Detroit Rock City: On the road with a Division 1 hockey team.

Photo by Ryan Stieg
Photo by Ryan Stieg

Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a 2-part series following the Northern Michigan University hockey team to the Great Lakes Invitational.


After three days’ worth of practices, game day for Northern Michigan University arrived on a Tuesday. The Wildcats fit in another short practice late that morning to try and tweak any remaining issues. When it was time to go back to Joe Louis Arena just before 5 p.m., I could feel things change. The team was still a little loose during the morning skate; now the Wildcats were all business. When they arrived at JLA, most of the guys stretched, while others fixed their equipment, rode the exercise bike and got taped by the trainers. Starting goalie Atte Tolvanen went through a much different routine.

While others keep it simple, Tolvanen likes to ramp up the intensity. I was told several times that I had to watch the goalie go through his pregame ritual and I’m glad I did because it was something to behold. The Finnish freshman sits in front of his locker quietly with his eyes closed and music playing in his ears. It looked as if he was in a zone, which I know goalies like to try to get into before they take the ice. After a few moments, you can hear the music getting louder and then he shouts out the final lyrics. He proceeds to leap into the air a couple of times, does a couple spins, and flops down on the floor. Tolvanen then goes into the splits, grabs what looks like a lacrosse ball and rapidly bounces it between his hands and the floor. It was fun to watch his reaction time. He doesn’t bobble or miss the ball once. After doing this for about 20 seconds, he jumps to his feet, leaps into the air a couple more times and then calmly puts on his shoes. As he left the locker room, I was in a state of amazement — at what I’d just seen and how different it was compared to any other goalie’s ritual I’ve seen. I told NMU head coach Walt Kyle that what I saw was impressive. He simply nodded his head and said “Yep.”

After the team went through its warm-ups, the ‘Cats, clad in their green road uniforms, went back into the locker room where head coach Walt Kyle addressed the team. Northern was about to play No. 10 Michigan, who at the time had the best offense in the country. The Wolverines’ defense was suspect and their goaltending was decent, but not on par with some of the teams Northern Michigan would see in the WCHA (like Michigan Tech or Minnesota State). Kyle emphasized the importance of generating as many shots as possible and dictating the pace of the game. He also talked about how the Joe Louis Arena ice worsens as the game goes on (again, a real quality facility) and how they needed to keep the puck up. Northern took his thoughts to heart; they outshot the mighty Wolverines 37-34.

In the previous tournament game, Michigan State lost in overtime to Tech. The Spartans blew a 2-0 lead in the third period before losing on a slap shot in the extra session, so naturally, they were pissed. Sticks were thrown, tables were punched and one player screamed “Every f-ing time!” MSU had lost to the Huskies in overtime once already this season and the Spartans had won only once in their last 11 games, so their frustration was warranted. Tech was jubilant on the other end of the tunnel. (JLA has a bizarre setup in which each team dressed in the same tunnel, but one had to walk around another area to get to the ice.) “That’s f-ing right,” said one Husky player. That’s how to get it f-ing done boys!” The stark contrast of emotions was interesting, something most people don’t see after a game.

The arena was packed, though not a sellout. My estimate was 75 to 80 percent of capacity. It made for a fun atmosphere, even though the crowd was decidedly pro-Michigan.

A fun side-note about the Wolverines: I’ve come to realize that you either like them or hate them. There is no in-between with Michigan. Even the ushers had strong feelings about it. They all hated the Wolverines and hoped that they would lose. I’m not sure if that is just due to the fact that Michigan is a powerhouse and a long-standing history, or if there is some resentment over the Big Ten Conference, or if it’s just because their fans are seen as obnoxious, arrogant douchebags (a term used by more than one person I talked to). Whatever the reason, whenever Northern performed well, cheers would erupt from the MSU and Tech fans.

Michigan controlled play early, but Northern started to fight back, getting some opportunities down low against Wolverines goalie Steve Racine. However, the Wolverines struck first when Cutler Martin fired a rocket that went just over Tolvanen’s shoulder and under the crossbar. As I said in my previous column, Tolvanen doesn’t get rattled — minutes later, he shut down a clear breakaway with a nice save.

During the break, the locker room was vocal. Defensemen Zach Urban and Brock Maschmeyer (two of the most talkative players on the roster) yelled out their observations and strategies with the forwards joining in as well. The spirited exchange must’ve worked. The Wildcats came out roaring in the second period. As I’m standing in the tunnel, I can only see one end of the ice — I have to look around backup goalie Mathias Israelsson who, thanks to the cramped bench, has to sit on a dilapidated stool behind a barrier. (Again, nice work JLA). Even though my view is obstructed, I’m glad I was down there. I’m used to being up in the press box where you get a great view of the whole rink, but you don’t get to hear the inside info like you would down below.

NMU forward Gerard Hanson tied the game at 1-1 in the second frame, igniting a fire on the Wildcats bench. The winger got a nice feed from defenseman Ryan Trenz across the crease and beat Racine glove-side. The Cats kept circling and caught a break about midway through the game. There was a scrum in front of the Michigan net and the puck squirted free to defenseman Barrett Kaib, who was returning from an injury like Urban. Kaib shot a wrister at Racine, who made the initial save, but left a juicy rebound in the crease. Wildcats forwards Dominik Shine and Cohen Adair dove for it and Shine pushed the puck into a wide-open net.

Michigan answered quickly on a power play goal and had a big opportunity to take the lead toward the end of the frame. Hanson got tossed for a contact to the head penalty — a good call, though I’m not sure it was worth a 5-minute major. NMU’s penalty kill stiffened and the game stayed 2-2 going into the third. Unlike the second period, Michigan came out strong after intermission, firing several shots at Tolvanen. One of them broke through at the 4:05 mark when star forward Kyle Connor weaved his way around the net and lifted a shot just over Tolvanen’s glove. Connor’s goal turned out to be the game-winner when Northern couldn’t convert on its own five-minute power play and ended up getting sent to the third-place game the following afternoon.

