Ringy Dingy: Lakers at 50
LSSU Takes Storied History Into New Era
by Christopher Boulay/CHN Writer
It’s hard to win consistently in college hockey. An institution may glorify its only NCAA tournament appearance as a crowning achievement, while others look at anything less than a national title as pure failure.
When considering one tiny institution on the Canadian border, without the funds or name recognition of much of its competition, small achievements may be considered significant. However, decades of proving people wrong and attaining the unimaginable are what actually stick in people’s memories.
Lake Superior State is in the midst of its 50th anniversary celebration, which kicked off with the team’s opening weekend Oct. 14-15 at Taffy Abel Arena against Michigan State. The team started the season in impressive fashion, dispatching the Spartans 6-1 and 7-3, in front of a sold-out crowd with many of its former players and coaches in attendance.
The school worked all summer to bring former members of the hockey team back into the fold, including having several players on the inaugural team on the ice for a ceremonial puck drop. Lake State has been trying to recreate a winning culture under coach Damon Whitten, who is in his third season at the helm.
“It was great to see the building full,” former player and coach Rick Comley said. “Over the last six years, it just hasn’t been. They had struggles winning enough to put people in the building. The town’s the same size it was back then. But nowadays, it doesn’t matter what the sport is. If you win, people come, and if you don’t win, people don’t come.”
Lake State used to win all the time. To this day, the Lakers are one of the most successful teams in college hockey history. With three NCAA championships to its name, Lake Superior is tied for eighth all time in titles, while it has two additional titles from the NAIA years.
The school, based in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., is one of the smallest playing Division I hockey, with an enrollment of less than 3,000 students. The student body is so tiny that it can’t fill the Taffy Abel Arena to capacity on its own. Yet, it has the championship banners and alums that many schools — big and small — dream about.
Opening weekend brought back memories of the past, excitement about the present and optimism for an unclear future.
Part I: The Birth of the Soo Lakers
Lake Superior’s hockey team began due to a combined effort between Head Coach Ron Mason, Athletic Director Bud Cooper and School President Kenneth Shouldice. After having a club team, the first full season as an NAIA member began in 1966. The team called Pullar Stadium home, and would until Taffy Abel Arena was renovated in 1995.
Pullar was a quintessential old-time hockey rink. Seating only 1,800 — but 2,000 if you squeezed enough people inside the door — this was the birthplace of Laker hockey.
“It was a very small rink, small ice sheet,” Comley said. “We used to pack it. It was jammed in there. You could smoke in those days, and it was smoky.”
The arena was famous for its atmosphere, in part, due to the team’s early success. Comley noted that his most vivid memories from the early years was the battles with rival Bemidji State, another NAIA power. There would be so many people in the rink, the aisles would be filled with people standing and sitting on the stairs. It also started without plexiglass to guard the fans from the ice, instead using chicken wire. With not much protecting onlookers from pucks, it was certainly a place where fans needed to keep an eye on the action at all times.
“There wasn’t much protection on the sides, at all,” former athletic director and current Lakers broadcaster Bill Crawford said. “People would get hit with pucks quite often.”
“There were these goofy fans (...) climbing that screen, like monkeys. They’d get all fired up, and go up that screen. It was incredible, and the atmosphere was tremendous.”
The team’s success, which included 10 winning seasons in its first decade playing hockey, along with the 1972 and 1974 NAIA championships, was due — directly or indirectly — to Mason. Born in Blyth, Ont., Mason would coach the team until 1973 before taking a head coaching position at Bowling Green, and later Michigan State.
Mason’s competitive nature fueled his coaching style. The man wasn’t just a determined hockey coach, but one who took every athletic event seriously, no matter how pedestrian. Comley noted that while he was in school, his coach would get fired up for a simple game of volleyball or tennis, and Mason’s ambition compelled him.
“I just really bought into his coaching style, and how determined he was to be successful,” Comley said. “If there’s one trait that he had over all those years, was just burning desire to do well, and to win.”
Mason died in June at age 76. The coach is revered for finishing his career with the most wins in NCAA history, and currently sits second on that list, behind Boston College’s Jerry York. But up in Sault Ste. Marie, he meant far more. The school planned to significantly involve him in this year’s historical celebration.
