By Alyssa Hollenback
Some schools are rooted in hockey; they have a hockey legacy, a long-standing reputation of winning and championship banners hanging in their arenas. Though it does not gain as much national attention as some of its counterparts, Lake Superior State University, located in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, is truly one such school. Currently in their fifty-first season of varsity hockey, this tiny Division I school is working to recreate a winning legacy under the school's tenth head coach, Damon Whitten.
Lake Superior State was – and can be again – a real powerhouse. In fact, LSSU still holds the title as one of the most successful college hockey teams in history. The Lakers boast three NCAA championship titles, tying them for eighth all-time, plus two additional championships from their NAIA years. This achievement becomes even more significant when you consider that LSSU has a student body of less than 3,000 and lacks much of the funding that other Division I schools possess.
Now in his third season at LSSU, Whitten says that the strong hockey legacy of the school is something that helped make his decision to join the program.
"I have always had an eye on Lake State," Whitten said. "Thinking back to when I was playing, they were one of the schools that approached me. Now I walk into the arena and see the banners hanging and it really is inspiring. The legacy of great coaching is something I looked forward to joining and Sault Ste. Marie is a hockey town through and through."
With coaching greats like Ron Mason, whose efforts helped launch the Lakers' program in 1966, the pressure to perform is something that every coach that followed was sure to feel. Mason finished his collegiate coaching career at Whitten's alma mater Michigan State with the most NCAA wins in history and still ranks second – big shoes to fill. But, rather than pressure, Whitten feels that the legacy is a selling point.
"In all honesty, I do not see something like that as added pressure," Whitten said. "I love that I can fall back on the Lakers' strong history. I have decades' worth of mentors to look to. The expectations of this rich hockey community can be difficult to live up to, but I really prefer it that way. Hockey is at the forefront in this town and I view that as something that is really working for me, rather than against me."
Lake Superior State University's men's team started off with a bang; the program had ten winning seasons in its first decade playing hockey. In 1972, the program earned its first championship title, beating Gustavus Adolphus. Mason, the team's first head coach, laid the groundwork for the program and after he departed (for Bowling Green in 1973 and eventually Michigan State), Rick Comley took over. Comley helped earn the team's second NAIA championship in 1974, beating major rival Bemidji State, and teed up the organization for future NCAA success. The Lakers transitioned to the NCAA by, joining the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) in 1972; they played a combined schedule between the two leagues before leaving the NAIA altogether a few years later. What followed was nearly a decade of average seasons.
Lake State finally earned a spot in the NCAA tournament under head coach Frank Anzalone. Their first appearance ended in a loss to Rensselaer in 1984-85, but 1988 would prove to be a more successful year. In its second NCAA appearance, after winning a second CCHA regular season title, the Lakers took down Merrimack. That season would also bring LSSU's first Frozen Four appearance. In an overtime win, the Lakers became the smallest school to ever win the Frozen Four. LSSU made it back to the Frozen Four until 1992, when head coach Jeff Jackson earned his first title in a win over Wisconsin. After a loss to Maine in the 1993 NCAA Championship, the team returned the following year. With three overtime victories against Northeastern, Michigan and Harvard, the Lakers trumped Boston University 9-1 to earn its third NCAA championship title in four years.
It felt as though Lake State was finally in a rhythm: they were on a winning streak; their arena was being refurbished and they had a balanced coaching staff in place. Progress came to a halt when Jackson's proposal to rehab the USA Hockey program was accepted; he made the difficult decision to leave LSSU in 1996. Under Jackson, the Lakers made it to the NCAA tournament nine straight times (1989 to 1996). The team has not been back since and no coach since Jackson has been able to recreate the team's earlier success. As LSSU made the transition to the WCHA when CCHA dissolved in 2013, it looked as though the Lakers could be a team on the upswing.
Whitten took over as bench boss in 2014 after working as an assistant at Michigan Tech for four seasons. Now in his third season, significant progress toward a "Return to Glory" has already been made. The new head coach has helped the team earn an eighth-place finish and a seventh-place finish in the last two seasons. With a difficult task in front of him, Whitten is optimistic on the team's future success: "Our coaching staff here makes all the difference. When I arrived a few years ago, I fully intended to hire people within my inner circle, but that was not the case and I am happy it worked out that way. Both assistant coaches, Rich Metro and Doug Holewa, have professional hockey backgrounds, which has certainly elevated our approach. With a younger staff in place, I think our relationships with players has become even more important."
In addition to a young coaching staff, the team itself is quite young, making recruiting a crucial factor in the Lakers' continued success. As Whitten says, "Every year varies when it comes to the recruiting process. Certain years you have larger roles to fill on the team, this year was a strong example as we only have one senior. Overall, we put a lot of emphasis on recruiting individuals that have high character and high academics, true student-athletes. We simply cannot afford to make shortcuts when it comes to recruiting talent. We also look for players to be strong ambassadors for the program; we expect a lot of them."
The relationships between players and the coaches seem to be a strong reflection of the overall emphasis that Lake Superior State places on building connections.
"As a smaller school the setting is very unique. In our opening weekend this year as we were celebrating fifty years of Laker hockey, and dozens of old players returned," Whitten said. "I saw previous players hugging their professors from decades ago and it dawned on me how unique the relationships here really are. We want to continue to build those types of connections on and off the ice."
Since Whitten has taken the helm, the Lakers have nearly doubled their overall and WCHA win totals from previous years. They have also recaptured the Cappo Cup from Upper Peninsula rival Northern Michigan, another clear sign of progress. And this season has proven to be another stepping stone, as LSSU got off to a 6-1 start – its best in two decades.
The Lakers then suffered a five-game losing streak, but have since righted the ship again with a nonconference win at then-No. 16 Michigan (LSSU's first at Yost Ice Arena since 2005-06) and a WCHA victory over Bowling Green.
Through it all, the building Lakers have been successfully managing the highs and lows. As Whitten explains, "That is a big part of what I hope to do here – really learning how to win. We lack experienced players on such a young team, but we have strong leaders who continue to learn what it takes. We take things game-by-game."
As Whitten looks ahead to the upcoming schedule, including this week's matchup against storied rival Bemidji State, he says, "We cannot get caught up looking too far ahead. While some games may be more important than others, we view each weekend as an important piece of the puzzle."
Rather than looking at the season as a whole, which can be daunting, the team takes a "on to the next one" approach. Lake Superior State fans – and the WCHA – are all excited to see what the next one brings!