SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. – It's time for Laker hockey!
The Lake Superior State hockey team, in its fifth year in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) and its fourth under head coach Damon Whitten, is set to kick off the 2017-18 regular season on Friday, October 6th when they take on one of their Upper Peninsula rivals, the Northern Michigan Wildcats, at the Taffy Abel Arena on the campus of Lake Superior State University.
The series is a home-and-home non-conference affair, despite the Wildcats and the Lakers both competing in the WCHA. In an effort to reduce travel costs for both schools, the teams agreed to face off against each other on their open weekend early in the season. Since the two clubs only play each other twice in league action, this ensures that four games will take place between the long-standing rivals.
Lake Superior comes into the weekend having played an intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday, before defeating Laurentian University 3-2 in exhibition play on Sunday. The Wildcats were idle last weekend.
"I think what you want to do with an exhibition is to evaluate players in a game situation, and I feel there's a lot of value in that, seeing some progress from the returners and seeing where the freshmen are at," said Whitten, on his team's performance during the weekend. "We didn't have many bodies for the Blue & Gold game so that was a bit tough for the players to get through. Sunday, I felt as though we finished really strong, so we're good to start the season. Obviously you want to improve there, but we're ready to handle the start of the season in terms of game shape. We made some changes to our style of play, so we got some really good teaching clips out of that. We have a pretty good feeling for line pairings and defensive pairings, but it's a work in progress for sure.
About the Lakers
The Lakers finished 11-18-7 in 2016-17, playing five fewer games than they did in 2015-16. After averaging 1.8 goals per game in 2015-16, last year's squad managed 2.83 goals per game – over a full goal higher. Among the highlights were the first six goal game since 2013 (October 14th vs. Michigan State,) the first seven goal game since 2009 (October 15th vs. Michigan State,) and participating in the WCHA Tournament for the third consecutive year.
Of the top nine scorers from last season, seven return, including senior J.T. Henke, and sophomore Max Humitz. Henke (10-20—30) finished second on the team in scoring as a junior, after leading the team in his sophomore season, while Humitz (13-7—20) was selected to the WCHA All-Rookie team. In addition, juniors Gage Torrel (14-8—22), Anthony Nellis (9-13—22) and Diego Cuglietta (12-13—25) return as members of what was one of the highest scoring classes in the country last season. Two new forwards, Hampus Erikkson of Sweden and Sault Ste. Marie native Chase Gamelin, will join 12 returning forwards.
On the blueline, three senior defenseman will suit up for the Lakers this season, including team captain Aiden Wright, assistant captain Ryan Renz andKyle Chatham, who led the team in plus/minus last year with a +8 rating. Also returning is sophomore Collin Saccoman, who was among the nation's leaders in blocked shots, and junior Matt McArdle, who logged solid minutes for the Lakers in his first two seasons. Joining them are five new defensemen, including Steven Ruggiero, a transfer from Providence College.
In goal, junior Nick Kossoff and sophomore Cooper Lukenda will be joined by freshmen Mareks Mitens and Roman Bengert. Each will be vying for the starting goaltending position, which was vacated with the graduation of Gordie Defiel.
"You definitely want to feel good about where you're at when the puck drops to get the season off to a good start, like we were able to do last year. Beyond that, it's a great rivalry between Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State, two programs with great traditions," said Whitten. "It will be an extremely competitive series like it always is, but the bottom line is we want to win hockey games, and our first chance to do that is at home on Friday night, so we'll be excited for the puck drop."
About the Wildcats
The Wildcats posted a 13-22-4 record in the 2016-17 season. A slow start to the year was followed by one of the best second halves in the country, enabling Northern Michigan to make the WCHA tournament as the eighth seed. There, they were eliminated by regular season champs Bemidji State in three games.
A major change took place for Northern Michigan during the off season, as longtime head coach Walt Kyle was replaced with Grant Potulny, a former assistant coach at Minnesota. Potulny is only the third head coach in the history of the Wildcats, which started play in 1976-77. This is his first ever head coaching stint, making Friday's game against the Lakers his head coaching debut.
