‘Cats hockey prepares to host St. Thomas in front of expected large home crowd


BACK IN A JAM-PACKED BEC—The NMU Hockey team celebrates a victory over Ferris State at home on January 30, 2021. That game was in front of barely any spectators, but the Berry Events Center will be full for the season opening series against St. Thomas this weekend. Travis Nelson/NW

Travis Nelson, Sports Editor

The Northern Michigan University hockey team begins its 2021-22 slate with some solid momentum after last year’s WCHA runner-up run. Now in the re-established CCHA’s first year back, the Wildcats will host the University of St. Thomas to kick off their campaign.

NMU’s 2020-21 season didn’t look good towards the end of January with a 2-10 record, but the Wildcats were able to rally and grab the sixth seed in the conference tournament. After winning a road series over Bowling Green and upsetting number one seed Minnesota State Mankato in the semifinals, the ‘Cats underdog story came up short in the championship game to Lake Superior State. 

Northern enters this season receiving votes in the USCHO preseason national poll, and was projected fourth out of eight teams in the inaugural CCHA preseason poll. NMU brings back the scorers of 68 of the team’s 79 goals from last year, added some experienced transfers and is attempting to piggyback last year’s success down the stretch. Combining all of those factors, there is strong optimism heading into the season opening games.

“We finished the year on, I want to say, a good note because we did play very well in the playoffs,” Captain Defenseman Ben Newhouse said. “We shocked a lot of people, and just getting there and experiencing what a one-game playoff is like, just getting to that point in the playoffs is very important and it’s difficult to do throughout the whole year. Our mentality has to be that we’re going to play playoff hockey throughout the year, and obviously our goal is to have home ice advantage in the playoffs.”

The captain duo of Newhouse and forward Joseph Nardi returned to NMU for a fifth year this offseason, and the team will run through them. Newhouse led the country with 91 blocked shots last season, and chipped in with two goals and five assists. Nardi led the team with 33 points, tallying 12 goals and led the team and was top 10 in the country with 21 assists. 

“I think it’s great that Joe (Nardi) and I are back, but for the most part we have pretty much our entire team back with a few important additions which have obviously had some college experience as well,” Newhouse said. “Obviously, it’s great that Joe and I are back, but collectively it’s a whole group effort as well.”

Along with Nardi, the ‘Cats bring back its other top three goal scorers. Leading goal scorer forward AJ Vanderbeck returns after his 14 goals was tied for 11th in the country. Nardi and Vanderbeck are joined by forwards Andre Ghantous (10 goals and 12 assists) and Vincent de Mey (seven goals) to bring back what appears to be an elite offense. Nardi and Ghantous will headline Northern’s first line along with forward Mikey Colella, who totaled four goals and three assists as a freshman a year ago. 

Vanderbeck and de Mey will be featured on the second and third lines, and have some key transfers along with them. Forward Hank Crone comes from Denver and had four goals and five assists in his last year with the Pioneers. The ‘Cats have also added forward Hampus Eriksson from rival Lake Superior State, and totaled 67 points in his 139 career games with LSSU. Other returning names to keep an eye out for the forwards are David Keefer, Jett Jungels, Garrett Klee, Rylan Van Unen, Mack Byers and Connor Marritt.

Newhouse is the headline returner for the defense, but the Wildcats return most of their d-core from a season ago. Michael Van Unen, Tanner Vescio, Tim Erkkila, Colby Enns and Alex Frye are all back in Marquette this year. Tyrell Boucher broke his leg last season in a horrific looking play, and is currently out after reinjuring the same leg. NMU also brings in a pair of transfers defensively with Bo Hanson out of Denver and Trevor Cosgrove out of Colgate. 

In net, goaltender Rico DiMatteo is back after starting halfway through the season last year in what turned out to be a solid freshman campaign. DiMatteo posted a 7-5-1 record and a save percentage of 90.9%. Nolan Kent gives the ‘Cats some veteran leadership in the crease as the back-up, and freshman Charlie Glockner comes on the scene to bolster the depth at the position.

