This Week in the CCHA: Jan. 19, 2006

Like that Book by Dostoevsky

Two days off since Dec. 28 and 60 student drafts later, and suddenly I find myself on the other side of a mid-January Thursday, installing XP updates to a borrowed computer, brewing tea, and missing Aaron Voros.

Voros, as you may remember, was the fiery forward from Alaska-Fairbanks who compiled 132 penalty minutes in 36 games his junior season, in 2003-04. I hassled him often during his Nanook career, updating his penalty minutes weekly and questioning the wisdom of playing a guy who was so often in the box.

Ah, but Voros had his uses. Not only could he contribute consistently offensively, but he often forced opponent penalties, thus becoming more valuable than mere numbers might allow.

Voros also had a singular talent, where penalties were concerned. In 2003-2004, when he earned those 132 minutes he did so with 66 minor infractions. That’s right. Sixty-six times he went to the box, not one major penalty — no 10-minute misconducts, no game misconducts, no game disqualifications — among them.

This season, a new CCHA player has emerged as reigning bad boy, and the way in which he’s distinguished himself should be some cause for alarm in Ann Arbor. Freshman defenseman Jack Johnson has 106 minutes to his name in 20 games, a total that includes three game misconducts, the most recent being his late-game hit on Michigan State’s Tyler Howells Tuesday night.

The Spartans were winning 2-0 and the game was, essentially, over. Johnson came off the Michigan bench, skated across the ice to Howells, and slammed him into the boards with a little help from teammate Chad Kolarik. In fairness to Johnson and Kolarik, Howells had just played the puck. Regardless, at 19:22 in the third, Johnson was given five minutes for excessive roughness and a game disqualification, the first DQ of his college career.

MSU head coach Rick Comley called Johnson’s move a “cheap hit” and added that the Wolverine “just tried to kill” Howells.

Michigan head coach Red Berenson said Johnson’s play was “disappointing,” and added that there “has to be a certain amount of gamesmanship or self-control.”

Berenson continued, “When you take a lot of penalties, you are going to get a reputation, so you need to have even more gamesmanship.”

Now, there are many people throughout the league disposed to detest the Wolverines simply because they’re the Wolverines. I’ve even received email calling for sanctions against Berenson for Johnson’s behavior.

Like many reporters who cover the CCHA, however, I like and respect Berenson and I’ve come to understand that many coaches through the league think the Michigan program is the one to emulate, and why not? With the success Berenson and his coaching staff have seen, the talent they’ve coached, the players they’ve sent on to the NHL, Michigan has set the bar in the CCHA for nearly 20 years.

And when the eyes of college hockey turned to Michigan for less-than-stellar reasons, when the student section was perceived to have gone too far, Berenson himself made an appeal to fans and the university took an active role in trying to change some behaviors at Yost Arena. Both Berenson and the administration were also very frank with the press about the entire situation.

You know, Red Berenson is the man who called me at home to tell me that he was benching Marty Turco for cutting classes just days before the end of the regular season of Turco’s senior year (1997-98), in a game against Michigan State. I don’t see Berenson as someone afraid to take action.

But you have to wonder if the Wolverines think the rest of the world is wrong about Johnson, who after all leads Michigan in plus/minus (+9) and is third on the team in scoring with five goals and 16 assists.

I’ve seen the tape of Johnson’s hit on Howells, and I have to say that it looks vicious, but as I was not there I cannot tell. At the very least, it was completely unnecessary. Same with Johnson’s hit on Nate Davis in the closing moments of the second period in a loss to Miami, same with Johnson’s elbow to Steve Downie after Kyle Chipchura scored on Team USA’s empty net to give Team Canada a win in this year’s IIHF World Junior championship.

There’s no question that Johnson is now a marked man, and I don’t mean that he’s the target of opposing players, although that’s certainly conceivable. Now that Johnson has earned himself a reputation, officials won’t think twice about blowing the whistle when he’s involved, and that can be a genuine liability. Just ask Aaron Voros.

