It’s something to build on but building on it will be a challenge.
Coming off its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1996, the Laker Superior State Lakers hockey team will look to take the success of the 2020-21 season and turn it into something more.
“That’s the challenge,” Lakers coach Damon Whitten said in a recent phone interview. “In pro hockey, you can have some more stability because of contract length and things like that, but we’re going to graduate guys every year and turn it over so it’s important that the class coming up and the younger classes carry that momentum and build off of it. We talk a lot about when we recruited the senior class about leaving the legacy behind them and leaving the program in a better place than when they got here. They obviously did that in a pretty major way and now it’s that next group. It’s their turn.”
The Lakers season ended on March 26 with a 5-1 loss in the East Region semifinal of the NCAA tournament against the University of Massachusetts Minutemen, but the success of the season isn’t going unnoticed internally.
Whitten noted that the graduating seniors are the winningest senior class since the mid-1990’s, something that the current junior class, which includes Sault, Mich. product Ashton Calder among others, could eclipse next year.
“I know that they take a lot of pride in that and that’s certainly something that we want for the program as well,” Whitten said. “It’s their turn to leave their legacy and to compete for another championship.”
That senior class include a pair of key defencemen in Lukas Kaelble and Will Oliver along with goaltender Mareks Mitens, and forwards Hampus Eriksson, Yuki Miura, Alex Ambrosio, and Sault, Mich. product Chase Gamelin.
“(They had) a big impact obviously,” Whitten said of the senior class. “We’re a team built from around the world and to come together in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and bring some pride back to the program and hang a banner. They’re connected, caring, great leaders. There’s a lot of ways to describe them. There’s a really unique makeup to the class. They’re a great group.”
Mitens was a key piece to Lake State’s success throughout the season.
The veteran netminder finished the season with a goals against average of 1.96 (third among Western Collegiate Hockey Association goaltenders), a 0.930 save percentage (second), and a 14-6-3 (win-loss-tie) record.
The season saw Mitens sign an American Hockey League amateur tryout contract with the Binghamton Devils, the top affiliate of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils.
“It’s probably an NHL deal if we’re not dealing with COVID,” Whitten said. “There are a lot of extra bodies out there at the pro level. It’s a really challenging time to finish out your eligibility and try to find a pro contract. The timing was a little tough for Mareks, but it’s great recognition for a phenomenal year.
“He was maybe our biggest recruiting get in my time here,” Whitten added. “He was really highly sought after across the country. It was a very competitive process to get him to campus. We’re thankful that he chose us and believed in us. He got better year after year.”
Previous experience playing at the World Juniors for his country also played a big role in Mittens’ progression at LSSU.
“He’s had to play on big stages throughout his career and those bright lights didn’t scare him off,” Whitten said. “I thought he was the best goalie in our league this year. He was a finalist for the Richter Award (which goes to the best goaltender in college hockey). He certainly deserved to be right in there. He had a phenomenal year.”
Asked how he would describe the 2020-21 season as a whole, Whitten said he was thankful.
“For young, dedicated, healthy hockey players who love the game, there were no guarantees this year. Thankful and grateful are certainly words that come to mind,” Whitten said. “Our administration (at Lake State) and our conference put a ton of work in on safety protocols and procedures just to give us a chance. From the opportunity to play side, we’re thankful for sure.
“On the hockey side, I don’t have a word necessarily (to describe it),” Whitten added. “It’s a group that we loved to be a part of. This was not a one-year thing. Over the last three years, we were eleventh in the country in wins. We had (23) wins two years ago, so this has been building and a work in progress. To win a championship and get to hang a banner is very fitting to this group of seniors, this class, and this team. We feel hungry for more. We’ve got a bad taste in our mouth from not going all the way and we want to get right back to where we were.”
With a 23-13-3 overall record in 2018-19, which included a tournament title at the Great Lakes Invitational, the success of that season and this year’s run to a WCHA title and NCAA tournament berth are important for a program looking to move forward.
“(They’re) significant,” Whitten said of the recent successful years. “It takes a lot to get the headwind going. When the change happens, you get some guys excited to come in with you and play a bigger role as young guys that you might get when you’re more established. Then you have to be able to capitalize off that.”
“We took a step back (in 2019-20) somewhat because we lost some really good young players,” Whitten added. “There were some setbacks along the way. We wanted to get to the championship level much quicker than we did, but it takes time.”
With some recent success, Whitten said there’s now an opportunity for the program to capitalize on it.
“People nationally know and in the recruiting areas that we target know the job we’re doing and what we’ve built,” Whitten said. “Now we’ve got to capitalize. We have to take those next steps. We have to sustain it. Across the NCAA, we’re probably still a little bit under the radar in terms of what we did.”
Recent success and how it the program got there will be key lessons for a Lakers hockey team looking to get back into the national spotlight.
“We can look back on the last couple of years and use those lessons to build,” Whitten said. “Certainly, being in that environment and winning a league championship and getting to the NCAA (tournament), those are big things to build off of. The guys really cherished that opportunity, and you learn a lot in those moments that you want to get back there and what it takes to get back there. That’s really important that we got to those championship environments and we got to the tournament and that will be a piece of what it is.”
With the WCHA title and NCAA tournament appearance in the rear-view mirror, the focus has now already shifted to next season.
“We had a couple of weeks to enjoy it, we got out around town and were able to celebrate with fans, students and really enjoy the accomplishment, but it’s over,” Whitten said, adding that the team was set to begin workouts for next season on Monday.
“It’s time to rebuild and turn the page,” Whitten said. “It’s going to be harder and more challenging, and we’ve got to respond with a better effort and a better summer more ready to play when we hit the ice in the fall.”