Ah, to be young in the springtime — in Detroit!
Half of this year’s Super Six field is comprised of the three CCHA teams with the largest freshman classes. Two of those teams, Nebraska-Omaha and Ohio State, hosted a first-round playoff series, while Alaska-Fairbanks traveled to Joe Louis Arena by way of Bowling Green, Ohio.
At the beginning of the 2004-05 season, UAF head coach Tavis MacMillan predicted that his 11-member rookie class would present a “challenge,” but added, “I think it’s going to be one of the strengths of this program.”
In the CCHA playoffs so far, MacMillan has been proven right by freshmen Ryan McLeod, whose goals at :05 and :13 in a 6-3 win over Bowling Green Mar. 11 set three CCHA records, and by freshman goaltender Wylie Rogers, who is now 3-0 in postseason, after the Nanooks defeated Northern Michigan 6-3 in quarterfinal action Thursday, giving UAF its CCHA championship tournament win in program history.
After Thursday’s game, MacMillan said that having such a relatively young roster — 14 Nanooks suited for the game were freshmen and sophomores — was a real advantage, because the players aren’t aware that their inexperience is supposed to be a hindrance in postseason play.
“They’re oblivious to it. I think there’s a fine line between being oblivious to it and being overwhelmed by it. The older guys have brought them back down to being closer to oblivious than being overwhelmed.”
The youth that has helped to carry the Nanooks through the playoffs so far translated into something very different for the UNO Mavericks, who with 17 freshmen and sophomores on their roster lost their Thursday quarterfinal match, 5-0, to a more seasoned Michigan State squad.
“I thought that their experienced players … stepped up and really did a job,” said UNO head coach Mike Kemp. “They’re familiar with this facility, familiar with this rink, and they made us look that way in many cases.
“I thought we were excited to play, I thought we were really enthused to play. I think those first two power-play goals in the first period took a little of the sting out of us. I thought up until that point in time we were stacking pretty well with them.”
Yet to play in the tournament is Ohio State, a team that dressed nine and skated seven rookies in last Sunday’s series-deciding 5-4 overtime win against Ferris State. Two of those freshmen, Tom Fritsche and John Dingle, scored in the game, with Dingle getting the game-winner; the two play on an all-rookie line including faceoff specialist Dominic Maiani.
The Buckeyes also had seven sophomores in the game.
OSU head coach John Markell said that the Buckeye freshmen “are here to play hockey,” and that he expects nothing less from his young players. “That’s why we recruited them here. We’re excited about the fact that they’ve got that kind of experience because they’re going to need it from here on in.”
It’s not surprising that freshmen have made enormous contributions to this year’s CCHA Super Six field, as the league itself graduated a large, talented senior class last season and 88 rookies joined the league for 2004-05.
When you combine freshmen with sophomores, the league is on the young side — or at least comparatively inexperienced when you look at recent seasons. Over half of the CCHA’s listed players are freshmen and sophomores, nearly 61 percent.
But “young” means different things to different CCHA teams. The disparity in age among freshmen and sophomores around the league is striking; some underclassmen are barely old enough to shave, while others share birth years with juniors on the same roster.
UAF has the oldest Class of 2008, with the average age of its freshmen 20.36 years. With their remote location and a hockey tradition that has yet to be fully established, the Nanooks are forced to look for quality newcomers who are slightly older and more experienced than those who wind up at places like Michigan or Michigan State, hotbeds of college hockey more centrally located.
Just look at Michigan’s Class of 2008: Chad Kolarik and Kevin Porter, two blue-chip players from the US Under-18 Team, both true 18-year-old freshmen.
Even MSU’s seven-member freshman class averages just shy of 19 years in age, a full year younger than that of UAF or UNO, a team with circumstances similar to those of UAF.
The “youngest” program in the CCHA is located far from the rest of the league, forcing the Mavericks to be creative in their recruiting. One way to become competitive with the Michigans and Michigan States is to sign older rookies who can make an immediate impact on the program, players perhaps overlooked by teams with the luxury of developing younger talent.
UNO’s rookie class, which boasted the 21-year-old CCHA Rookie of the Year, Bill Thomas, is the second oldest in the league, with an average age of 20.22. That added year of experience and development — elsewhere — proved more than helpful to a team that finished last in league standings in 2003-04.
It’s not surprising, then, that the average age of freshman classes drops as you go further up the CCHA food chain. Programs like Michigan (18 years) and MSU (18.88) have long been able to recruit younger talent, but now teams like Miami (19.28), Notre Dame (19), and Ohio State (18.9) are able to cash in on recent successes and attract players who can either develop behind upperclassmen or make an immediate impact in spite of their tender years.
“Michigan has been doing that for years, and Michigan State,” said OSU senior captain J.B. Bittner, “and I think it’s good that now our program is starting to do that so that we don’t have that drop-off in talent.”
“It says a lot about our league,” says Miami head coach Enrico Blasi. “We’re able to recruit a lot of good, young talent. It says a lot about how deep our league is.”
The number of freshmen on a team’s roster isn’t nearly as important as the quality of the players, obviously. With 13 rookies on the roster, the 2000-01 Nanooks compiled a 9-19-8 overall record. That same year, with eight freshmen, Miami skated to a 20-16-2 season.
In 2000-01, with seven seniors on the roster, Michigan ended its season with a Frozen Four appearance. A year later, with 11 freshmen on the team, the Wolverines made another trip to the Frozen Four.
The infusion of youth — freshmen and sophomores — can keep a league vital and a team on its blade edge. And in spite of classes like those in Fairbanks, Omaha, and Big Rapids (where the average rookie is 20 years old), the CCHA Class of 2008 is relatively young, 19.41 years old on average, league-wide.
“Our freshmen are so young,” said Bittner, “so they act like 18-year-olds on the road. They do some awful stuff, and it’s hilarious, but it’s good to be around.”
Bittner, an old 22, declined to define “awful.”
Bittner’s teammate, junior Rod Pelley, said that the freshmen have pushed him to excel. “Off the ice, the freshmen are young, they like to have fun … but on the ice, you can tell the difference.”
Pelley is six months shy of his 21st birthday.
MacMillan said that the youngsters on the Nanook team have brought “life and energy” to his upperclassmen.
“They talk about it all the time, that these kids have so much energy and so much passion when they come to the rink that it’s rubbed off on some of the older guys. At the same time, the maturity of the older guys is starting to rub off on the young guys.”
And now, more than 30 games into the season, the Nanooks and Buckeyes are counting on their Classes of 2008 to play like veterans in the CCHA championship tournament, veterans who don’t know enough to know that they’re not supposed to be so successful, so young.