The 2021-22 Michigan Tech hockey season is coming toward us at full speed. The Huskies will start with an exhibition game against Northern Michigan at the John MacInnes Student Arena in Houghton on October 2, and will follow that with a two game non-conference series on October 8th and 9th at Wisconsin in Madison.

With only two weeks left before the first puck drops, the Old Dog is going to offer up a short review of the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association teams that will make up most of MTU’s schedule. This week, we’ll review the three teams from Minnesota. We’ll follow that with an assessment of the three other Michigan teams as well as Bowling Green—the sole Ohio conference member.

Minnesota State

The Mavericks (or Purple Cows as Tech fans call them) are coming off their best season ever, which included a trip to the Frozen Four that ended with a tough 5-4 semi-final loss to St. Cloud State.

While the boys from Mankato lost several of their best players after that performance, they are (as usual) loaded again this year. Their defense corps is deep and experienced. It includes Akito Hirose, last year’s WCHA Rookie of the Year, and seniors Jack McNeely, Andy Carrol and Wyatt Aamodt. In addition, grad transfer Benton Maas (4 years at the University of New Hampshire in Hockey East) and sophomore Jack Livingstone, who was selected to College Hockey News’ National All-Rookie Team will bolster the blueline.

Three-time WCHA Goaltending Champion and two-time WCHA Goaltender of the Year Dryden McKay will man the crease for MSU (why hasn’t some pro team offered him a contract?) So, as usual, it won’t be easy to score on the Mavs.

At the same time, they have real talent upfront as well. Senior Julian Napravnik (1st Team All WCHA) and juniors Nathan Smith (2nd Team All WCHA), and Ryan Sandelin (NCAA Tournament West Region MVP) will be a powerful load. But, as they say, there’s more. Reggie Lutz,  a senior and last year’s team leader in goals and shots, is back, as is junior Cade Borchardt (24 pts, the same total as Tech scoring leader Trenton Bliss).

Add in one of college hockey’s best coaches in Mike Hastings and who-knows-what talent just hasn’t yet had enough ice time to produce and it’s clear that Minnesota State will be a favorite in the new CCHA.

Bemidji State

The Beavers also had one of their all-time best season last year, beating Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament before falling to eventual national champion Massachusetts in the regional finals. While BSU does have some of their better players returning, they are not as well stocked as Minnesota State.

For Huskies fans, the best news is that the goalie who repeatedly stonewalled Tech last year, Zach Driscoll, has finally moved on as a grad transfer and will play for North Dakota this year. That leaves the Beavers with three goalies who have in total played in less than five NCAA games. It’s hard to say what that will mean, but it certainly is going to be different because Them Dogs won’t be facing Driscoll.

The Beavers won’t be defenseless, though, and have four excellent defenders returning this year. Juniors Will Zmolek, Kyle Looft, Elias Rosen (All-WCHA 1st Team, co-defensive Player of the Year) and senior Brad Johnson are names that the Huskies will recognize from past seasons. The cupboard isn’t bare on offense, either. Seniors Ethan Somoza (15G, 5 A and team captain), Owen Sillinger (9G, 4 A), Alex Ierullo (team scoring leader with 7G and 16 A) and  Nick Cardelli (Injured early last year, but 17 pts previous year) will be a load for any opponent. Sophomore Lukas Sillinger (6G, 9A and Owen’s brother) could blossom into a top NCAA scorer.

The Beavers will have a strong international flavor on the bench as well. They’ll have two players from Sweden, one from Slovakia, one from Finland and one from Poland.

BSU’s long-time coach Tom Serratore always gets a lot out of the talent he has, so Bemidji won’t be a pushover for anyone. However, their goaltending and depth beyond the large and accomplished senior class may be an issue that pushes the Beavers back into the pack this coming season.

St. Thomas

The Tommies (yes, that’s their nickname) are making the unprecedented jump from DIII to DI this year, and it’s likely to be a long season for new coach Rico Blasi. Blasi, who had a long and successful run at Miami before crashing in the years after Miami joined the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, will try to make do with a group of former DIII players, DI transfers who weren’t first-line players on their previous teams and untested freshmen.

The blueline will include five transfers. Senior Jacob Berger came from Mankato and played in 7 games last season. UMass Lowell gave the Tommies senior Nolan Sawchuk who garnered 9 points in 61 games, and senior John Schuldt left Nebraska-Omaha for St. Thomas after a 58 game career that included 8 points.

Junior Trevor Zins moves over from St. Cloud State, but never got into any games. Ethan Gauer, a sophomore from Bemidji State, saw action in just 4 contests.

Back in goal, North Dakota backup Peter Thome played in 32 games in 4 years for the Fighting Hawks. He may see more shots in his first 5 games than he did in all of those years in Grand Forks combined.

A similar challenge awaits the Tommies on offense. They have only three players with any meaningful DI experience, and all are seniors. Matthew Jennings from Ohio State has scored just 3 points in 40 games, while Grant Loven put up 23 points in 75 games at Northern Michigan before transferring to St. Thomas last fall in mid-season to play DIII. Christiano Versich is perhaps the most adept forward, who posted 13 goals and 32 assists in three years at Colorado College.

Although it’s not clear why, TJ Polglaize, who played for the Huskies for three years and is shown in the transfer portal as signed by St. Thomas, isn’t on their official roster. (A late breaking report says that Polglaize has returned to school at MTU to pursue his degree, but isn’t playing hockey this year.)

Over the next few years, St. Thomas’ location in the Twin Cities will be a real draw for Minnesota’s rich high school talent pool, and, as the only CCHA team in an urban environment, will be able to attract young players who might not feel comfortable at any of the other rural conference towns. Finally, St. Thomas’ high academic reputation and the deep pockets of their alumni will almost certainly give them a chance to build a first-rate program.

That’s in the future, though. This year, expect them to try and play long, slow defensive battles with the hope that they’ll be able to steal a game here or there. But Blasi, who struggled to win in his last few seasons in Miami, will not see his career win totals increase very much unless some kind of near miracle drops down from the northern sky.

Next Up

In my next column, we’ll take a look at the squads from Northern Michigan, Lake Superior State, Ferris State and Bowling Green.