The players were despondent. Most sat in the locker room looking at the floor. Kyle urged them to look up and insisted to them that they did a good job. He also said that he thought fatigue played a role in the Wildcats not scoring on that huge power play and wanted to make sure they knew that they were “every f***ing good” as Michigan. After looking over my notes, I had to agree. NMU stuck with Michigan the entire game, outshot the nationally-ranked Wolverines and almost pulled off a big upset. I just hoped they wouldn’t let the disappointment Tuesday negatively affect their play Wednesday against Michigan State.

Since they were playing in the afternoon, the Wildcats’ day started a little earlier than normal. Northern had an optional morning skate in which only the guys who didn’t play against Michigan had to participate. That included Israelsson, who got the start against MSU. Even though Kyle was pleased with Tolvanen in goal, he thought the third-place game was a good opportunity for Israelsson to see some action. After checking out of the Renaissance, the team boarded the bus to JLA. The ride was quieter than the day before. The only words spoken were from Kyle when the bus stopped in front of the locker room entrance: “Let’s go get it done boys,” was all he said.

The ride was quiet, but the locker room was not. Rapper DMX was blaring inside, with Maschmeyer jamming along on his way to the ice for warm-ups. In his locker room speech, Kyle again emphasized the importance of taking many shots at MSU goalie Jake Hildebrand, who has been inconsistent all season, but looked good against Michigan Tech the previous night. The Cats got off to a bad start, though. MSU’s Joe Cox knocked a pass out of the air, controlled it and beat Israelsson glove-side. The Swedish freshman would say later that he didn’t track the puck well enough. Shine had a chance to tie the game late in the period as he used his speed to weave his way through the Spartans defense, but was denied by Hildebrand.

After spending the first period in the tunnels by the bench, I voyaged up to the press box to take in the surroundings. The atmosphere wasn’t as great as the previous game, partially because it was the middle of the afternoon and that it was the third-place game, not the championship. Still though, the crowd was vocal and the fans chanted throughout the contest. When I got to the box, I saw that the JLA was half-full, which was better than I expected.

Up in the rafters, I sipped Tim Horton’s (at least the coffee there is good!) and took in the second period. This frame was a little more even as both teams had good scoring chances. MSU almost scored off of two loose pucks, while Shine had another breakaway that went just wide and Urban’s shot from the blue line almost got deflected past Hildebrand. In the third period, after Kyle had been emphasizing it the previous two days, Northern’s power play got the job done.

After failing on its first two power plays in the third, Shine came through for the Wildcats late in the frame. Teammate John Siemer skated from behind the net and slid the puck across the crease to Shine, who snuck the puck past Hildebrand’s glove, tying the game at 1-1. I missed the goal — I was heading down to the locker rooms from the elevator — so I learned via a text message from my dad, who was watching the game in Minnesota. As I stood in the tunnel as the final minutes ticked down in the third, I hoped that the ‘Cats would emerge on top simply because it would make a great ending to the story and the guys would be a lot more willing to talk after a win than after another disappointing loss. Sure enough, forward Robbie Payne came through in overtime. In the Michigan State zone, a shot by Ryan Trenz went off of Zach Diamantoni’s skate and right to Payne, who fired the puck past Hildebrand’s blocker. I asked him about the goal in the tunnel and Payne said he needed it because he had played “awful.” I also talked to Israelsson, who was nervous at the start, but said he got into a rhythm as the game went along.

Kyle had both praise and criticism for his team in the locker room. He said Michigan State was a bad hockey team and that they didn’t look good out there (since then, Kyle has watched film and said that they played better than he originally thought). However, he did acknowledge Payne for his goal, Israelsson for keeping the Wildcats in the game and he awarded the team’s player of the game hardhat to Trenz. The coach deemed the trip a success: his team finished .500 against two Big Ten teams in what were essentially two games in the their backyard.

I had a few thoughts of my own.

  1. The Red Wings deserve a better facility. I’m glad they’ll be moving into one in fall 2017.
  2. Michigan’s offense is good. They’re by far the best team in the Big Ten. However, the Wolverines’ defense is shaky and it will probably come back to bite them in the postseason.
  3. Michigan State is a mess. The Spartans appeared to take a step forward last season, but now, they’ve taken two steps backward. They have some talent, but they looked bad against Northern and couldn’t close out an almost-sure win against Tech. At 5-13-2 (yep, you read that correctly), MSU isn’t going to get better any time soon. No.
  4. Tech is about where I thought they’d be. They came back strong against the Spartans, but fell apart against Michigan in the title game. I think they’ll get a good seed in the NCAAs, but I’m not as confident in the Huskies’ potential to make the Frozen Four as I was at the start of the season.
  5. Northern is better than people think. Yes, they still have yet to earn a sweep this year, but they are .500 (7-7-6) and I think they’ll host a WCHA playoff series and probably make the Final Five. There also seems to be a good competitive fire with the team and I think they’ll be able to carry the win over Michigan State in the second half of the season.

As the team made the long trip back to the U.P. that night (we didn’t get back until 3 a.m.), I reflected on what I had watched the previous five days. I got to see what it’s really like to travel with a Division 1 hockey program. I got to see what it was like in practice as well as what the locker rooms were like on game days, which was something very few people get to see. My goal was to simply be a fly on the wall and see what it was like on a hockey road trip, to blend in and see players and coaches in their natural element. I did that. As I unloaded my bags from the bus back in Marquette, I realized that I started and ended my trip in the dark of night, but I managed to shine a light on a program trying to take that next step in its climb back to the top.

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