To paraphrase Michigan captain Andrew Ebbett, is this Michigan hockey? Is this the tradition that the Wolverines have established, or want to establish? In a season during which Michigan is struggling, do the Wolverines want to be remembered only for playing dirty?

I don’t think it’s Michigan hockey, and it certainly isn’t college hockey the way it should be played. But perhaps we won’t have to contend with Johnson beyond this season. He’s definitely the frontrunner for this year’s Mike Comrie Most-Likely-to-Leave-Early Memorial Award.

Mmmmmm … Hockey!

Johnson was born in 1987, making him young enough to be my biological son. I’d definitely ground him if I could, or at least give him an off-the-ice time out. If only it were that easy.

As I said, 60 drafts of student papers, some of them heart-achingly poignant in their honesty, can take a toll on any girl reporter. Cranky email from fans eager to lynch Red Berenson can do likewise. So can incompetent insurance adjustors, unscrupulous former landlords, a “repaired” computer that still doesn’t function, and a borrowed machine that is always — always always always — trying to upload XP updates, and I am about to beg for a Calgon moment or at least some chocolate, or even one more hour of sleep.

Thank heavens there’s hockey.

This week, there’s a full slate of CCHA games, and Ohio State is mercifully out of town. If the car were in proper working order (see complaint about insurance adjuster above), I’d take in Western Michigan at Miami on Friday, and Michigan at Bowling Green on Saturday. Instead, I’ll settle for MSU at Nebraska-Omaha via radio Friday followed by the OSU-UAF game, with a liberal dose of Colorado College at Minnesota on CSTV. In my pajamas. Maybe even with a glass of wine.

Okay, so I kind of like the incompetence of that insurance adjuster. This week.

I can definitely make a case for the MSU-UNO series for this week’s Games of the Week, given each team’s recent performances and the two points that separate them in league standings.

With their 2-0 home win over Michigan Tuesday night, the Spartans moved into a two-way tie for fifth with Ohio State. MSU has seemed inconsistent this season, having endured an eight-game winless streak in November, but now the Spartans are riding a five-game win streak into Omaha, thanks in part to a healthy roster.

MSU has lost 62 man-games to injury or illness this season, and at various times played without key personnel like captain Drew Miller and David Booth. Now the Spartans are playing with a full roster for the first time since the Great Lakes Invitational, and MSU showed Michigan what it can do, collectively, when it’s healthy.

The Mavericks return to Omaha after taking three points in Columbus from the Buckeyes. The 2-0 Friday win was disappointing, as there were no true, exciting breakaway chances for Scott Parse or Bill Thomas, who rank second and sixth, respectively, among scorers nationwide, but the line of Mike Lefley, Bill Bagron, and Mick Lawrence threatened a couple of times and looked excellent Saturday night, responsible for the game-tying, second-period goal in the 2-2 contest.

A case can be made for the OSU-UAF series as GOTW, if just for the drama factor. No one — including the coaches and team captains — knows which Buckeye team is going to show up on any given night. The problem with OSU is offense; the defense looks excellent and goaltender Dave Caruso is playing some great hockey.

In the past, big ice was a problem for the Buckeyes, but they proved in Colorado Springs early in the season that they can manage it.

In the post-Ryan McLeod world, the Nanooks need to unify and regroup. UAF is returning from a disappointing two-weekend trip to the Lower 48 — well, to lower Michigan — where the Nanooks dropped two to MSU and split with Michigan. They may be road-weary, but they should match the Buckeyes well. Neither team can score this season, OSU is better defensively, but UAF has far superior special teams.

The Lake Superior State-Ferris State series is a dandy. The Lakers are excitingly competitive this season, finally adding some scoring power to an essentially solid defensive team. They are fearless, which is probably a good thing, given the physical brand of hockey FSU plays.

They’ve also been off for a couple of weeks, while the Bulldogs played three games in four nights, losing twice to Northern Michigan and then beating Bowling Green Monday, 6-5.

