This Week in the CCHA: Oct. 16, 2008

An Unsettling Start

Longtime readers and CCHA fans know that I like to start the season with a column that’s more on the lighthearted side. After all, we’re all happy that it’s hockey season again, and this early in the season there isn’t much of substance to explore.

But there’s nothing light about the mood around the league this week after the attack on Michigan defenseman Steve Kampfer.

According to sports information at the University of Michigan, Kampfer has a fractured skull as a result of having been attacked in the very early hours of Sunday morning.

No arrests have been made yet in the incident, but Michigan football player Mike Milano was suspended from the football team pending the outcome of an investigation into the incident.

No details have been released about whether the two knew each other, and although witnesses said that there were words exchanged, that proves nothing other than that there were words exchanged between Kampfer and his assailant.

It’s an open secret that there can sometimes be animosity between the players for different teams at the same school, but there is nothing to suggest that there is such animosity at the University of Michigan. I am not suggesting that there is. But even if these young men didn’t know each other at all, the very fact of this assault is the antithesis of the mission of NCAA sports.

It’s important, too, to remember that Kampfer is a victim here, and that Milano is innocent so far in the eyes of the law. I’ve received several anti-Michigan and anti-athlete emails — which are also contrary to what most of us believe about sportsmanship.

Kampfer will wear a neck brace for the next eight weeks, after which his doctors will re-evaluate his condition. His family gave Michigan coach Red Berenson permission Thursday to comment on the extent of his injury.

There’s no easy way to transition this into what must come next. Kampfer is junior defenseman, and his absence will leave the Wolverine blueline even shorter because senior defenseman and captain Mark Mitera suffered a severe knee injury in Michigan’s 4-3 home win over St. Lawrence last Friday night.

Mitera’s injury was the result of an unfortunate sequence of open-ice events. Mitera was doing what a good defenseman should; he was trying to knock the puck away from a St. Lawrence player. As he was doing so, an SLU forward fell into him — open ice, accidentally, as the St. Lawrence player was already on his way down — and knocked Mitera’s knee “the wrong way,” according to Michigan sports information.

The injury is very severe, and Mitera will likely miss his entire senior season. The swelling is at this point too great to know exactly what’s going on, but the injury will require surgery. No word on redshirting yet.

And making this the unholiest of trifectas and possibly one of the worst weeks for any defensive corps in recent memory, another Michigan defenseman, freshman Brandon Burlon, was hurt during practices last week. He sat out the St. Lawrence series, and won’t be back for the Wolverines’ road set against Northern Michigan this week.

It’s rotten luck for Mitera, a short-term injury for Burlon, and something so close to heartbreaking for Kampfer that it’s difficult to comprehend.

Out of the Gate

This season the CCHA has adopted an NHL-style shootout to decide points for standings purposes after 65 minutes of tied hockey. So why not try it the first night of CCHA action?

On Friday, October 10, the very first CCHA game of the season was decided by shootout, and resulted in the Ohio State Buckeyes being in sole possession of first place for about 24 hours.

The game was pretty typical of what these two rivals produce. OSU led by two after the first, on goals by Peter Boyd and Patrick Schafer. Carter Camper and Justin Vaive tied it up for the RedHawks after two.

Then Sergio Somma scored for the Bucks in the first minute of the third period. Then Jarod Palmer converted on a two-man advantage with just over five to go in the third.

In the first round of the shootout, Corey Elkins scored for the Buckeyes but Miami’s Pat Cannone was stopped by OSU netminder Joseph Palmer. In the second round, both OSU’s Zac Dalpe and Miami’s Carter Camper scored, but Boyd scored in the third shootout round to give Ohio State a shootout win and extra point for the purposes of the season standings.

At the start of the season, OSU head coach John Markell said that losing a shootout would be a heck of a way to lose a hockey game, and after last week’s contest, Miami head coach Enrico Blasi said, “Hopefully all these shootouts — if there are any more — will even out.”

Miami did more than even the score the following night, smacking the Buckeyes 7-3.

While most CCHA fans think of the Michigan-Michigan State rivalry as the quintessential local college hockey faceoff, it’s just as fitting that the Bucks and the ‘Hawks played this historic first shootout as any other pair of teams. Miami beat Ohio State all five times the two teams met in 2007-08, but the last three games were decided by a goal, and the teams have played some interesting overtime games through the last few seasons.

Hey, the Buckeyes won the first-ever CCHA league championship, too. Perhaps it won’t take them 32 years to repeat this particular feat. received a bit of email last week from CCHA fans — mostly Ohio State fans — after the RedHawk-Buckeye shootout game. We hadn’t yet updated things on the technical side to reflect the new points system some fans wanted to point out to us that the CCHA was now using the shootout to determine points after ties.

Thanks to all who wrote in. We didn’t know that. Really.

I especially want to thank all of the OSU fans, whose email was especially adamant about updating the system right then and there. You can’t blame them, though. It was historic … and — briefly — the Buckeyes were in first place.

Opening Ice

The Miami-OSU series was the only league play last weekend, but there was plenty of Division I play happening, including a tournament, a classic, and a cup.

The Alaska Nanooks took the 18th annual Kendall Hockey Classic in Anchorage, their first-ever in-season tournament title. On Friday, the Nanooks advanced when junior forward Dion Knelsen scored the only goal in a shootout following Alaska’s 2-2 tie against Northeastern, and the Nanooks beat Connecticut, 5-0, in the title game the following night. Knelsen was named the classic’s Most Outstanding Player with his shootout goal and two assists in each contest.

The Michigan State Spartans didn’t fare as well in this year’s Ice Breaker Invitational. After beating Massachusetts 3-1 Friday, the Spartans fell to host Boston University, 2-1, Saturday. Jeff Petry had the power-play goal for MSU in the third period against BU. The Terriers outshot the Spartans 29-13 in the game.

