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 1 of a 2-part series following the Northern Michigan University hockey team to the Great Lakes Invitational.


The bus I’m sitting on is warm, but it’s getting colder outside. I can see the players’ breath as they load their gear into the compartments of the bus. It makes me glad that I didn’t linger boarding this thing. As I sit on the bus, I start to get nervous. I rarely get nervous at my job anymore, but this would be a new experience as I was attempting to do something that no sports writer in the Upper Peninsula, and possibly college hockey, had done before. I just hoped that people would enjoy it.

Over the holidays, I embarked on a journey down to Lower Peninsula with the Northern Michigan University Wildcats as they competed in the Great Lakes Invitational down in Detroit. My goal was to go behind the scenes of a Division 1 program and see what happens both on game day and during practices. I decided before this season that the GLI would be the perfect opportunity. It’s arguably the most famous regular season tournament and it would be a more relaxed atmosphere as the games wouldn’t affect the WCHA standings. It would be a lot easier for me to be a fly on the wall there instead of a big-conference matchup against, say, Minnesota State or Bowling Green. At least I hoped it would be.

After stepping off the bus for a second to make sure I placed my suitcase in the right spot, I got back on and NMU head coach Walt Kyle told the team that I would be accompanying them on the trip. Nobody jumped up and asked why, so I took that as a positive sign. After I sat down, I took in my surroundings. Not everyone was on the bus; some players were still trying to fly in from other parts of the country, so there were maybe eight or so players with me, the coaches and the rest of the staff. We were headed to Ann Arbor to spend two days practicing before moving on to Detroit and Joe Louis Arena.

I soon realized that food would play a big role in this journey. We stopped at a gas station for snacks not even five miles out of town. An hour later, we were at a Hardees’s buying breakfast and being serenaded by a fan with a kazoo. It was an interesting way to start the day. After finishing my meal, I took a cue from the players who were sprawled across the aisle with their feet up. Normally on road trips, I like take in the surroundings and the U.P. is very scenic, but seeing as it was dark and nobody was wanted to talk, I nodded off with two of the three goalies in the rows in front of me.

When I awoke, we had pulled over (again for snacks) and forward Denver Pierce joined his teammates on the bus. Shortly after he sat down, the bus crossed the Mackinac Bridge and continued its voyage. During this time period, the players and I engaged in various hobbies. The two goalies, Atte Tolvanen and Mathias Israelsson, got out their laptops to watch movies. I’m pretty sure Tolvanen was watching “Entourage.” When the bus got to Gaylord, the players and coaches split for lunch. The players went off in the direction of a Wendy’s, while I went with the coaches to Dairy Queen. While eating with the staff, I learned how next year’s schedule was taking shape and how the next few days would proceed. Ann Arbor was going to be pretty laid back, but when the team got to Detroit, things would be a little stricter. Other than the Dairy Queen not having ice (and an employee getting pissy when informed), the journey was going smoothly. The bus also added another passenger in winger Robbie Payne, who would end up playing a big role Wednesday.

The rest of the trip down to Ann Arbor was pretty much like a road trip you’d take with your family. There was sleeping and reading (a lot more than I expected), while the others decided to watch a movie. Their choice was a bust: “Just Go With It,” starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. Within 20 minutes, no one was watching actively and I can’t say I blame them. Upon arriving in Ann Arbor, we drove through downtown and around the campus of the University of Michigan. In the presence of landmarks like the Big House, I was hoping we were staying nearby so I could take some sideshots after practice. Instead, our hotel was quite a jaunt from campus. No close-ups of the Big House. I still held out hope that the team would practice at Yost Ice Arena (where the Wolverines play), but I was told that it would be too difficult to schedule ice time with both Michigan and Michigan Tech training there. We would later find out that Tech trained somewhere else as well. Apparently nobody wanted to be at Yost.

The Wildcats trained at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, which is also the home of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. Before dressing in the locker room, teammates greeted one another as they entered the arena. The first revelation on this trip was that there’s a lot of preparation before practice. The players’ individual preparation sessions were entertaining to watch. An impromptu soccer game broke out and quickly grew from four to 12 players, which the forwards and defensemen turned their focus too. Israelsson joined in the fun briefly before joining Tolvanen off to the side to do some pregame stretches. While this was going on, the athletic trainers helped the guys fix some of their minor injuries and the equipment guys were organizing sticks and sharpening skates. Getting ready for a game really is a team effort.

When practice started, I took my place on the bench and snapped some pictures of the guys skating. Practices at the college level, at least in the case of the Wildcats, are semi-structured. Kyle and his crew know what they want accomplished, but don’t have a set schedule that dictates what will take place at what time of the practice. The main focus of the first day was to get the team on the ice together after the two-week layoff and to start communicating with each other. After all that build-up, practice was over fairly quickly. As the guys were packing up their gear, I sat down with a couple of the guys who were returning from injury at the GLI. Defenseman Zach Urban suffered a devastating MCL injury during the first period of the first game of the season and was finally able to play again in the Northern’s last game before the break. Urban is a big help on NMU’s power play, can fire an accurate shot at the net from the point and he can crush opposing forwards with his checks. Forward Cohen Adair had a thigh contusion that kept him out of action, which may not seem like much, but the original fear was that Adair might have broken his femur. It was interesting to hear how difficult it was for a player being on the outside and not being able to participate and play with your teammates. It made for a nice story for my newspaper.

