A Look into the Head Boss of the Lakers – former Michigan Tech assistant coach Damon Whitten; Thoughts on John Scott’s incredible Nashville weekend

Damon Whitten, former Huskies Assistant Coach, talks Mel Pearson and the coming Winter Carnival series

What a weekend for the Huskies. The now #21 hockey team took three of four points from #25 Bowling Green State University and John Scott became the media darling of the All-Star weekend, before, during and after the All-Star game. Now Winter Carnival is swinging into gear – the games, the snow sculptures, the epic Broomball all-day schedules and, of course, the annual Winter Carnival hockey series.

This year, the Winter Carnival series brings in the Lake Superior State University Lakers, coached by a familiar face to the Michigan Tech hockey community. Damon Whitten, the former Michigan Tech assistant coach under Mel Pearson, returns to Houghton in his second year of building the LSSU program. This creates an intriguing matchup of mentor and student, even if that relationship was short-lived, as Whitten only spent four years with the Michigan Tech program.

Highlighting that matchup is the connection that Whitten has with many of the current Michigan Tech players, a solid percentage of whom he recruited and helped to recruit while at Michigan Tech. Coach Pearson noted his help in this regard, “Damon is a real good recruiter. He’s real detail oriented, has a great personality, and he understood what players we wanted and how we wanted to play.” Whitten was primarily recruiting in the Midwest and Billy Muckalt in BC, but the three of them would all cross-check each other’s recruits to know how they fit in to the team and the program. Pearson also commented that those checks helped them all to be lockstep with each other in the recruiting process, likely a precursor to the program building as quickly as it had under Pearson, Whitten and Muckalt.

Rebuilding programs and helping to turn programs around is nothing new to Whitten. He has helped build some measureable success into each program he has been in within the WCHA and previous. Prior to his stint at MTU, he served as Assistant Coach at the University of Alaska–Anchorage for two seasons under Dave Shyiak, from 2006 to 2008, where he helped recruit the team that would start to bring near-.500 seasons (2008-09 and 2010-11) to a UAA program that was logging single-digit win seasons just three years earlier.

photography by Michael McSween
Credit: Michael McSween

As he started to work with Jamie Russell during Russell’s last season with Michigan Tech, and his recruiting efforts were noticed in the first couple years of Mel Pearson’s tenure. The building blocks from a young squad while Damon was with Tech, turned into the mature and leadership-quality team that moved its way back into the national spotlight with a 10-0 start, #1 ranking in the polls for a time and the first NCAA tournament berth in 34 years—all without one of the men responsible for some of that recruiting and talent molding, Damon Whitten.

Whitten takes challenges head-on and is always striving for something better for his players as well as for his own personal growth and agenda.

“My background at Michigan State…some of the guys I went through Grad School with were all football GA’s and football coaches. Their philosophy is a little bit different than hockey. They would kind of spend 2-3 years with somebody, then it would be time to move on and learn another new style and system. I guess I mirrored that a little bit. I think it’s helped me get to where I want to be.”

His approach is unconventional, but it still might pay off. He’s learned three different systems of defensive-minded hockey under Rick Comley at Michigan State, Shyiak (who played for Comley at Northern Michigan University) at UAA, and then Jamie Russell at MTU. After that, while on Mel Pearson’s staff, he got to learn from one of the better offensive- and puck-possession-oriented minds of the game, a mind that Whitten also holds to be a class act and leader of men. Now Whitten has a fairly well-rounded background with eight seasons of experience as an assistant, plus his playing days under Ron Mason at Michigan State, but the lessons from Pearson still stick with him loudly, especially in the fields of leadership and program growth. “It’s all about the team,” Whitten said in an interview, seemingly channeling Pearson. “Everything is with the team in mind. Every decision you make—the hard ones, the easy ones—it’s about putting the team first. I’m a big believer in that. Your coach, your all-star player… nobody is bigger than the program.

“When Coach Pearson came in, I learned and understood how Michigan has had the sustained success for years and years that Coach was a huge part of. It was a real valuable piece of my evolution as a coach.”

