By Andrew Vitalis, Special to WCHA.com
Have you ever wondered how a tradition begins? What types of seeds were planted in the ground at the very beginning and how they began to grow (and grow) into the one of the largest trees you have seen? It always starts with an idea, but how does that idea stick?
So many times, movements have been started, but fizzled out almost immediately. Others latched onto people like a wood tick and "that idea" turned into a way of life. In Houghton, Mich., one of those "ideas" rose to the surface during a hockey game 14 years ago. It started simple enough…. Down 6-3 with just over two minutes remaining against dreaded rival Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech student and now-hockey fanatic Tim Braun spotted a NMU fan with his shirt off. Braun and the rest of the Husky fans had seen him before. On one hand they hated him, but on the other hand, they respected him and the spirit he brought to his trade. How dare a visiting fan generate create a scene in Tech's own arena? Braun then said something- and the Huskies later did something- that changed everything.
"Northern, for the longest time, had this guy known as the shirtless guy and he was there every game; he would just be annoying," recalled Matt Cavender. "Tim said if Tech forces overtime, I'm getting shirtless and getting in this guy's face. We tie it up, Tim gets going and then after that we won, so he kept doing this. People wanted to be rowdy with him. Then the Misfits formed around him."
"That was my fifth year of college and probably my fourth hockey game ever. I ended up going with a roommate of mine and we ended up sitting by all of the Northern Michigan fans. When Northern went up 6-3, this guy ("Shirtless Bob") took his shirt off and started swinging his shirt around taunting people. When Tech made it 6-5, I turned to my buddy and said if we tie it up, I'm taking my shirt off and getting in this guy's face," chuckled Braun. "Sure enough we did. I remember celebrating after the game and kids were coming up to me after stuffing dollar bills in my pants. It was hilarious. I wasn't even that big of a hockey fan before that, I just went to go."
The Misfits were born in theory but the name wasn't official yet. Later that season, while on the road in Duluth, Braun and fellow Misfit co-founder Chris Nesbitt, while talking to members of the Tech Sports Information staff and team radio crew who made the trip, sat down at a local hangout and racked their brains trying to find a name for the fan movement that had begun to evolve into something special. One of the guys taking part in the conversation was Mitch Lake- Tech's public address announcer. Up to that point Braun knew that the students had started to find their niche. He also knew that the fanatics had begun to congregate behind Mitch Lake in section "L" inside John MacInnes Student Ice Arena. Section L. Mitch Lake. It seemed to make sense; the group finally had a name- Mitch's Misfits.
"That game (7-6 overtime comeback win over Northern Michigan) sparked many of us to begin attending home games regularly. The next home series against Vermont, Section L behind the penalty boxes was almost completely empty and some of us began to congregate there, standing most of the game and being rowdy throughout," remembered Braun. "There was a meeting between public safety, the athletics department, SDC facilities and the coaching staff to determine what I was and wasn't allowed to do to make it easier on all of us, because no one was used to rowdy home fans at the hockey games.
"Since we stood in section L directly behind Mitch Lake and I had always felt like we were such misfits trying to bring energy to that building, we asked Mitch for his permission and that was it."
Now more than a decade later, Mitch's Misfits have not only become a chapter in the illustrious history of Tech hockey, they have grown to represent the program and everything it means to the people in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, along with Husky fans from around the world. You don't get introduced to the Misfits without Michigan Tech hockey, and you don't appreciate Michigan Tech hockey without the Misfits. Cavender knows exactly what that means. Currently in his second year as President of Mitch's Misfits, he remembers the first time he attended a Michigan Tech hockey game back in 2014. Needless to say it was a defining moment in his life and one he will never forget.
"My first series was Michigan at home and it was a packed building. I found these guys standing up and I thought this is where I need to be, this is what I need to do. This looks fun- looks like people who enjoy hockey and enjoy going nuts," stated Cavender. "I got in there and they gave me a flag. I was over the moon about that. Having all of the fun that I had in the crowd and seeing Tech win those games was really what solidified just how much I loved the organization and the rest of the college experience."
Cavender now goes about his days balancing the line between student and leader of a campus organization believed to be over 1,000 students strong (when you add up the current and former Misfits). Whether it's organizing and running board meetings, making posters and signs for weekend games or putting the final details together for an upcoming road trip; calling the shots for one of the most famous student-run fan bases in the country can be a full-time job sometimes.
"It's a lot of time and a lot of effort, but it's been the honor of my life. It's definitely helped me prioritize some things because of how much it takes out of my daily life," commented Cavender. "On game days, I'll set up things. We have a whole bunch of flags and signs I have to help get out. I have to keep all of our social media updated and ready to go; make sure everyone knows what's going on. I spend a lot of time sending out things through the email list. I am also a major player in organizing trips to away games, so when you see Tech fans at away games and you see students standing, a lot of that is because of me and other members of my board."
The effort does not go unnoticed. When current Michigan Tech head hockey coach Joe Shawhan first arrived on campus four year ago as a then-assistant coach in 2014, one of the first events he attended was a Mitch's Misfits meeting. At the time, while he knew of the Misfits, he will admittedly tell you that he believed the Misfits were just another group of fans he had seen throughout his time as a college hockey player and coach. He quickly realized that was not the case.
