It’s finally here. Practice your cheers and ready your jeers. Hockey season has returned to NMU.
The Wildcat hockey team is sitting in a familiar situation right now. The players are coming off a strong finish from last season and returning nearly all of their top producers. Last season began much the same, yet the team got out of the gate to a 2-7-1 start.
“The last couple years, we had a tough schedule early,” said head coach Walt Kyle. “This year’s not any different. Our schedule isn’t doing us any favors.”
The ‘Cats will begin their season playing nine of their first 10 games against 2009 NCAA Tournament qualifiers, including semifinalist Bemidji State University and runner-up Miami of Ohio. Regardless, Kyle is expecting a different result.
“I don’t think we were a team that was ready to play that kind of schedule early. I think we’re much more prepared and experienced (now) and able to handle that schedule,” he said.
The team’s inexperience last year was undeniable, as four of their top five scorers were sophomores.
“It’s difficult for freshmen and sophomores to have the kind of success in any kind of division 1 college sport that they should,” Kyle said.
This year, however, those players return as juniors, bringing two years of experience with them. Add a talented group of freshmen to round out the team, and this year’s Wildcats should be a force to contend with. In fact, if the ‘Cats’ 11-2 drubbing of Ryerson University on Sunday is any indication, this year NMU might finally have the team people have expected for several years.
Four of last year’s top five producing forwards will be back this year. Mark Olver (who last year had 16 goals, 19 assists for 35 points), Gregor Hanson (13-21-34), Jared Brown (12-13-25) and Phil Fox (11-7-18) are all still only juniors on the team. Kyle looks to them collectively to fill the void left by the departure of Nick Sirota (12-15-27).
Olver, who exploded for 38 points during his freshman campaign, struggled to score points early on last season. Several others experienced the same troubles.
“I think (this year’s) junior class struggled out of the gate after very good freshmen years. You hear in all sports the sophomore slump,” said Kyle.
“Subconsciously they thought it would be easy. I think those guys are more than prepared right now to have success.”
Olver believes he has figured out why he started last season slowly.
“Last year when I was struggling, it was just the little things I was struggling with,” he said. “Going to the front of the net, going to the corners, going to the hard areas, shooting pucks, things like that will get you the success you need.”
Olver also feels more confident about the team’s beginning this season.
“I can’t really say anything because I can’t predict the future, but I like where our team’s at right now,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll just get off to a better start this year.”
Another returning skater also hoping to crack the top five is senior Matt Butcher (2-3-5), who missed most of last season due to injury. Joining the group are Kory Kaunisto and former Marquette Ranger Chad Pietila. In Sunday’s exhibition game, the two contributed to five of the team’s 11 goals.
Last year’s Wildcat defense was a squad plagued by injury. Between the two of them, defensive staples Al Dorich and TJ Miller missed 39 of last season’s 41 games. Kyle hopes to avoid that problem this year. They are healthy again now, though, and poised to once again anchor the defense.
Of last year’s defensemen, Blake Cosgrove (0-13-13) and Derek May (1-6-7) graduated, leaving the squad largely in tact.
Additional returners this year include Andrew Fernandez (2-2-4), Erik Spady, (0-0-0) and Eric Gustafsson (4-30-34).
Gustafsson was named as an All-American and All-CCHA selection last year, and will join Miller and Dorich to form the backbone of the Wildcat defense.
“I think he’s (Gustafsson) one of the best players in the country,” said Kyle. He expects Gustafsson to repeat as an All-American selection and be a potential candidate for the Hobey Baker Memorial Trophy.
Kyle selected Gustafsson as the team’s captain this year, noting that his contributions during games are only part of what he brings to the team.
“It’s great to have him not only for his on-ice leadership, but also for the work ethic he has,” said Kyle. “Guys that have that kind of work ethic and commitment kind of have the ability to pull other guys along and the other guys work to that level. I think he makes our practices better, which makes our team better.”
Several freshmen defensive players also join the team this year, including Scott Macaulay and Kyle Follmer.
Gustafsson knows it is up to him and the other veterans to get the underclassmen ready to play.
“We’re working on all different kind of details to get them (the freshmen) ready. At the beginning of the year we’ve got to have really good defense to win games. The older guys like me, TJ (Miller) and (Al) Dorich are trying to teach them small stuff. I think we have a really talented team this year.
Goaltending has been one of NMU’s strong points the late the last few years. Brian Stewart won 14 games for the Wildcats last year, including three shutouts, with a goals-against-average of 2.32 and save percentage of .925. Kyle is against expecting him to backstop the team for most of the season.
Rejoining Stewart in net this year is Reid Ellingson, who played several games for the Wildcats throughout the 2007-08 season. After playing junior hockey for a year with the Green Bay Gamblers, Ellingson returns to the ‘Cats with more experience and ability.
“A year of maturity really helped me out, I think that’s going to be a big benefit for me this year,” said Ellingson.
Although Stewart always expects the most out of himself, he does think it will be nice to have Ellingson back.
“It’s good to have him back,” Stewart said. “It’s good to have the competition. I always want to play good, but if anything were to happen, Reid’s very capable.”
The Wildcats will open their regular season this Friday in Houghton, taking on the Michigan Tech Huskies in the first game of the Superior Cup tournament. The team will then travel to Duluth, Minn. to take on the UM-D Bulldogs on Sunday. Historically, NMU has not played the Bulldogs well. They lost last year’s matchup 5-0.
After the Superior Cup, the ‘Cats will return to Marquette to host Bemidji State University for their home opener. The games will be played Oct. 23 and 24 in the Berry Events Center.