For the second consecutive year, the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs shut out the Northern Michigan Wildcats to take the Superior Cup. Last year, it was a 4-0 game; this year, it was 5-0. The Wildcats beat Michigan Tech, 5-2, in their opening game, while the Bulldogs and the Lake Superior State Lakers skated to a 2-2 tie in the opening night of the cup.

The Lakers lost to Michigan Tech, 3-2, in their second game. Both the Wildcats and the Lakers hosted in their home rinks for the weekend.

Pat Inglis and Brian Mahoney-Wilson split time in net for LSSU, with Inglis stopping 29 against Duluth and Mahoney-Wilson making 34 saves in the game against Tech.

There was a shootout following the tie between the Lakers and Bulldogs, and Duluth’s Justin Fontaine was the only guy to find the back of the net.

There’s a mixed bag of college hockey this weekend, with some CCHA action, some interleague action, and a couple of tournaments.

The Nanooks will host the Brice Alaska Goal Rush this weekend, welcoming Anchorage, Maine and Mercyhurst. The Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks will defend their Mutual of Omaha Stampede title, a tourney now in its ninth season. This year, American International, Quinnipiac and Union travel to Omaha.

New Season, New Vibe

The season may be young, but that doesn’t mean that Bronco fans can’t be excited about Western Michigan’s .500 record. Sure, the Broncos swept Bentley to open things up last year en route to nine overall wins, but this year WMU beat Niagara, a team that swept the Broncs early last season, before losing a close, well-played game to RIT.

Western Michigan head coach Jim Culhane was clearly pleased about his team’s performance in its opening weekend. “Both games were intense,” said Culhane after the 2-1 loss Saturday. “To me, it looked like midseason hockey for both teams. We understand and realize on any given night — I don’t care who you’re playing in Division I college hockey — you have to bring your ‘A’ game and compete real hard, which we did.”

For two coaches of the RIT Tigers, it was old home week. Both head coach Wayne Wilson and assistant Brian Hills played for and coached at Bowling Green, the team they beat Friday night by a 4-2 score.

“I have a lot of respect for both Wayne and Brian,” said Culhane. “I played against them both, coached against them both. Our hockey community is so small. There’s a very close bond and brotherhood there between all the coaches and the players.”

Two things struck me about the Broncos in the 2-1 loss Saturday. The first was the overall team speed, which is improved not only by the addition of the eight new freshman but by the general condition of the team as a whole.

The second thing was the penalty kill, which was fearless. Guys were blocking shots a little but more importantly were not afraid to risks. The PK units clearly had confidence in sophomore goaltender Jerry Kuhn, who stopped 28-of-30 in the contest. There were several shorthanded Bronco odd-man rushes with no sense of panic about returning to position.

“I thought our penalty kill was really good all weekend long … stemming from our outstanding goaltending,” said Culhane.

It may be early in the season, and I only saw one game, and the game was against a nonleague opponent, but if the Broncos genuinely are a last-place team, the CCHA is in for some good hockey this season.

And the Broncos may not be a last-place team.

News about the News

The state of the newspaper business in the U.S. is appalling, and the folks in Ann Arbor have firsthand evidence of that.

The Ann Arbor News has decided not to cover Michigan ice hockey. They’ve not only taken writer Antoine Pitts off the beat, but they’ve eliminated the beat altogether.

This is not something that Antoine Pitts deserves. He’s covered Michigan hockey for many years and is a good writer who is knowledgeable about our league. Every sportswriter has his or her share of detractors and Antoine has his share, but being reassigned from a Division I college sport to high school sports isn’t something he deserves.

Nor is this something that Michigan hockey and its fans deserve. I find it inconceivable that there isn’t enough local interest in Wolverine hockey to justify a beat writer. It has to be bad for business for the paper, and it’s certainly bad for college hockey.

On the flip side of that, the CCHA keeps working to expand its television coverage. This week, the league announced this week that the NHL Network will show 17 CCHA Saturday-night games live in the 2008-09 season.

There are 84 Canadian-born players in the CCHA, and many players from all over that have either been drafted by NHL teams or in which NHL teams and fans have an interest. Given the growing number of college players gracing NHL rosters, this is a good development for the league and for college hockey.

Interesting Timing

Until last weekend, I had missed exactly one Ohio State home hockey game, and roughly two-thirds of another. In December 2002, I had emergency gall bladder surgery and I missed a Miami-OSU game at the Schott. In November 1998, I took a puck to the head in the press box of the OSU Ice Arena (then the OSU Ice Rink), and had to go to the emergency room for two staples to the scalp. That game was against Northern Michigan and I returned before the game ended.

(I had to. That’s where I had parked my car.)

Until this season, I had attended every OSU home opener since the 1995-96 campaign. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t an affinity for Ohio State that kept me at Buckeye home games. I lived in Columbus for 18 years, and because of work and other matters of schedule, it was difficult to travel.

In late August of this year, I moved to Michigan. The heart of CCHA country. Six teams within a reasonable driving distance as opposed to the three I had in Ohio.

And where was I when the RedHawks and Buckeyes made history? In Michigan, and nowhere near a CCHA hockey game. It’s a good thing I didn’t waste my money on the lottery that night, because clearly the stars were against me.

I’m glad to be back for another season, glad to be among people who talk hockey on a regular basis, eager to explore my new home state, and happy to have the opportunity to travel more freely around the league again.

Early next week, look for a feature on Western Michigan’s freshman class, more on shootouts, a look at the four-man system, and whatever else comes our way. And soon I’ll be blogging about hockey and other things related to my new, midlife adventure.