Up front, the Wildcats return three of their top five scoring forward in senior Robbie Payne (13-16—29), sophomore Darien Craighead (7-18—25) and senior Zach Diamantoni (6-14—20). Payne and Diamantoni will share the captain's C this season. Craighead was a member of the All-WCHA Rookie team. Among the departures for NMU are Dominik Shine, Gerald Hanson and Shane Sooth.
On the blueline, Northern Michigan returns senior Jordan Klimik (0-11—11), sophomores Philip Beaulieu (3-16—19) and Rylan Yaremko (1-5—6) and juniors Ryan Black (1-2—3) and Connor Frantti (1-2—3). They only lost one defenseman to graduation in Brock Maschmeyer (5-16—21), but he was among the leading scorers on the 2016-17 squad.
Returning in goal for the 'Cats is goaltender Atte Tolvanen. Tolvanen set a new league record for longest shutout streak at 339:05. His streak stands as the second longest in NCAA history, behind only the 375:01 record set by former Lake Superior goaltender Blaine Lacher in 1993-94. For his efforts, Tolvanen was named WCHA player of the month for February, and was also named to the 2016-17 All-WCHA Second Team.
"I know they want to play with pace and change the way they were playing a little bit, so as coaches on the bench, we're going to have to be more focused than typical to get a feel for their structure so our players can adjust and be ready for what they're facing," commented Whitten. "We want to be who we are. If we're playing the way we want to be playing and using our skill and our speed and physicality to impose our will on the game, then we'll be in a good spot. That's our biggest focus, but it will be interesting to see the adjustments they've made and how they're going to play this year."
Honoring Rick Comley in Marquette
On Saturday, the Wildcats will be honoring former head coach Rick Comley in a pregame ceremony, as they dedicate the ice rink at the Berry Events Center in his name. Comley, a former player and head coach of the Lakers, was one of the founders of Northern Michigan's hockey program and its first head coach.
"We are honored to be a part of that. I worked for Comley, [assistant coach] Rich [Metro] played under Comley, but he's my biggest mentor in hockey," said Whitten. "He's not only a great coach, he's a phenomenal human being, so I look up to him in more ways than just as a hockey coach. I'm really happy we'll get to be there."
Comley played at Lake Superior State from 1967-71. He was named captain in his senior season and a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) All-American. He became an assistant coach for the Lakers for the 1972-73 season, then took over as head coach when Ron Mason departed for Bowling Green. In three seasons at the helm of the Lakers, Comley posted a record of 59-46-3, and led the Lakers to the 1974 NAIA National Championship.
In 1976, Comley left Lake Superior for Northern Michigan, where he became the first head coach in the history of the Wildcats program. During his time in Marquette, Comley led NMU to the 1991 NCAA National Championship, were they defeated Boston University 8-7 in triple overtime. Other highlights of his tenure include being the NCAA finalists in 1980, winning the WCHA regular season title in 1991, and winning the WCHA tournament in 1989, 1991, and 1992, before departing for Michigan State in 2002.
Comley's final head coaching job was as head coach of the Spartans, where he again succeeded Ron Mason as coach. By leading Michigan State to the 2007 NCAA national title, Comley became one of only three head coaches to win the NCAA title at two different schools, joining Jerry York and Ned Harkness. Comley retired in 2011.
"Hopefully our fans will travel over with us to create a great atmosphere in that building. There's excitement over there with Grant there and certainly coach Comley deserves that honor," remarked Whitten. "He was one of the earliest captains here at Lake State and an NAIA champion here, so I hope our fans can make the trek over. I'm really happy we'll get a chance to be a part of that special night."
Father Cappo Cup
Also on the line during the series is the Father Cappo Cup. The Cappo Cup is a challenge trophy that Lake Superior and Northern Michigan have played for since 1992. The Wildcats hold a 15-9 advantage in that time, including claiming the cup last season.
