-2 before the Huskies got to 4-3. Then the first open-net.

 

Then the second empty net with less than a minute. My eyes started to well up. They did it. The boys did it.

 

It was all I could do to keep from openly crying as that clock was counting down, and the final horn rang out. The guys jumping over the board, surrounding Kossoff, celebrating. Seeing the MTU officials come onto the ice with the trophy and banner, handing both to the captains. Seeing them lift the trophy as if it was Lord Stanley’s cup itself. Knowing that the name of our school will be hanging in the rafters for the next year warms my heart, and makes me tear up just a little bit.

You may be asking yourself why. Why get so emotional? But for anyone who has followed the Lakers for any time can attest: While some good players and teams have come and gone since the championship years of the early-mid 90’s, there really hasn’t been a whole lot to cheer for. Mediocre records, no real deep playoff runs, haven’t won a conference since 95 or 96, which was the last tournament appearance.

But the GLI is one of the most well known tournaments in college hockey. Especially here in the great state of Michigan. It’s something to be proud of, to be able to hold high and to not only win it, but to really dominate their in-conference opponent makes it even sweeter.

So I would like to thank the team for giving me a weekend I don’t think I’ll ever forget. And since I know this will get to him, and despite our differences, thank you too, Coach Whitten, for having this team come together to what many across college hockey thought was an impossible feat. And I hope that our athletic department does something special for this. Maybe blowing up the team photo, like the one seen above, and put it up somewhere in Abel Arena?

I don’t know how the rest of the season is going to go, and even if I had a crystal ball, I’m not sure I would want to know. But what I do know is that for the first time in a while, I am really excited for this team, and I think we have a real shot at doing something this season, at least within the WCHA. Maybe the NCAA tournament is a lofty goal, but it’s one I do hope to see.

Opinion: Keep Senior Night a special occasion

Note: The following does not represent this blog at large. It is only the opinion of the article’s author, and does not mean to represent the opinion of LakerHockeyBlog, LSSU, or any media partners.

I have admittedly not followed Laker hockey as long as most.  The “glory years” when Lake Superior State assembled world-beating teams are something I bore no witness to.  Nevertheless, so many traditions of the program have made a profound impression on me.  From the ringing of the Victory Bell to competing for the Father Cappo Cup to  hearing Bill Crawford call the away games, so many of the traditions fans see and hear are what make Laker Hockey special.  

This coming weekend will see another longstanding tradition – Senior Night.

Four seniors – J.T. Henke, Kyle Chatham, assistant captain Ryan Renz and captain Aiden Wright – will take one final lap around the Taffy Abel Arena, while fans cheer and applaud the achievements of each individual.  

Last year saw a change to the festivities that will carry over to this year as well – the senior recognition will take place before the game as opposed to after.

Many things came together to make the postgame Senior Night celebration special.  Each senior coming down the tunnel one by one, skating to the north goal line, where the rest of the team stood, skating along the other side, past the visitor’s bench (which usually had fans in it) to the south goal line, where parents and other loved ones stood.  Throughout this, the achievements of each player were read to those in attendance.  The lights were turned off and spotlights followed the players while they made their final lap.  

Traditionally the event has been held after the conclusion of the game for many reasons.  Logistically, there is little time between pregame warm-ups and the start of the hockey game.  Large senior classes would have an exceptionally difficult time getting everybody to have his moment.

The 2013-14 Lakers had eight seniors to celebrate.  Eight.  Imagine trying to squeeze them all in to a pregame ceremony while keeping it special as Lake State has done for so long.

I stood on the visitor’s bench a few times, taking pictures.  The emotion on the players’ faces said it all – the end of their Laker careers was upon them.  

Following the ceremony, some players can skate right to the dressing room.  Others take more time.  A few have laid down with their backs on the ice, trying to take it all in.  

I have seen senior night at other places – specifically Northern Michigan.  The recognition took place before the game and was a quick listing of the seniors’ names with the players standing on the blue line.  I recall it not being a particularly inspiring or moving ceremony.

What we have here at Lake Superior State is a very special event.  I feel as though moving the ceremony to before the game takes away from what makes it so special.

Opinion: Mid Semester Signings

Note: This article does not represent this blog at large. It is only the opinion of the article’s author, and does not mean to represent the opinion of LakerHockeyBlog, LSSU, or any media partners.

I was hoping we weren’t going to see another mid semester signing after the headache that was Owen Headrick’s departure last season, who played in one series post-Christmas, and left just a few days before the start of the next series, leaving the team scrambling to pick up the pieces and fill in his role.

Now, whereas Headrick played in nearly every game during his tenure here, C.J. had only played in three games this season for the Blue & Gold, so it doesn’t leave a large of a hole in the team as it could have.

But really, that point shouldn’t matter. What matters is that you committed to a team, and you should see through that commitment until there is a break. Leave at Christmas: it gives the coaches time to fill the gap in the team with your departure, or during the summer. Leaving in the middle of a semester, without certain outstanding circumstances, is just low.

Now, that isn’t to say that I don’t understand this departure. Wanting to play and not being able to play must really suck, and in that I can’t really blame C.J. for leaving. No matter what you’re passionate about, or if it’s something you’ve dedicated your life to, you want to do as much of that as possible, and he wasn’t getting that here for whatever reason. And when you get a chance to play, and also get paid (well, paid is probably a strong term for the SPHL), then why wouldn’t you?

It still rubs me the wrong way though. Whenever I’ve interacted with C.J., he seemed like a nice guy, but it’s hard for me to see him in that same light with this signing. Put in the time and effort to earn your spot on the roster back. Work on face offs, hand-eye coordination to tip in pucks in front of the net, basically any skill that the team doesn’t have enough individuals for. Make the coaching staff question: Should we put in X because of his Offensive prowess, or his two-way play, or should we put in Y for winning face offs, or going to those dirty areas on the power play?

Yes, the Lakers have had a rough season to say the least, but it’s easy enough to see the team through rose-colored glasses and say that there’s ‘always next weekend’ or ‘always next year’. It’s a bit harder to do that when a player up and leaves in the middle of a season, let alone a semester.

Maybe there’s more to it than playing time; something in the locker room that us, as the general public, may never know about. If that’s the case, then it needs to get resolved ASAP. But from where I’m standing, I think it’s just a matter of playing time, or lack thereof.

So, despite my feelings about him leaving, I do wish C.J. the best in Southaven and for whatever else the future may hold for him.