"It was their introductory meeting for the year and it was a riot. I went in there and sat down and they had no idea who I was, I was just an old guy sitting in there. They probably thought I wanted to be a Misfit like everyone else. They went through their organization and what they do and how they travel. I finally realized that those crazy people were instead a very well-organized group of students who put a lot of work into what they do," remarked Shawhan. "I started figuring out that the group I always saw when we used to play against Michigan Tech prior to coming here, it wasn't just a student section that showed up for the games, but it was actually a fraternity-type group of passionate hockey fans that make it so much more fun than just your typical Friday and Saturday night game at home. They are sending out emails of support all of the time and they are waiting for you after games on the road to offer support and those kind of things when we are going to the bus. How good they make the players and all of us feel; I consider them a valuable part of our hockey program."
"My first game, I remember it like it was yesterday. We played against Northern Michigan and it was packed," added Michigan Tech assistant captain and current WCHA Offensive Player of the Week Jake Lucchini. "I've never been in a building that was so loud before. I've played at a lot of college rinks the last three years and I can honestly say that our rink is top-three to play in. Not only the students, but the entire community comes out. Mitch's Misfits are crazy, they chant the entire game; I don't think they stop yelling and screaming. They support us and we like it when they are there. They help give us a boost in energy."
Over the years that energy has come in several different forms. Sometimes it served as the perfect firecracker at just the right time. Other times the Misfits magic has worked in more subtle ways, such as easing tension during some stress-filled games.
"Last year playing in the WCHA final and the building was sold out. It was like a TV timeout or something like that in the second period. We are just sitting there on the bench talking about the game and we look up on the jumbotron. The student section is on one side and the local fans from the community sit on the other side. They brought a big sign; each person was holding up a different letter and it said 'Old people stand up," mentioned Lucchini. "Here we are in the WCHA championship game and everyone is looking up on the screen laughing. That was special. It was really funny."
"My first year here, they were doing a chant that now they do all of the time. All of a sudden a girl starts screaming- that's part of the cheer. I thought someone behind me where the Misfits section is, I thought someone had fallen from a balcony or something and were screaming as they were falling," laughed Shawhan. "Then at the end of it they all started cheering. It caught me off guard. It has to catch every new person who steps into the rink off guard when they do that every game."
It's just one of the reasons why Michigan Tech (thanks in large part to the Misfits) sports one of the best, if not the best, home hockey environment in the nation. Each game hundreds of Misfits chant…and chant…and chant…making it nearly impossible for the Huskies' opponents to get comfortable. For example, this season, not surprisingly, Tech is 6-3-2 at the John MacInnes Student Arena (and 8-9-3 away from it). Last season, they were 12-4-4 at home- including 5-1-0 en route to the WCHA Tournament Championship. But it's not just the home games that showcase the Misfits' unique talent. Across the country, every place the Huskies go few- or sometimes a lot- of Mitch's Misfits magically appear in the stands. Sometimes with their shirts on, other times not.
"They have an internal structure in place for when they travel, so when we go on the road, and I'm talking about even when we travel to Alaska, they are always there. They are Misfits from afar," replied Shawhan. "It's incredible what they bring to us. The atmosphere that they provide brings that Michigan Tech home atmosphere to the road, which draws in tons of alumni. They are happy the Misfits are there and they feel at home. It really is unbelievable what they bring to our team. I feel they are an equal part of everybody on our team. They are a member of our team as far as I'm concerned."
"I've played at Michigan State, Michigan, Notre Dame; places like that. I think we have the best student section in the entire country," remarked Lucchini. "They are loud. They enjoy the games and it's always full. It just brings another element to the game for our team. It's like no other team in college hockey."
When you think about it, it's ironic, isn't it? When a chant begins, it typically starts with one or two people. If you are lucky, those around you pick up on the cheer and the momentum builds. Before you know it, what started off as a simple phrase, has taken on a life of its own- spreading across the arena like a runaway train. That's exactly how Mitch's Misfits started. Now 14 years later, the group doesn't seem to be stopping any time soon.
"I've never seen any game-day experience anywhere, including at Yost (Yost Ice Arena- home of the Michigan Wolverines), that compares to the experience at Tech. It's an incredible source of pride," concluded Cavender, a Communications major who hopes to carry his Mitch's Misfits experience into the work force after graduating from Tech. "I think what separates the Misfits from other student sections is that we don't have things like three-and-done chants or five-and-done chants; once we start a chant it goes whistle to whistle and we will not stop. Sometimes we will have five minutes of 'Let's Go, Huskies!'- I've never seen it happen anywhere else. It's hard to put things into words if you have never been there. It's an experience. Just watching us is fun, but when you are in the middle of it, it's something else. There's no better way to watch a game."
And with every chant, Tim Braun finds himself with a smile on his face. Now living in Minneapolis, the engineer watches from a distance; still amazed at what the Misfits have become and what they have grown to represent.
"I think there are enough of us who are certainly hoping it will keep going and that they will get whatever support they need," stated Braun. "The craziest thing about all of it was how it got created out of such a bad period of Tech hockey. I loved some of the players and coaches back then, but we were winning like six games a year. It's kind of crazy to think that we were able to pull that off so organically when we weren't very good."
Oh my, how things have changed, yet stayed the same. The Michigan Tech Huskies, winners of the WCHA Tournament last season, return to action this weekend playing Bemidji State in the Winter Carnival series. Typically, John MacInnes Student Ice Arena is packed for a Tech hockey game, but when referring to the annual Winter Carnival celebration in Houghton, the game takes on a whole new meaning. As if that wasn't enough, the Huskies, currently in fifth place, enter the weekend two points behind the Beavers in the WCHA standings.
As if the Misfits needed even more of a reason to cheer…