"I think [the Cappo Cup] is a big part of this rivalry and this series," said Whitten. "In college hockey, you don't get a lot of chances to fight for a challenge trophy, so here's a chance for a piece of hardware, in-state bragging rights, U.P. bragging rights, so there's a lot on the line."
Northern Michigan and Lake Superior tied the season series with a 1-1-0-2 record against each other, but the Wildcats claimed the cup with a 10-9 goal differential.
"It definitely hurts to lose it on such a slim margin like that, and it means a lot to us," said Lakers senior defenseman Kyle Chatham. "There's a lot of U.P. pride on the line, and especially with them being so close, it means a lot to Lake State and, with me being a senior, I want to go out with the trophy in our cabinet, so it's a big deal."
Tickets for Friday night can be purchased at the Norris Center ticket office or by going to lssulakers.com/tickets.
Tickets are $12.50 for adults, $10.50 for seniors and $6.50 for children (under 18). Single-game tickets have increased 50 cents to help cover mounting ticket vendor service charges. LSSU students receive free admission and must possess a valid student ID. For tickets, call or visit the Norris Center Ticket Office, 635- 2602. Fans can also now order their tickets online at lssulakers.com/tickets/index and pick them up at will call before a game or during regular business hours.
Every home game and all road games against conference opponents will be available via live stream hosted by Stretch Internet on WCHA.tv.
Season tickets for the 2017-18 Laker Hockey season, which includes an action-packed Fall, are available online or at Norris Center Guest Services.
This year's season-ticket packages are $197.00 for adults and $92.00 for children 17-and-under. The Snowbird Package, which includes the first 13 games, is available for $112.00. Season tickets can be purchased or renewed at the Student Activity Center Help Desk during the Norris Center's normal operational hours, or by calling 906-635-2602. Visit www.lssulakers.com/tickets to order online. Seats will be held until Oct. 1.
The season ticket package includes three playoff games. Should the Lakers not host a first-round playoff series, playoff ticket refunds will be offered through May 15, 2018.
Adult season packages are $197 and include 17 home games plus three Western Collegiate Hockey Association first-round playoff games. Child season tickets are $92 and also include three playoff games. The Snowbird package includes the Lakers' first 13 home games for $112.
Season tickets can be purchased online through www.lssulakers.com/tickets
Besides hockey on Saturday, four different Laker teams will see road action this weekend.
The Laker men's and women's cross country teams are in Lansing on Friday, October 6th, when they compete at the Lansing Community College Invitational. Both teams are coming off of second place finishes at the Bay College Invitational held on September 30th, where freshman David Mitter finished in first place with a time of 27:30. The women were led by sophomore Rebecca Lathrop, who took 7th place in the field of competitors.
The volleyball team will pay visits to the Davenport Panthers and the Purdue Northwest Pride this Friday and Saturday in Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) play. Davenport (7-8, 3-4 GLIAC) and Purdue Northwest (5-12, 1-6 GLIAC) are both first year members of the GLIAC, and thus will face the Lakers (1-12, 0-7 GLIAC) in conference play for the first time. Both Davenport and Purdue Northwest are coming off of 3-0 losses in league play, with the Panthers falling to Tiffin and the Pride losing to Ashland. Game time at Davenport is 7 p.m. on Friday the 6th, while the first serve against Purdue Northwest is at 2 p.m. on Saturday the 7th.
The Laker women's tennis team is on the road at Grand Valley State on Saturday, October 7th, and Ferris State on Sunday, October 8th. Grand Valley (3-0, 3-0 GLIAC) and the Bulldogs (2-1, 2-1 GLIAC) are coming off a Wednesday match against each other, where the GV Lakers defeated Ferris State 7-2. Lake Superior (1-6, 0-5 GLIAC) is coming off of home losses against Northwood and Saginaw Valley. Both matches are scheduled to begin at 10 a.m.