Regular season in sight creates exciting atmosphere for Wildcats’ hockey

LAKE+STATE+IS+ON+THE+CLOCK%E2%80%94The+Wildcats+have+a+season+to+look+forward+to+now+with+the+release+of+its+2020-21+season+schedule%2C+with+the+first+game+taking+place+on+Wednesday%2C+Nov.+25%2C+at+home+against+Lake+Superior+State.+Photo+courtesy+of+NMU+Athletics.

LAKE STATE IS ON THE CLOCK—The Wildcats have a season to look forward to now with the release of its 2020-21 season schedule, with the first game taking place on Wednesday, Nov. 25, at home against Lake Superior State. Photo courtesy of NMU Athletics.

Travis Nelson

After several months of wondering what would come next, an answer for the NMU Hockey team has arrived in the form of the 2020-21 regular season schedule. 

With the Wildcats waiting for its season opener on Wednesday, Nov. 25 when the Lake Superior State Lakers come to town, it has brought the team out of a mental rut and has given them a reason to be excited looking ahead.

“It’s nice to have something to look forward to, especially the players that’ve been going at it for a long time,” Head Coach Grant Potulny said. “Something to look forward to is definitely important.”

The program has been working internally with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and opposing coaches and athletic directors on an official start for league games, Potulny said. With all of these talks going on, the team has been anxiously waiting for the schedule release, he said. Before this, what has been changing was the practice schedule. At first, the team practiced in three different groups for three days a week. Slowly but surely, the number of groups has gone down from three, to two, to now one beginning this past week, senior defenseman Ben Newhouse said.

With the plan to continue to increase practice days eventually up to five days a week, Newhouse is sure that there have been days that guys aren’t as motivated without games, but physically everyone’s in it and focused and that they need to keep it when games do begin, he said.

“The focus has been dialed in, I experienced a whole year where you don’t play any games, but I would say it’s difficult for people to maintain that focus,” Newhouse said. “But I think the coaches have done a good job of spacing out the amount of time that we’ve been on the ice.”

The schedule this season offers something different with the season beginning later in the year than usual. The ‘Cats play two Wednesday games in the first two weeks of the season when they typically never have any Wednesday games. It’s going to be a different feeling to begin the season, but Potulny doesn’t expect a different excitement.

“I think a couple of things on [a different schedule]. It’s a little bit of a pro hockey schedule playing Wednesday, Friday, Saturday [with] Wednesday, Friday, Saturday right out of the gate. I think the players will be excited to play, the coaches will be excited to be able to test ourselves against someone else,” Potulny said. “So that’s going to be a little unique and the players will be excited about that.”

What’s also noticeably different about this season’s schedule for Northern is that they play Michigan Tech six times instead of four, and LSSU three times instead of two. It’s great for the players and coaches and hopefully the games will be broadcasted on TV6 against Michigan Tech with fan restrictions, Potulny said. With the first four games of the season coming against these two U.P. rivals, the Wildcats will have no time to waste to get four wins of bragging rights.

“We have a history of playing those teams a lot. With a more compact schedule, I mean that’s nine of 27 games, so 1/3 of our games are against the U.P.,” Newhouse said. “It’s exciting to play teams that’re up here and obviously it’s important for the community here in Marquette. It’s a pride thing, and we’re excited for it. Like I said before, it’s going to hit us when we’re playing those teams right out of the gate. It’s going to be fun.”

At least for right now, what will make the start of the season different is not having fans. The league and university are still working through that, and it’ll be different, Potulny said. He added that after talking to guys in the NHL bubble, the team will get used to it but you can hear everything that’s said on the ice. Despite the circumstances, the players and coaches are excited to compete and it’s important just to get on the ice, Potulny said. However, that doesn’t mean that the Berry Events Center crowd won’t go unnoticed.

“Whatever the number is, we’re really going to appreciate the fans that could be there, and we’ll really miss the ones that with some restrictions won’t be allowed into the building,” Potulny said.

The biggest thing is trying to play as many games safely, Potulny said. Each day and week that passes, he said that he feels more and more educated about the virus, and that trying to find ways to play safe games is what they’re trying to do, he added. 

With a 27-game schedule to look forward to, the emotions and goals of playing hockey don’t change, Newhouse said, but it doesn’t make it any less exciting. Despite the many challenges that surround this upcoming season, none of them have derailed NMU’s high hopes.

“Obviously, it’s a little bit of relief to have games on the schedule, but at the same time I don’t think the mentality doesn’t shift,” Newhouse said. “We’re coming to work everyday and we need to keep coming to the rink and improving.”