The following day was another practice day at the Ice Cube, but before that, Wildcats forward Zach Diamantoni provided some entertainment. He brought a hoverboard with him and rode it up and down the halls of the hotel. Diamantoni also rode it around the Ann Arbor mall before a Paul Blart wannabe told him to stop. He and his teammates then went to the mall entrance and rode it there. Fellow goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom joined Israelsson and Tolvanen in practice at the Cube after entertaining hotel patrons earlier in the day. Dahlstrom was talking Swedish on his phone in the lobby, which turned heads. Like Israelsson, Dahlstrom took part in the pregame soccer match, but quickly got down to business. Out of all the people I talked to on the trip, the goalies were the most interesting. The biggest reason is that although each is from Scandinavia, they are all different in their own way. Tolvanen, quiet and focused, is from Finland. Israelsson, open and loose, is from Sweden. Dahlstrom, a fellow Swede, is right in the middle.

Sunday’s practice was a little more intense. Northern tried to tweak possible problems with their power play and penalty kill, as well as get the goalies to see a lot of shots. The highlight of practice was watching Darren Nowick weave through defenders and fire the puck into the net. This drew some chirping from the bench and a “Who’s your bitch?” yell from the team. As practice wrapped up, the players surrounded defenseman Ryan Trenz and sang “Happy Birthday” to him, followed by a few slap shots at the net. Urban and Brock Maschmeyer both sent shots ringing off the crossbar that made some of the customers upstairs jerk their heads around.

After practice, I caught up with the three Scandinavian netminders and listened to their tales. Tolvanen, a freshman, says he stretches away from everyone else to avoid having any preventable injuries. His greatest skill is his focus and the fact that he doesn’t get rattled easily. That’s evident in his pre-game ritual, which I’ll explain in Part 2 of this column. Israelsson, also a freshman, is the opposite of Tolvanen. He’ll talk, joke around and jam to music before the game. His logic is that if you prepare too early for a game, it takes the fun out of it. Dahlstrom is well, Dahlstrom. He was the Wildcats’ starter last year until suffering a season-ending knee injury. Although his knee has recovered, Dahlstrom has now been plagued with a back problem. He supposed to return to the lineup at some point during the second half of the season. Dahlstrom may seem like a loner — he’s frequently by himself, headphones on — but his teammates interacted with him regularly on this trip. He and Israelsson also provided some insight on the differences between Swedish and Finnish goalies. Israelsson says that Swedes focus more on technique, while Dahlstrom says Finns are known for making flashy, highlight-reel saves. I also learned that Swedes eat sausage made from horses over the holidays and that Santa sometimes comes to each house during the day on the 24th so that the kids can meet him, instead of down the chimney in the middle of the night like in America, so there’s a non-hockey trivia item for you.

After spending two days in Ann Arbor, the Wildcats headed to Detroit on Monday to practice at Joe Louis Arena before they played Michigan Tuesday. Upon arriving at the arena, the players were in awe of the NHL rink. I was as well, for about five minutes. I’ll come out and say it: JLA sucks. It’s old, run-down and there are random buckets around the concourses to collect water leaking from the ceiling. The press box was an afterthought. Unlike most NHL press boxes, JLA’s is basically a platform above the top two rows of seats. You know you have a crappy facility if the people who work there will actively tell you how awful it is. Still, the arena has a folksy charm to it and the players enjoyed taking photos of the Red Wings’ locker room (Dahlstrom got his photo taken at Henrik Zetterberg’s locker) as well as at center ice. The focus of practice was on rushing the net and trying to set up scoring opportunities. Kyle was unhappy with how the practice started, but as the offense started to gel, he praised the players. Maybe it was because it was a non-conference tournament, but I noticed Kyle isn’t Herb Brooks out there making his team run suicides. He runs a tight practice, but there’s time for fun as well.

One of the funnier moments occurred when one of the forwards finally snuck a puck past Tolvanen and the players celebrated. Meanwhile, the goalies rolled their eyes and shook their heads at the hoopla.

After practice, the team checked into the Marriott Renaissance Center hotel (in the same complex that houses General Motors’ headquarters). It’s quite the fancy place and it provides a great view of the Detroit skyline. However, it’s vastly overpriced and all four teams found the concourse hard to navigate. As I was making my way back to the elevators, which require you to slide your room key to use, I overheard one of the Michigan State players say “This place is f-ing confusing.” I had to agree.

Heading over to dinner, the temperature dropped significantly and everybody had to avoid slipping on the frozen sidewalks, not to mention the chunks of ice randomly falling from the rooftops. During dinner, assistant coach Rob Lehtinen talked about the pranks he and his teammates pulled back in the day. The staff talked about how the shifting world of college hockey has caused some of its strongest rivalries to go away. NMU used to play Michigan and Michigan State every year; now it’s only at special tournaments or the NCAAs. Those used to be guaranteed sellouts in Marquette. The only one now is the game against rival Michigan Tech. It was interesting hearing from people in the know how much the game has changed because of that.

On Tuesday, the Wildcats took on Michigan and let’s just say the atmosphere of the day was vastly different than the previous three.

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