“I think (Lake Superior) was certainly what shaped Coach Mason and what it takes to build a program,” Whitten said. “At Bowling Green and Michigan State, Coach Mason was so involved with every aspect of the programs. He was a tremendous ambassador for the programs. I think it all goes back to building it at Lake State, and what it took to start a program from nothing.”
Whitten is fond of Mason due to his connections with Michigan State, but when he got to Lake Superior, he noticed how treasured the former coach is to the program and its supporters.
“He was the founder of this program,” Whitten said. “He means essentially everything. He built it from the ground up. It was his baby.”
Comley took over as coach of the team after Mason departed, winning that second championship and set the table for what would be the beginnings of NCAA success. Comley left in 1976 to create the program at Northern Michigan, where won a national title in 1991. He would eventually replace Mason as head coach of Michigan State.
The 1972 title was a 9-3 win over Gustavus Adolphus, while the 1974 crown came against the rival Beavers. That 4-1 victory was a bit of payback for the Lakers, having lost three straight NAIA championships against Bemidji between 1968 and 1970. The school eventually transitioned to the NCAA ranks, joining the CCHA in 1972, playing a dual schedule between the two levels before departing the NAIA altogether.
Both Rick Yeo and Bill Selman coached the Lakers following Comley’s departure, but neither coach could get the program from plateauing in the seven combined years they were at the helm.
Part II: On Top of the World
Young programs have enough problems trying to win, that continually taking steps forward seems like a pipe dream. After all the early success in the NAIA, and launching the careers of two monumentally successful coaches, the program had a strong foundation. Still, Lake State had only one CCHA tournament victory, in 1974, and zero NCAA tournament appearances.
This would change when assistant Frank Anzalone took over the head coaching position in 1982. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-native continued the Lakers’ upward trend, finally getting an NCAA tournament bid during the 1984-85 season, where they lost to Rensselaer in the quarterfinals by a two-game combined score of 10-6.
Anzalone brought new ideas to Laker hockey, and it benefitted the team on the national stage. He had each game taped so they could review the video afterward, while he also focused his players on getting stronger through the weight room he built.
“He was an innovative guy,” Crawford said. He was way ahead of his time on physical fitness, plyometrics and weight training. He was big on the weight room well before other programs.”
The second time in the NCAA tournament would prove to be the most impressive to date. In the 1987-88 season, Anzalone’s team won its second CCHA regular season title, and took down Merrimack in two games by a combined score of 8-4.
In its first Frozen Four appearance, Lake State 6-3, setting up a thrilling battle with St. Lawrence. Led by goaltender Bruce Hoffort, the Lakers forced overtime. Mark Vermette would etch his name in college hockey history by scoring the game-winning goal, giving his team its first national title. Lake Superior was now the smallest school to ever win the Frozen Four.
“I think 1988 was the most incredible one because we never thought we could do that,” Crawford said. “Win a Division I championship?”
Anzalone continued to coach until 1990, bringing the Lakers to the NCAA tournament twice more. He eventually was fired after the season after years of clashing with members of the administration.
“Frank was a demanding coach,” Crawford said. “He was very tough, and he could be demeaning. He was tough with the media. People at Lake Superior didn’t like him because he was brusque. He was a New Yorker. That’s the way they are. But he did a great job, and he built a tremendous program.”
Taking over was Anzalone’s assistant. A native of Roseville, Mich., Jeff Jackson first came to Anzalone’s attention coaching junior hockey in the greater Detroit area. He first assisted Anzalone with the national team at the United States Sports Festival, and was offered a position on the Lake State bench for the 1986 season.
Jackson jumped at the chance.
“It was just about the opportunity,” Jackson said. “The fact that it was in the state of Michigan, where I’d been born and raised. I always loved the U.P. It was a good chance for me to get into the college game and work under a coach that built that program up.”
Being the chief recruiter for Anzalone, Jackson had a close relationship with many of the players in his first season in charge. That team may be the most impressive Laker hockey ever produced.
