It’s a new experience for everyone involved.
It’s not uncommon for NCAA hockey teams to play games at a neutral site but for the Lake Superior State Lakers, it will be the school’s first chance to play a Western Collegiate Hockey Association game north of the border.
The Lakers are set for conference action this weekend against the University of Alabama-Huntsville with Friday night’s contest at Taffy Abel Arena on the campus of LSSU.
Then on Saturday night, the two schools will cross the border and play the second game of the weekend at the GFL Memorial Gardens in a 7 p.m. puck drop.
“From a coaching standpoint, it’s a little bit unique,” Lakers coach Damon Whitten said. “We have to get Friday done and not distract our players but in the back of your mind, even as a coach and knowing what went into the event, there’s a lot of excitement.”
“We’ve hit it so many ways,” Whitten added. “We’ve got a big alumni base (in Sault, Ont.) and we’re excited to get in front of them and spend some time with them. We certainly want to show young hockey players over there what the NCAA brand looks like. Then just showing the fans as well. Years ago, we had a really large and loyal following from over there. Things change and it’s gotten more challenging to get over here. We’ve excited to show the fans of Sault Ste. Marie and fans in general what an NCAA game looks like.”
Whitten said the reception to having a game on the Ontario side of the bridge has been “mostly positive.”
“There are always those people that are unsure, or maybe doubtful even,” Whitten added. “There are still some questions to be answered and we’ll see how it goes. People that want to get on board and support it have done that.”
Whitten added that for the most part though “people are excited. They understand the purpose behind the event and what it means. They’re excited to try something new.”
Whitten said the fact the team hasn’t been able to skate at the Gardens will be a bit of a challenge.
“We tried to skate there around Christmas time but logistically it couldn’t work out,” Whitten said.
Whitten added that the general travel of college hockey will make the adjustment a little easier to playing in a new rink.
“We all travel, just like the OHL,” Whitten said. “We’re jumping on planes and buses and playing in different sized venues. Once you get into it and get that first shift or two out of the way, you make that adjustment and now it’s just another hockey game.”
Whitten said the approach to the week with home games at two different rinks has remained the same.
“We want our guys to understand that it’s going to be different and it’s going to take a little patience,” Whitten said. “There are going to be some hiccups along the way or changes to your normal schedule but beyond that, our week is the exact same.”
The only change from a normal weekend at home, Whitten said, will be when the team travels across the bridge on Saturday for the game.
“Even Saturday morning, through our 1 o’clock pre-game meal, there’s nothing different from what we’re doing (normally),” Whitten said. “It’s the exact same preparation that it normally takes. The only difference is, at 4 o’clock, instead of coming up and getting ready at Taffy, we’re jumping on a bus and head across the bridge.”
The 2019-20 season has been a struggle at times for the Lakers, but Whitten spoke of how the team is playing some of its best hockey heading into this weekend.
“We’re not where we want to be, there’s no question about that,” Whitten said. “Last year, we learned to win right away. This year give credit to the opponents we played (early in the season), it was a really challenging schedule. We didn’t find the right side of the win-loss column and that set us back. We’re playing our best hockey now and whatever happened in the first half doesn’t matter. We’ve had a playoff approach the last couple of weeks.”
“Balance is pretty good overall,” Whitten also said. “We’re getting some really strong goaltending from Mareks Mittens. He’s been a rock for us for a few months. We’re getting great goaltending. Up until last weekend, we had been great defensively for about the past two months. That’s a key for us is defending at a high level and limiting opponents’ chances there.”
The play of senior forward Max Humitz has also been a bright spot for the Lakers this season.
“We’re getting great offensive years from a couple of guys, including Max Humitz, who is one of the top scorers in the nation,” Whitten said. “We’ve been a little challenged to score and that’s been the hard part.”
Humitz enters weekend action with 17 goals in 32 games.
Whitten said Humitz has had a major impact on the program both on an off the ice.
“It’s easy to measure what he’s done on the ice,” Whitten said. “He personifies our locker room as well. This is a group that is really connected and really cares about each other. When somebody goes through the personal tragedy like Max has gone through, you can really gauge an organization by the way they react, and our guys reacted right. They supported him. They took care of him. He was able to handle it as best as he can. It’s a locker room that’s filled with love for each other and a very committed group. Max personifies that for us.”
The personal tragedy was the death of his father in January 2019 after a battle with cancer.
In an interview with WCHA.com, Whitten called Humitz “the heartbeat of our program.”
“You never know what’s going to happen the next day,” Humitz said in the same story. “For me, knowing that things can happen so fast and unexpectedly, you just have to live in the moment and understand that you have to grow and get better as much as you can. That’s what I took from it and what I try to bring to the team every day as a leader.”