Mike Barrett, LSSULakers.com
SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. — Though the Lake Superior State hockey team is over three months away from dropping the puck on the 2019-20 season, head coach Damon Whitten is not exactly relaxing.
Things are busy for Laker hockey, making time to accomplish things scarce.
"It does not seem like there is ever a whole lot of time anymore," said Whitten. "Our recruiting has been busy. There are camps that we will make it to, so we can check out some prospects. There is still a lot of travel in there, but most of it is recruiting based. We have had many visits too, so it is going well on the recruiting trail, although having a season like last year certainly helps."
"A season like last year" was certainly a season to remember for the team and its fans. The Lakers compiled a record of 23-13-2 overall, going 16-10-2 in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA). Many milestones were set by the team in 2018-19, including the most wins since 1995-96, the first winning season since joining the WCHA, and the first series win in the WCHA tournament.
"It was a successful season in some regards, but there is more that we want to accomplish. We want to hang banners and win championships. The Great Lakes Invitational was a great championship to win and be a part of…home ice for the WCHA Playoffs was a goal for us and we got that. When you look back, there are weekends that felt like lost opportunities, but overall, it was a good step forward for our program. We had some great leadership from our seniors, who will be missed, but we will also return quite a bit of talent and we feel like we are headed in the right direction."
The travel has not eased up very much as Whitten, along with assistant coaches Mike York and Zach Cisek, have also been busy on the recruiting trail. In addition, the coaching staff travelled to the annual American College Hockey Association (ACHA) meeting in Naples, Florida to discuss ongoing changes and challenges facing the sport.
"It is not a rules change year," remarked Whitten. "They have tried to clean up some of the video replays, like making off sides a coach's challenge only, but nothing major."
On the ice at Taffy Abel Arena, various hockey camps are underway. The Michigan Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA) bantam camp was held in Sault Ste. Marie during mid-June. "It allowed us to have some of the best players in the state on our campus," said Whitten.
July will see the annual Laker hockey summer camps held over a three-week period. Two separate camps for mites (ages 5-7), squirts (ages 8-10) and pee wees (ages 11-13) will take place July 8-12 and July 15-19. A camp for bantams and midgets (Ages 14-16) will be held on July 22-25.
"Our Laker camps allow us to get on the ice with the local kids," said Whitten. "It is really fun to get out there and have some fun and hopefully inspire them to continue with the game."
In addition to recruiting and camps, the coaches are also keeping an eye on the current and incoming members of the team in their summer preparation for the upcoming season. With seven members of the 2018-19 squad hailing countries outside of outside North America home, the summer is the time of year those players see their family and friends.
"Most of our guys go home so it is a chance for them to see their families, especially with the distance some of our players are," said Whitten. "Many are working summer jobs, but they are also focused on training. Today, 90% or more of college hockey players have personal trainers and skating coaches. There is such specialization now – guys are working most of the summer."
Asked if he would rather enjoy the summer or drop the puck on the next season tomorrow, Whitten said that, as much as he hated to wish away an Upper Peninsula summer, that if it were up to him, practices would already be underway.
"We miss the guys and being on the bench coaching, so to do it at this level, it's almost a bit of a disease – how much you crave it, Whitten said."
The Lakers will start their 54th season on Saturday, Oct. 5 and Sunday, Oct. 6 at Taffy Abel Arena. The series, against Merrimack College, is a rematch of last year's season-opening matchup. The Lakers swept the Warriors and never looked back as they went on to a successful season. They hope the same thing happens again in 2019-20.
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