WildCats join WCHA conference

Katie Bultman

Hockey team renews rivalries after final 15-19-4 record

After leaving the ice on a first round playoff loss last season with a 15-19-4 record, the Division I men’s ice hockey team opens the 2013 season with an exhibition game Saturday, Oct. 5.

Head coach Walt Kyle, who has spent 12 years with the Wildcats and earned his 200th victory last season in a weekend sweep over St. Cloud State on Friday, Jan. 4 in Minn., said the team was not proud of their finish in the 2012-13 season, but they are ready to get the new season rolling. RESIZEhockey3

“I think every time you don’t advance to where you want to in the playoffs, you are not happy,” Kyle said. “We had a long summer and we are anxious to get going again.”

The Wildcats, ranked No. 10 going into the playoff season, ended their season in a loss to the seventh-seeded University of Michigan. They were defeated in two games during the first round of the CCHA Tournament on Friday, March 8 and Saturday, March 9.

This season, NMU rejoins the Western Collegiate Hockey Association after 16 years. The ’Cats were last a part of the WCHA conference from 1984-97. NMU also earned the NCAA title in the WCHA conference in 1991.

With the switch in conference play, the ’Cats will no longer see some of the bigger name teams during the season, such as CCHA members like Michigan and Michigan State University.

Team co-captain, senior forward Stephan Vigier, appeared in all 38 games last year and finished  the season with 59 overall career points. hockey2

Vigier said the change in conference is not going to make it any different for the team, and will hopefully open opportunities for new rivalries.

“It won’t be [a game changer] for us, and I’m hoping it won’t be for fans either,” Vigier said. “There should be some new rivalries; Bemidji and Minnesota State are teams to beat, and then there’s the old schools, the big Yooper rivalries.”

The Wildcats will hold WCHA membership with rival teams such as Michigan Tech and Lake State Superior University.

Several teams that Northern Michigan University has not yet seen are also in the mix, including Bemidji State University and Minnesota State.

Minnesota State made it to the NCAA finals last season and finished with an overall 24-14-3 record. The Mankato Free Press WCHA Preseason Head Coaches’ Poll and The Bemidji Pioneer WCHA Preseason Media Poll both listed Minnesota State as the WCHA favorite. NMU was chosen for the sixth spot in the polls.

Kyle said with Mankato expected to be one of the top schools this season, the Wildcats are eager to see good competition in the newest opponents this year. hockey

“People have the tendency to associate good hockey programs and name-recognition with schools that have Division 1 big football powers or basketball powers,” Kyle said. “People need to understand that it is going to be every bit as competitive although, within the league, you are not going to have those David and Goliath-type games anymore.”

The ’Cats have been to the CCHA Tournament seven times with Kyle as head coach, and now the team has the opportunity to do so in the WCHA.

NMU will host 18 games this year, and returns 19 letterwinners to the ice. This includes 12 forwards, six defensemen and one goaltender.

Junior forward Reed Seckel is the returning point-getter, leading the team with 13 goals and 12 assists in 25 total games. Senior forward Erik Higby also returns with 21 points on 72 shots.

Sophomore Michael Doan returns as goaltender with a 2.91 goals against average and 92.6 save percentage in five career games over the course of last season.

The Wildcats also bring in several new transfer and freshmen players to the team this season. Freshmen forwards Shane Sooth, Dominik Shine and Sami Salminen are all athletes that Kyle said will earn some playing time, contingent on how the practices lay out.

Senior defenseman and co-captain, CJ Ludwig, returns as the 2012-13 Dallas Drake Defensive Player of the Year. He also received the Tom Laidlaw Best Defenseman Award and was second on the team with 52 blocked shots.

Ludwig said the depth this year is looking to be good with the addition of the newest players.

“There are a lot of young guys that are going to be given prime opportunities to play,” Ludwig said. “They should make a big difference, and hopefully come out with some big plays.”

Last season, the ’Cats opened with a 2-0 exhibition victory over Brock University at home.

The Wildcats go into Saturday’s exhibition game without any formal practices due to NCAA guidelines that restrict the team from official practices prior to Saturday.

Kyle said the exhibition games aim at three main purposes for the athletes.

“Number one, we use them for a conditioning tool to get guys in some kind of game shape,” Kyle said. “Number two, you use it as an introduction to systems and tactics, and number three, probably most important, there are a lot of jobs for sale on this hockey team. A lot of guys have opportunities to earn not only spots in the lineup, but to earn ice time within the lineup.”

Last season the Wildcats finished with .097 shot percentage, ahead of their opponents, which cummulatively averaged a .085 shot percentage. However, the Wildcats scored fewer points off power plays than the cumulative average of their opponents, with only 20 goals for 147 power plays in comparison to their opponents’ 36 goals for 162 power plays.

Kyle said the team needs to use this season to improve on special teams.

“First of all we were really bad last year in all our special teams,” Kyle said. “Our power play was not only ineffective with scoring, but we gave up a lot of shorthanded goals. I don’t think our penalty play was very effective. I thought five-on-five we gave up far too many shots and took far too many penalties. Those to me are just right up front things that we have to work on.”

This season, the Wildcats open the year with an exhibition game against the U.S. National U-18 team.

Kyle said the U-18 team is a national development team consisting of the best players in the country.

“Historically, the team will have a number of future NHL stars,” Kyle said. “Patrick Kane has came in on that team, Phil Kessel played with that team, Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson, guys that are stars in the NHL today have played in that game in this building.”

The exhibition game is set to start at 7:07 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5 in the Berry Events Center.

“It’s a great opportunity for our fans to come in and see,” Kyle said. “It’s a very good team this year and it is a great opportunity to see some future NHL players.”

The Wildcats play again at the Berry Events Center at 2:07 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 6 against Laurentian in a home exhibition game.

Ludwig said the team is looking forward to the season with all of the preparation the men have put in over the summer months.

“That’s not how we wanted to end last year,” Ludwig said. “It kind of gives us a bitter taste, and now we need to focus on the little details. As captain, it’s about making sure the guys are having fun and making sure guys realize why we’re here, and achieving the common goal of winning.”