And Coach Pearson is quick to point out that the consistency in the staffing can have much to do with that longevity of success. “You want to see your player advance and develop and you want your coaches to have that same opportunity. I miss the continuity with [Whitten and Muckalt] gone. You read off each other very well, understand minute details like the tone of practice, communications with the players… It can be important. That being said, Gary Shuchuk’s won a national championship, Joe Shawhan’s been a part of successful seasons. (They are) people that know how to win and be successful” and have done a good job to date with this year’s Husky squad, building the team through the season and readying them for the final push.

So what drives a man like Damon Whitten to build his own success? A passion and the drive to learn and grow, certainly. Whitten should take pride in the satisfaction in knowing he helped the Tanner Keros, Jujhar Khairas and Pheonix Copleys of the world make the NHL stage. He is partly responsible for helping them grow as players and cultivating their talent to get to that level. He should also take some pride in last year’s 29-win season for Michigan Tech that paved the way to ending the team’s 34-year drought of NCAA tournament appearances. He helped to build and mold those players into the team they became with Pearson, Shawhan and Muckalt (who is now the Tri-City USHL head coach).

An aggressively ambitious man by his own admissions, he was ready to build on his success. Knowing the burning desire for Whitten to challenge himself further, one question still lingers with all of this: Why the Lakers?

Recruited by Jeff Jackson when the now Notre Dame boss was still at LSSU—not so far removed from two NCAA Championships in 1992 and 1994—Whitten was never offered a scholarship to play for Jackson and the Lakers. He still had a soft spot for the Sault-Ste-Marie area and history associated with the program he was nearly a part of some twenty years ago. “I thought about it more. To walk in [Taffy Abel Arena] and look at those championship banners, the players that have come through here, the coaches that have come through here—it’s just got an unbelievable history here at Lake State. It was really a unique opportunity to be the next part of that.”

Fast forward to now. Last year’s Lakers had eight wins all season, playing four and five first-year defensemen in front of a workhorse goaltender having to stand on his head game after game. This year’s team already has nine wins, with ten games left to play in the regular season—a marked improvement that he attributes to the experiences of last year. The addition of goalie Nick Kossoff (Fr.) to a squad already sporting last year’s trial-by-fire saves record-breaker Gordon DeFiel (So.), along with the defensive experience and depth that was built in the off-season and through trials of last year, has the defense of LSSU front and center while their offensive game works into shape.

From just before Thanksgiving to the first game with Michigan Tech at Taffy Abel, LSSU went 4-1-2 before Tech made a statement in the first period of the Saturday night game.  A young team will have spurts and ups and downs throughout the season, and that is where the LSSU program is at right now. The previous staff left the cupboard almost barren for Whitten to inherit, both in terms of depth and experience. So rightly so, there should be a little optimism, with the young Lakers squad starting to season on the back end and a freshmen class upfront that is starting to find some success. There are many bright pieces of the puzzle in the Soo right now. A little bit of experience, coaching and maturing, and Coach Whitten’s team may be closer to that middle-of-the-pack team that they have their eyes set on being now.

“We’ve got a playoff spot right now,” Whitten said, “and we want to improve upon that and get the best matchup we can get. We had a goal this year to get home ice. It’s a lofty goal and we’ve got a lot of work to do but that’s still sitting out there.” A lofty goal indeed, because the Huskies and the Bemidji State (MN) Beavers are their games in hand with the surrounding teams in the standings. Every point is critical for the Lakers, who trail fourth-place Ferris State by just six points and the aforementioned two games played.

With the Huskies, in Houghton and on the big Winter Carnival stage, Whitten knows this is not going to be an easy series. That feeling is enhanced by the Huskies 4-1-3 record in their intervening eight games since these two teams last clashed, and six of those games were against top-20 teams. “If you want to get to the level we want to get to, like a Michigan Tech, you’ve gotta play great teams in great buildings, in great environments. They’re a measuring stick for us with what they’ve done there. It’s a huge challenge for us and our guys look forward to that.”

Whitten is also mindful of Coach Pearson as a mentor, and the challenges he presents to opposing coaches. “He’s a savvy veteran coach,” Whitten said. “If you’re not on your game, he will find a way to exploit a matchup issue that presents itself.” The keys to games themselves come with smart decisions by his players too. Outside of the Minnesota State series where they were trounced 8-0 and 5-1, the Lakers had been playing solid defense. They gave up just one goal at the Catamount Cup in a tough 1-0 loss to Vermont, and then beat Brown 3-0 the following day. The also had a 1-0 OT win against Bowling Green recently and had a team GAA of 1.5 in the six games between the Michigan Tech and Minnesota State series.