“I’m not going to say it was the greatest team we ever had there, but it was the most talented team we ever had there,” Jackson said.
While that 1990-91 season had Lake State’s first-ever CCHA tournament win, there wasn’t a fairytale ending like 1988. Despite an incredible season that included a 28-game winning streak, a strong Clarkson team bested the Lakers 4-3 in the deciding game of the best-of-three quarterfinal.
To this day, Jackson blames himself for the loss, but also noted that the officiating style that game was something new that they hadn’t seen before that season.
“Frankly, I take responsibility for us not getting in the Frozen Four, even winning the national championship that year, because I had been the assistant coach and Frank was the starring coach,” Jackson said. “I was the recruiter all those years prior. I was more the buffer. I was trying to [be] the guy they could laugh with and joke around with.”
“I recruited all those kids, so I had a close relationship with all those kids, and I still do. I think that hurt us. When push came to shove that year, it was the officiating and it was our lack of discipline combined that cost us a chance to get to the Frozen Four.”
That may have been the toughest loss in Lake State history, but that season did produce one special moment — a time that Jackson cherishes as his favorite while behind the Laker bench. In the 1991 CCHA final at Joe Louis Arena, Lake State took down in-state rivals Michigan 4-3 on a goal from Clayton Beddoes. Jackson, never one big on partaking in celebrations, remained on the bench and observed his team going crazy in celebration on the ice. However, a group of his kids forced him to be a part of the experience.
“I’ll never forget three of the kids I recruited for my first class — Jeff Napierella, Jimmy Dowd and Timmy Breslin — they made me grab the trophy,” Jackson said. “I wasn’t going to go on the ice and run around with them. They came over, handed me the trophy and hugged me. I still have pictures of that. I was very close to those kids, as well as that whole class and the whole team.”
Napierella, Dowd and the late Breslin were just a few of the big-time names on that team, which also included Doug Weight. While it wouldn’t be the last time notable names skated with the yellow anchor on their sweaters, it was certainly the most star-studded group.
Lake Superior would get back to the Frozen Four again in 1992, with a team that included Brian Rolston. After making quick work of Alaska-Anchorage and Minnesota in the first two rounds, the Lakers defeated Michigan State 4-2 in the semifinals. Jackson finally got his first title in a 5-3 win over Wisconsin.
Outside of the Norris is the Hoholik Victory Bell. University donors Frank and Gladys Hoholik provided the bell in the early-1980s. Since then, players change after a home win, run down the hill to it and ring it, no matter the weather.
“It’s been replaced about three times since the Hoholiks first put it there because it gets broken,” Crawford said. “These guys are out there in minus-15 degree temperatures ringing this bell if they win.”
The most notable incident occurred following the team’s second national championship victory celebration following the win over Wisconsin. The bell was rung so hard, it broke, forcing it to be replaced by an old church bell from New York. This ritual is unique in a sport filled with unusual traditions, and the bell may be as iconic of a symbol of Laker hockey as the oversized, yellow anchor the players wear on their blue, white and yellow jerseys.
Jackson’s team would get another special chance to ring the Hoholik Victory Bell. After a loss to Maine in the 1993 NCAA Championship, the Lakers returned to the NCAA tournament in 1994. Fueled by three overtime victories over Northeastern, Michigan and Harvard, Lake State destroyed Boston University 9-1 for its third title in four years.
With an aging Pullar Stadium and an intention to continue growing the program, Jackson and Lake State executed a plan to refurbish the former Norris Center Ice Arena, renaming it the Taffy Abel Arena — the rink the team plays in to this day.
Everything was looking up for the Lakers, until Jackson finally got lured away after nearly leaving twice earlier in his Laker career.
In 1996, soon after Jackson and his family completed a log house on Lake Superior, he was needed elsewhere. USA Hockey was languishing, and needed a way to keep up with Canada and the rest of the world. Jackson sent a proposal for a year-round program that would have constant development in the American game. He would also coach the junior team, the senior team and be an assistant on the 1998 Olympic team, as part of the plan.
The proposal was accepted.
