British author Oscar Wilde once noted that we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. When looking above, Finlandia first-year coach John McCabe only sees a brighter future for his Lions in the constellations.
At 2-18, skeptics would suggest the former Alabama-Huntsville assistant is looking through the lens of one mighty powerful telescope.
On Feb. 4, Finlandia broke a 13-game losing streak with a 2-1 victory over Marian. The team’s only other win came against fellow Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association-basement dweller Concordia (Wis.)
This weekend, the Lions travel to Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association-rival Northland (6-13-2, 5-9-2 MCHA) for a two-game series.
Finlandia (2-14) trails the LumberJacks by eight points for the final playoff slot in the MCHA’s Northern Division. By McCabe’s count, the Lions need four-straight wins to squeak into the Harris Cup postseason fray. His team closes out the campaign with a two-game set at Lawrence Feb. 18-19.
“If we win four on the road … there’s no better time than to get hot than now,” said McCabe, 37, who served six years as Alabama-Huntsville assistant coach before being named Finlandia coach in May.
Of course, Northland would also have to drop four-straight in the process for Finlandia to pull off the improbable playoff mission. The LumberJacks host Marian for two games in their regular-season finale, but even an optimist can find the fainted twinkle in the most distant galaxy.
Regardless of the team’s near-term fortunes, McCabe is building a foundation, not pitching a tent.
At D-I Alabama-Huntsville, which made two NCAA tournament appearance in his tenure, McCabe garnered a reputation for spotting gems amid the rabble.
As the Chargers’ chief recruiter, he took in 100 to 150 amateur games a year, including those in remote posts of British Columbia and Alberta. The Sudbury, Ont., native also scoured Europe, including Finland, which particularly serves him well in his first-ever head coaching position.
Finlandia, as the name suggests, was founded as Suomi College in 1896 by Michigan Upper Peninsula’s Finnish immigrants. Finlandia is based in the Keweenaw Peninsula community of Hancock, which is separated from Houghton and its Western Collegiate Hockey Association resident Michigan Tech by the Portage Lake Canal.
Finlandia started its men’s hockey program in 1999 and captured the MCHA’s Harris Cup in 2007.
Freshman goalie Atte Haataja is the Lions’ lone Finnish representative, though McCabe says he’s looking to recruit Finns as well as Swedes. Teemu Selanne is one of the Nordic country’s greatest hockey exports.
“I wish he had some eligibility left,” said McCabe jokingly, but added there’s an ongoing effort to bring in NHL Hall of Famer and Finnish native Jari Kurri for a future event on the Hancock, Mich., campus.
Otherwise, McCabe continues to traverse more familiar terrain in North America’s numerous junior circuits. He expects to bring in five or six players from western Canada junior hockey leagues.
McCabe admits D-III is a harder sell, but the pitch remains the same.
“Recruiting is recruiting, regardless of where you are,” said McCabe, who played on two D-II National Champion teams while at UA-Huntsville from 1995-98. “You just have to be honest with the kid and tell them that they are going to be part of something bigger than themselves, and they have a chance of being part of something very special when we get the right group of kids in here.”
“It is a little different approach, obviously. A kid’s number one goal is to get a Division I scholarship. I support and respect that. But if they are looking for an option to play Division III, I tell them that Finlandia is one that is building to win a national title here.”
US National U17 Coach Danton Cole believes McCabe’s work ethic will reverse Finlandia’s hockey trajectory. Cole worked with McCabe when he was Alabama-Huntsville’s head coach.
“He will beat the bushes and continuously work to make sure he gets the right student-athletes that can compete and succeed on and off the ice for Finlandia,” said Cole in an email. “Two, he understands that it takes some time to make the changes that he wants to make and that there are no short cuts.”
During the season, McCabe has sought Cole’s counsel as the Lions floundered. The US U-17 Coach took in Finlandia’s game Jan. 29 at Adrian, which the Lions lost 9-2.
“He just told me to stick with it and obviously was encouraged with what he saw,” McCabe said. “(Cole said), ‘Just keep your head up and keep working hard and good things will happen.”
Despite the hardship, the team has shown improvement. Leading-scorer Collin Saint-Onge’s grit and skill has served as the player prototype for Finlandia to build on, McCabe said. Saint-Onge, who played with the North American Hockey League Marquette Rangers last season, has three goals and 12 assists in 20 games.
“A good Division III player is a player who is able to play at the Division I level; it just so happens he is in Division III,” he said. “Division III is very good hockey. I might have underestimated that when I took the job, but it’s been an eye-opener. Hats off to the great job Division III coaches do across the country.”
Players of the Week
MCHA: Brad Houston, Adrian. The senior center scored the game-winning goal in No. 5 Adrian’s 5-3 victory over Lake Forest Feb. 5, which completed a two-game sweep and kept the Bulldogs (17-3-1, 14-1-1) neck-and-neck with No. 10 Milwaukee School of Engineering (17-3-1, 14-1-1) for first place overall in the Midwest Collegiate Hockey Association standings. The Chatham, Ont., native had two assists to along with his game-deciding tally. Houston added and assist and was a plus-2 in the team’s 6-1 win in the series opener Feb. 4. The 6-foot-1 and 2-15-pound forward’s 30 points on 12 goals and 18 assists is tied for second in team scoring.
MIAC: Tony Civello, St. John’s. The junior netminder backstopped the Johnnies to a 3-1 win and a 3-3 tie against No. 13 Hamline Feb. 4-5, which locked St. John’s into a four-way tie for the final playoff position in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. The Shoreview, Minn., product made 77 saves and allowed a meager 1.92 goals in the two-game set. The victory and draw raised Civello’s overall record to 4-8-2 to go with 2.95 GAA and .909 save percentage.
NCHA: Kyle Heck, Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The freshman forward bagged the game-winner in the Pointer’s 3-1 victory over St. Scholastica Feb. 4 and scored a goal and assisted in the deciding tally in the team’s 4-3 win over Wisconsin-Superior Feb. 5. The two victories pulled UW-Stevens Point (12-11, 8-8) into a third-place tie with Wisconsin-Stout (13-10, 8-8) going into the final weekend. The third-place finisher will have home-ice advantage in the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association playoff first round.