LSSU and FSU skated to a pair of ties earlier this season, both games in Sault Ste. Marie.

Somehow, with 12 points, FSU is tied for last place in the CCHA standings. Trust me. The Bulldogs are a better team than that.

Another contender for GOTW is Michigan’s series at Bowling Green. (And, on second thought, I am more than a little grumpy about the car.) The Falcons could change their name to the Phoenixes, having arisen from the ashes of early-season mediocrity to win seven of their last nine games.

With 15 points, BGSU is just four points behind second-place NMU, and two behind the visiting Wolverines. And the Falcons are no shrinking violets; players like senior defensemen Don Morrison and Jon Sitko won’t fear Jack Johnson Saturday night.

And Jon Horrell is having a very good second half.

That leaves Western Michigan at Miami and Notre Dame at Northern Michigan, equally worthy of GOTW status. While the Broncos and Irish are likely to finish close to where they currently reside in the standings — near or at the bottom — each team provides interest, especially against the league’s top two teams.

Senior Bronco forward Brett Walton had four goals in WMU’s 5-4 win over BGSU Friday, including the game-winning tally late in the third, breaking the Broncs’ seven-game losing streak and beating one of the hottest teams in the country. Frankly — taking nothing away from NMU’s Andrew Contois — I don’t see how Walton didn’t earn CCHA Offensive Player of the Week.

For Notre Dame, the draw is watching Jeff Jackson’s rebuilding process and the progress of individual players this season.

And neither the RedHawks nor the Wildcats will be taking anything for granted, as this is yet another season that defines parity better than any season past.

So, there are your Games of the Week. Seven points from second place to last … this may be a season-defining weekend.

Was that Parity, or Parody?

Shades of 2003-2004.

That was the season when the CCHA sent five teams to the NCAA tournament, and we all remember what happened after that. (Here’s a hint: Nothing.)

If this current season were to end today, our beloved league would again send five to the big dance, with Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska-Omaha, and Ohio State representing.

Given what you’ve seen so far this season, CCHA fans, are we heading for another postseason jilting?

In 2003-04, the strength of the conference in-house is what helped propel five teams to the tournament, and the league’s inability to compete effectively against nonconference opponents is what sent every one of our teams home without hardware, some embarrassingly early.

My esteemed editor, Scott Brown, has taken it upon himself to explain the PairWise Rankings to the general public, a difficult task that requires a certain amount of courage. In fact, I’d be very happy if Brown were to follow me around the CCHA rinks late in the season to explain the PWR to inquiring and often irate coaches, but I digress.

In his article this week, Brown writes, “The Spartans and the Buckeyes are the poster children for the effects of conference strength on the PairWise.” He also says of Nebraska-Omaha and Northern Michigan, “See Ohio State/Michigan State on the value of conference strength.”

Northern Michigan is a “bubble” team that could give the league six teams in the tourney.


No, I’m not complaining about Brown’s prose, but rather the been-there-done-that feeling that’s been developing all season. Yes, CCHA fans have seen some exciting college hockey this season, and OSU’s and Michigan’s collective underperformances have opened up some interesting — and new, and welcome — possibilities near the top of the standings.

What I would find new and welcome is a genuine postseason CCHA contender, someone who can give the league a chance of thwarting the WCHA’s evil scheme to overpopulate the Frozen Four yet again (although I think there are a few teams east of here working toward that end as well).

Who could that possibly be among the predicted field? Miami has great defense and goaltending, but struggles scoring goals. Ditto OSU.

UNO has exciting offense but a defense that may not withstand the onslaught of nonconference scoring, especially given the lack of testing within the conference.

Michigan State may be a good pick, but the Spartans have a lot to prove — injuries and illness notwithstanding. And the Wolverines are so inconsistent that from one game to the next we don’t know what kind of competition they’ll offer.

To paraphrase another princess in trouble, help me, Lake Superior State. You’re my only hope.