“I had no intention of leaving,” Jackson said. “We had just finished Taffy-Abel Arena. They did a nice job of rebuilding the arena. I had no intention of leaving.”
“It was an opportunity for coaching experience that I didn’t think I could pass up. It was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever made.”
While Jackson remains disappointed that it ended when it did, he still looks fondly on his time in the Upper Peninsula.
“My 10 years up in the Soo were probably the best years of my life, not just professionally, but even personally,” Jackson said. “I built a lot of great friendships. I had a lot of great players that helped us have the kind of success that we had. I still have relationships with a lot of those players.”
While Jackson felt the coaches in place were capable, there was a gap in their understanding Laker hockey, through no fault of their own. Lake State also lost assistant Ron Rolston after the 1994-95 season, leaving Scott Borek and John LaFontaine in charge.
Part III: A Sinking Ship and Hope to Rise Again
Being used to winning is an enviable position to be in. The problem is, when your best pieces depart for other opportunities, it can be hard to stay the course, let alone prevent collapse.
Borek took over after just one year of being Jackson’s associate head coach. He was the team’s main scout the year before, so he spent much of the time on the road, and Jackson felt that was a disadvantage for not being around, through no fault of his own.
“It was a tough time,” Jackson said. I thought that both of them were very capable coaches. Problem was, I don’t think they had been there long enough to know what our culture was all about.”
Another issue that hurt Borek was that his big name stars jumped ship just a year into his campaign. Future NHLers John Grahame and Bates Battaglia were the backbone of the team, but wouldn’t see their senior years.
From 1989 to 1996, the Lakers went to nine straight NCAA tournaments. They haven’t been back since. Borek had just two winning seasons in five years.
After Borek’s departure, Anzalone returned from 2001 to 2005, but couldn’t rekindle the success he had in his first stint, winning no more than nine games in a season. His assistant Jim Roque would succeed him at the helm, but had just three winning seasons in nine years. However, Roque would oversee Lake State’s transition to the WCHA after the CCHA dissolved in 2013.
Whitten, 39, took over the team in 2014, after working as an assistant at Michigan Tech for four seasons. He led the Lakers to an 8th-place finish in his first year and a 7th-place finish in his second year. Progress has been made, albeit small. However, nothing comes easy for a team that has to crawl back from the college hockey wilderness. There’s a big job ahead, but because of what the program accomplished in the past, Whitten believes that there can be success again.
When asked why he’d take the job at a program that was such a project, he didn’t hesitate.
“This is a hockey town through and through. You go a lot of places around college hockey, some other sports that are maybe bigger on those campuses or in those towns. But you can’t get much more hockey life than Sault Ste. Marie and the Upper Peninsula. Soo, Canada, the same thing. It’s a strong hockey culture. It’s phenomenal for our staff and our players. Everywhere we go, people know about our team, know about our game.
Whitten has a lot of work to do, but he has supporters in every corner, including many of those who preceded him on the Laker bench.
“Damon’s doing a great job right now,” Jackson said. “It takes time to build a program, just like Frank Anzalone did. I didn’t have to do that at Lake Superior. Frank was in the process of rebuilding the program before I got there. I inherited a good program.”
It’s unlikely Lake State can do what they did in the '80s and '90s again. Today’s college hockey landscape is so different from the golden age of Laker hockey. The WCHA is a conference with much smaller teams than the juggernauts typically leading the NCHC, Big Ten or Hockey East. However, Lake State’s fans demand winning because it’s what they’re used to. The current staff in place understands that, and is trying to make it work. It’ll take time, but the pieces are there.
“There certainly is a very challenging part to live up to the expectations of fans, students and alumni,” Whitten said. “I think it’s a healthy part of it. It’s good for our program. But they have been spoiled, in some ways, with the history and tradition that we have. We look at it as a challenge, and embrace it and try to let that guide us moving forward.”
For now, fans are back in the stands, they’re loud and they’re excited. That’s the first step. The Lakers are 5-0-0 to start the 2016-17 year after sweeps of Michigan State and Alabama-Huntsville, and a win over Alaska. There’s a long way to go, but there’s also belief again on the banks of the St. Mary’s River.