“For us, we’ve got to get back to being great defensively,” Whitten said. “Part of that comes with puck management. We’ve got to make them go 200 feet. Jamie Phillips has been so good these last couple years; we have to find a way to test Jamie Phillips.”

He understands the weakness, but knows his team is getting experience upfront and that they are young. Five of the eight top scorers for the Lakers are freshman, with no seniors on that list. Sure they have work to do on that end, with the top goal-scorers, freshman Mitch Hults and sophomore J.T. Henke, only having six goals each coming into this weekend, but Tech also had a similar problem just five short years ago and they now lead the WCHA in goals for per game.

“I think it’s pretty well documented we’re not generating enough offense right now. Part of that is our youth and just getting more college experience and playing at this level. Similar to those first couple years at Michigan Tech, we can’t outscore any mistakes that we make, so we’ve got to be great defensively.” They are having trouble scoring goals, but it’s not a situation that Whitten is unfamiliar with. He knows how to change it—what needs to happen and what course to plot. Through his experiences, he’s seen firsthand how to overcome all of this: the lessons to teach his team, that he affectionately refers to as his family, to gain the experience and learn from their mistakes, and to learn from a coach that has the experiences necessary to pull the team through the obstacles and roadblocks it faces.  The team, the process, the program—all the leadership lessons from Mel Pearson that Whitten has learned and is working to apply towards improving his work: his team.

Coach Pearson noted some of the challenges that the Huskies will have with Whitten’s team. “Defensively, they’ve been really good and he’s done it the right way. For them, it starts from the goal on out. They’re young, but growing quickly and gaining experience. They compete hard, and for them, the offense is the next step. The challenge for us is getting pucks past their goalies.”

Damon Whitten is a driven, team-oriented individual that is ready to make Lake Superior State a contender again. He has all of the necessary tools and experiences to draw on. He is in a familiar situation. This time, he’s in charge and it’s all his guys. If history serves well, the Lakers will likely be making the push towards home ice this season; perhaps not getting there in 2016. But looking to next year, with more experience for his talented group of young forwards, an experienced defensive corps and two top-notch net-minders, there is much optimism in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan these days. The Magic 8 Ball says, “Signs point to Yes,” this will be a home-ice contending team for certain next season.

I asked Whitten what really drives him through the long recruiting trips during the last week off for the season and the 40-hour weekends at rinks, what really motivates him to be in this position and learn from those that he has, and be a head coach of a Division I hockey program.

“For me, I just love the game. Our families are all involved in it, it’s just been our whole life.”

For Whitten, like many fans of the sport, hockey has been, and continues to be, a family event—one that stretches from generation to generation, for the love of the game.

*Cover photo credited to Michael McSweeney

John Scott in Nashville

Another alum who just loves the game is John Scott.

You can see it in his eyes, his smile, his celebration, his demeanor with teammates and in his family with him in the pre-game and post-game activities. He was just soaking it all in and having fun. So much so, that he nearly forgot that he turned in an MVP-worthy performance during the two 20 minute games. When it was announced that John Scott was the MVP, you could see it in his look that said, “Really? Me? No way…”

A dream come true perhaps, but the way he and his family handled everything—with class, with dignity, and yes, even with a little pose and flair—John Scott’s actions are everything that is right with hockey. Winning the awards and the actions of the other all-stars with him was the icing on the cake. For the Scotts, expecting two new bundles of joy, as Danielle is due to be induced any day now, this opportunity and the money that goes with the win, along with everything else the media is latching on to, is great for their financial well-being. One thing is for certain though: Scott is always going to be that humble, down-to earth guy that tells it like it is and takes care of his family. None of this is going to change who he is, a hard-working hockey player with a mechanical engineering degree from a great institution of higher learning. Even amidst news of his transfer back to the AHL to play for the St. Johns Ice Caps, Scott changed the perspective of the hockey world on Sunday evening.

Coach Pearson’s thoughts summed much of the weekend’s impacts well. “It was a major impact on the hockey world.” Pearson said. “The class he and his wife, Danielle, showed was great as ambassadors for not only the hockey program but the University as well. You just can’t buy that kind of advertising for the community or the University. I’m proud as an alum of this University, for John and his family.”