Before I begin, I owe you a bit of an explanation for my absence from Tech Hockey Guide in recent weeks. This past March, my best friend/housemate’s mother was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer. While she responded surprisingly well to treatment initially, she took a sharp turn for the worse in December and died just before Christmas. It was a no-brainer for me to put hockey, and all the things that come with it, on the back burner while I tried to help her family in any way I could. Life is short. And whatever you do, please don’t smoke.
The sixth stop for #ChasingMacNaughton found me where my love of the current WCHA began: Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie. I’d long been intrigued by the program’s story. How did a tiny school seemingly at the end of the earth manage to win it all three times? From that question, it was a four-day weekend from my former job that led me to Lake State for the first time, and I got sucked in. After that initial game, a hard-fought loss to Minnesota State, I found myself streaming the audio of the games the following weekend. The next thing I knew I was watching via WCHA.tv, which ultimately led to this plan of going to at least one game in every arena in the league over the course of a season.
When I mention how small Lake Superior State is, it’s very hard to overstate the fact. The school’s enrollment is around 2,100—smaller than many community colleges. In fact, LSSU’s enrollment is lower than what I experienced at David H. Hickman High School, where administrators gave me a diploma to get me to leave. There were nearly 2,500 Hickman Kewpies at the time (and yes, that’s really the mascot).
Lake Superior State’s home games are at Taffy Abel Arena, part of the Norris Center—a larger complex on campus that includes Cooper Gym, athletics offices, and even what appear to be a number of classrooms. The entrances are at street level, along with the well-stocked team store and limited concessions, but to reach the concourses you have to go to the rather-unusual step of either climbing the stairs or riding the elevator.
When you reach the concourses of Abel Arena it becomes virtually impossible for anyone who isn’t colorblind to recognize the team’s colors. Nearly every surface is painted Laker Blue or Laker Gold, the latter of which is a lot closer to yellow. Seats, walls and even the rafters are blue, with Laker Gold covering the stairs and the outside walls of the arena’s suites (or “lofts”, as they’re called here).
Abel Arena also holds the unique distinction of being the only D-I hockey arena with a larger capacity than the school’s enrollment. If you took every student at LSSU and put them in a seat, you’d still have nearly half of the chairs empty. Despite the facility seemingly being oversized, it has been known to sell out when the team is playing well and there’s a marquee opponent.
The on-ice performance has fallen tremendously since the championship days, and that has taken a toll on attendance. Sault Ste. Marie is a small town—just over 14,000 residents in 2010—yet has both the Lakers and the NOJHL’s Soo Eagles playing hockey. Just across the river are the Soo Greyhounds of the OHL. There’s a lot of competition for the eyeballs of hockey fans, and with head coach (and former Michigan Tech assistant) Damon Whitten’s turnaround efforts failing to bear fruit so far, the Lakers are struggling to bring in fans.
Attendance on this particular night was just plain sad at the opening faceoff, and while some fans filtered in as the first period progressed, the official attendance struggled to cross 1,500. The first period on this particular night against Alaska-Fairbanks was very up-and-down on the ice, with no scoring. The second period largely followed the same pattern, although Alaska opened the scoring with a power play goal at 15:49.
The east concourse of Abel Arena is a true celebration of the program’s success, which not only features three NCAA D-I titles but a pair of championships during its time as a member of the NAIA. There are multiple cases full of memorabilia as well as plaques highlighting the student-athletes who brought success to the program. Jerseys of Laker alumni who played in the NHL crown the lofts on the east concourse, including the four Lakers whose names have been engraved on the Stanley Cup: Doug Weight, Brian Rolston, Jim Dowd and John Grahame.
As is so often seen in other WCHA venues, banners hang from the rafters above the ice highlighting the program’s NCAA and NAIA championship performances, plus conference and tournament titles in the now-defunct CCHA. While the team has made the playoffs each year since joining the WCHA, the Lakers have not advanced beyond the first round.
It’s not hard to find nautical references at Lake Superior State. Their logo is a giant anchor, after all. When the team added an even-strength goal early in the 3rd period the goal horn sounded, and it’s an authentic freighter horn. Loud, yes, but also with enough resonance to rattle the fillings out of your teeth. The small but now rejuvenated crowd leapt to its feet cheering, and similar routines followed as the Lakers tacked on additional goals at 8:17 and 11:36. An empty-netter sealed it at 18:46, and after the congratulatory stick-tap at the end, the fans all raced to the exits for the next step.
Laker hockey has a tradition of celebrating a win with the ringing of the Victory Bell, also referred to as #RingyDingy on social media. Shortly after the bell—again salvaged from a freighter—was hung outside the Norris Center in the early 80s the tradition was born. After each win, the team quickly kicks off its skates, throws on ski caps, and runs outside for each member to ring the bell. During the 1992 championship season the bell took such a beating that it had to be replaced, with the new one coming from a desacralized church in upstate New York. Fans all crowd around to witness the ringing of the Victory Bell, and as a Lakers fan it was such an amazing experience to take in firsthand.
I’d seen videos of Victory Bell celebrations before, but there’s nothing like being present for these types of things. I was buzzing about it for hours afterward, to be honest. Here I am, 14 hours’ car ride away from home, watching my team’s victory celebration! There’s just no proper substitute for being there in person. That’s really what #ChasingMacNaughton is all about.
Six down, four to go.