Ask any coach in the league about Lake Superior State, and he’ll tell you that they play hard. They compete for 60 minutes, skate and execute well, take the body and finish their checks — and absolutely cannot find the back of an opponent’s net.
Like any head coach, Frank Anzalone demands that his players buy into his way of doing things. After being rehired by the Lakers at the start of the 2001-02 season, Anzalone made it clear that his brand of Laker hockey was the only one for sale in Sault Ste. Marie, and a significant housecleaning ensued. Some players left voluntarily; some players ran away as quickly as they could. Some were simply told they weren’t Laker material.
The result has been an interesting experiment in college hockey. The Lakers play in a hockey fishbowl, and the fans are as exacting as Anzalone. The pressure on Laker hockey players to perform is tremendous, and there’s a lot riding on the success of this hockey team.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm around Sault Ste. Marie and on campus,” says Anzalone. “When we are doing well, the media can give us good representation in the news and that can help attract students to Lake Superior State.”
Any wonder these guys are gripping the stick a little tightly?
When Anzalone was rehired, he saw himself not only as the new head coach, but as someone who had to remake every aspect of Laker hockey, someone who had to toss out the old and rebuild the program from scratch if LSSU was to be competitive again.
Whether or not this was necessary is immaterial. The result is a program that feels as though it’s just three years old, and Anzalone himself talks about the program in terms of how far the players have come from that zero starting point three Septembers ago.
“The outlook of our players is more positive than it has been in the last few years,” says the coach. “Their commitment to training and being in shape is the best it’s been in the past few years.
“For us to do better this year, we have to win at home on a consistent basis and we have to do better on special teams.”
Every team can improve with better physical conditioning and better defense of the home barn. What remains to be seen is what, specifically, the Lakers can or will do to score more goals.
There’s no question that the dominant player on the Laker squad is sophomore goaltender Jeff Jakaitis (1.96 GAA, .936 SV%). Down the stretch last season, Jakaitis kept the Lakers in games they otherwise had no business keeping close, one-goal losses to teams like Michigan State, Ohio State, and Miami. His conference goals against average was second lowest only to MSU’s Dominic Vicari, and no one had a higher league save percentage.
If Jakaitis got just a little bit of help on the other side of the puck, the Lakers might have the ability to threaten for first-round playoff home ice.
Red or Blue?
“I think our defense is a little bit better and it’s more mature,” says Anzalone. Alex Dunn, Ren Fauci, Steve McJannett, Ryan Reid — hardly household names, but solid, respectable upperclassmen who make up the core of a good defensive unit.
But defense isn’t the Lakers’ problem.
“Up front, we’re always going to have that little annoyance of putting the puck in the net,” says Anzalone. “I’d like to see us able to score some of those dirty goals that helped us years ago.”
While that little annoyance is a problem for more than one CCHA squad, the lack of scoring has haunted the Lakers under Anzalone’s tenure, and a frequently flashing goal light at the correct end of the ice would be a welcome change this season in Abel Arena.
The Lakers play disciplined hockey and were the least-penalized team in the league last season, but even Anzalone notes that this particular distinction didn’t seem to lead to anything of significance — certainly nothing in the win/loss column. But maybe this discipline will be a bonus in a season when the NCAA is redoubling efforts to crack down on infractions.
Another bright spot for the Lakers is leadership. Seniors Bo Cheesman and Matt Violin are the kinds of kids any coach would want on his squad. They get it done “not only on the ice, but in the classroom,” says Anzalone. “We all know that if the best player isn’t good in the classroom, that creates a deficiency in his game.”
And at an academic institution where the men’s ice hockey players are supposed to be not only good citizens of the campus but ambassadors for a school that is struggling to maintain enrollment and stay fiscally healthy, in an ice hockey program that has been rebuilt from the ground up in recent years, Cheesman and Violin — the only two seniors on the squad — are priceless.