Mike Barrett, LSSULakers.com
SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — There is no substitute for experience.
As members of head coach Damon Whitten's first recruiting class at Lake Superior State, the four seniors have seen much action in their first three seasons for the Lakers. Each of them has used that experience to help guide them in the decisions they make today as leaders in the locker room.
"I got to learn how to prepare for a game more properly with time…also creation of habits is a very important aspect of college hockey with mixing school, road trips, practice and games," said Nellis.
Typically, few freshman see regular time in the lineup night after night as they did. Now, that time played at the college level early on is paying dividends for the group of four.
The three forwards, who all serve as captains, have missed fewer than 10 games combined in their Laker careers. Kossoff served as the reliable backup to goaltender Gordie Defiel for two seasons before emerging as the starting goaltender.
When asked what impact breaking into the lineup early on had on them, Cuglietta said "I think it was huge. Maybe if we were at a bigger school, we may not play as much, but to step in right away and play in key roles (power play, penalty kill, etc.)."
Cuglietta's co-captain Torrel agreed.
"I think taking our lumps early in certain situations helped us," he added. "We learned and matured from it and became ready to be thrown into any situation and succeed in it."
Prior to the season, Torrel and Cuglietta were named co-captains by coach Whitten. Nellis is one of two alternate captains. And while Kossoff may not have a letter, as most goaltenders do not, he is still looked upon as an important leader in the locker room.
Kossoff, on where he learned much of his leadership abilities, credited former Laker Austin McKay, who was team captain when Kossoff was a freshman.
"No matter what happened to him or the team he was always an upbeat guy who was approachable and was able to get along with everyone on the team," Kossoff recollected. "He was calm even when things weren't going the right way and I was able to learn a lot about leadership from him."
So far on the young season, the three forwards are right where one may expect them to be on the team's stat sheet. Through four games, Nellis has a team high five points (3 goals and 2 assists), while Torrel (0-4—4) and Cuglietta (2-1—3) are right behind him.
Torrel and Nellis are both business majors — Nellis is a Finance and Economics major while Torrel is in Business Management — and Kossoff is majoring in kinesiology. Cuglietta, meanwhile, is pursuing a degree in History in hopes of teaching someday.
"I want to be a teacher eventually, so when I go back to Canada, I'll probably have to take some more education courses, but that's what I want to do," said the native of Kamloops, British Columbia.
On what drove him towards kinesiology, Kossoff said he has "always been interested in the human body and how it works. I've been involved and interested in sports my entire life so it seemed like the perfect fit for me." His degree includes a concentration in rehabilitation sciences and human performance.
While all four players were recruited to the team while playing in juniors, each had their own personal reasons for choosing Lake Superior State. Cuglietta said the scholarship opportunity allured him, while Torrel said he "was intrigued that it was a new coaching staff and I knew I would have a shot to play and contribute if I worked and showed my talents."
Nellis touched on the tradition of the Laker Hockey program, but also indicated the small school and the ability to know his professors appealed to him. "English is my second language," remarked the native of Breakyville, Quebec.
When asked to think of their most memorable games, the group produced slightly varied answers. For Torrel, who is from Monticello, Minnesota, it was the first game in his home state.
"For me, my first game in Minnesota, since I'm a Minnesota kid," he said. "I took a hot lap in Bemidji where I was on the ice by myself, so that was fun. It was a different experience."
Nellis and Cuglietta both went back to their first game in a Laker uniform, when they played the University of North Dakota. The group from Grand Forks (who had no mascot at the time) went on to win the National Championship, and several of its key players are currently in the NHL.
"[Playing] North Dakota freshman year with [Nick] Schmaltz, [Paul] Ladue, [Drake] Caggula, [Brock] Boeser and [Troy] Stecher that all play in the NHL stands out," said Nellis.
All four said, without much hesitation, one of the greatest highlights of playing on the team is the ringing of the Hoholik Victory Bell after home wins. The tradition, which started in the early 1980's, has continued to this day, even after the original bell was damaged following the 1992 National Championship.
"That's just one of the coolest traditions there is," said Cuglietta. "For me personally, that would be the big standout.
"I don't think anything beats a sweep in the Taffy Abel and ringing the bell," added Nellis.
Entering this season, the three forwards were all right around the 60 point mark in their Laker careers. A big year from any of them could help them to 100 points and have their names etched in the Laker Hockey Record Book. No player since Dominic Monardo in 2013 has reached the century mark.
Kossoff is already in the record book. The 63 save performance by the West Des Moines, Iowa, native last season against Denver set the school record for most saves in a game, surpassing the 60 made by Matt Violin in a game versus Alaska in 2003.
"I haven't really thought about it too much probably because I am still playing," said Kossoff, "but I definitely think it is pretty cool to have something like that to look back down the road when I am done playing hockey. That was a game I will definitely never forget."
As the season rolls along, the group of four will be looked on for the leadership and experience they exhibit on and off the ice, starting with this coming weekend, when the University of Michigan returns to Sault Ste. Marie for Great Lake State Weekend. The Wolverines have not played at the Taffy Abel Arena since the 2012-13 season, when both teams were in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA).
"I'm hoping it's packed, being our first home regular season game," said Torrel. "I hear Michigan fans travel well."
Kossoff concurred, adding that "it will be cool to see how our team matches up with a good opponent from another conference and I hope we can keep our hot start going."
The weekend will also see five inductees to the LSSU Sports Hall of Fame. Two of the inductees, Mark Astley (1988-92) and Darrin Madeley (1989-92) were key parts of the 1991-92 squad who won the NCAA National Championship.