The ‘Cats recently got to test out its experienced line-up and new additions with a highly contested exhibition game at Michigan Tech this past Saturday. The game resulted in a 4-4 tie, and it wasn’t just some lousy preseason game. The fans packed MTU’s arena and it boasted the first great atmosphere since before the pandemic began.

“We probably got what we hoped to get out of it,” NMU coach Grant Potulny said. “I really liked our top line, they only played a period and they ended up scoring two goals. I think we need more, I felt like maybe we needed some more from the middle of our lineup. That was probably true, so it might be tinkered with a little bit there. A couple things that you were in a good place with, you are, a couple of things that you were nervous about, there’s a good reason to be nervous. I thought it was great. You know what? That was not an exhibition game, that was two teams in a full barn playing for keeps. It was great.”

NMU now turns its attention to the St. Thomas Tommies (0-2) this weekend. This is the first year in Division I hockey for St. Thomas, making the historic jump from Division III. The Tommies found out the hard way what this level is like opening up the season last weekend with interstate opponent No. 2 St. Cloud State fresh off a run to the national championship game in April. The Huskies squashed the Tommies 12-2 in the first game with an unprecedented seven power play goals. Saturday’s game was much closer, and St. Cloud pulled away for a 2-0 victory. The 10-goal game seems outrageous, but it was a deceiving score that NMU has to look past, Potulny said.

“(It was) very deceiving, the next night was 2-0,” Potulny said. “It’s a one-shot game almost all the way through the third period. They scored seven power play goals, there were 17 penalties in the game. So you have one program that has every player back in all those spots that played for the national championship (St. Cloud State), and another team trying to figure out who they’re going to play on those things (St. Thomas). So game one, you have to throw that out.”

Cameron Recchi and Christiano Versich scored the Tommies’ two goals in the season opener, and they lead a group of forwards that can skate well, Potulny said. St. Thomas welcomes a large group of transfers, they have some guys in interesting spots that the ‘Cats will have to sort through, and the Tommies are led by a good coach that has an impressive track record in Rico Blasi, Potulny said. Even though tough nights like the first game for St. Thomas might happen because it’s their first year, NMU won’t be able to rely on talent alone to knock them off.

“The thing is at this level, Division I college athletics, there might be a couple games where they nights like they did because it’s their first year,” Potulny said. “But there’ll be a lot more nights when they play close games.”

What the Wildcats will be able to rely on is a fan-filled Berry Events Center this weekend. Friday’s game will be the first time that the Berry will have full capacity open since NMU’s first round WCHA Tournament loss to Michigan Tech on March 7, 2020. Towards the end of last season, students were able to attend games, but nothing compares to the fanbase of NMU at its peak.

“I expect this building to be electric this weekend, close to full capacity if not capacity,” Potulny said. “For our players, playing in front of our fans, not everybody has the fan base that we have or that Michigan Tech has. Programs like us, you really get hurt by it (not having fans last season). The pageantry of it, the band, the student section, there’s just so many levels to it that make college sports great and having our fans back is going to be incredible.”

Newhouse couldn’t have agreed more with his coach.

“We’re really excited for it, just playing the exhibition game last weekend was fun to play in front of fans again,” Newhouse said. “Obviously, it was a difficult situation last year with the COVID deal, but yeah we’re really excited to play in front of our fans again. I think it’s a strong home ice advantage and we’re excited that everyone’s able to be back in the rink.”

NMU will have its first CCHA games and will get the chance to start putting up some points. After not starting until December last year, the ‘Cats will be back to playing a full schedule. The team’s excited to get going, Newhouse said, and they’re focused on themselves trying to put their best foot forward to start the year on the right note against St. Thomas.

“I think it’s huge,” Newhouse said on getting off to a fast start in 2021. “Obviously last year, we did not have a very good start at all and there’s a lot of different factors that went into that. But this year, I think it’s important to us that we start putting up points early in the league so that later in the year, we’re not playing catch up. Our main focus is Friday night and then we’ll move on to Saturday once Saturday comes, but our focus is with home games right out of the gate here to continue to build our group.”

NMU welcomes in St. Thomas into what could be a dynamic crowd inside the confines of the Berry Events Center. Both games start at 6:37 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.