This was an interesting year for the CCHA, and not just because it’s the conference’s last season. While the hockey this year was good, it seemed a shade off the quality we’ve been privileged to see for the past two seasons. It felt like a return to the kind of parity the league experienced in the last decade. Yes, anyone could beat anyone else on any given night, but — as I’ve written often in the past — equal doesn’t mean equally good.
In addition to that, the league seems to be lacking the impact players that make headlines, change games, turn heads. I’m sure my saying so will anger some people, but I can’t think of a single player from the CCHA who stands out enough this season to be Hobey Baker Award-worthy.
There’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve enjoyed the necessity of hockey-by-committee that we’ve seen so much of this year.
Of course, my awards — which don’t come with any actual hardware — have little to do with the year-end honors handed out by the league itself. Sometimes there is overlap. Sometimes there isn’t.
This is just Part 1 of the hardware. There will be more next week.
Player of the Year
I can’t think of a single player who has made more of an impact for his team and perhaps changed the fate of a couple of other CCHA teams than Ohio State senior goaltender Brady Hjelle. He’s my player of the year.
Hjelle’s story is an interesting one. He played his first two seasons of hockey with Minnesota-Duluth (2008-10) and then transferred to Ohio State, playing for the USHL’s Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in between. Last season, he played eight games for the Buckeyes in relief of Cal Heeter.
This year, he became the regular starter Thanksgiving weekend when the Buckeyes split with Lake Superior State. His season hasn’t been perfect, but in the second half he helped the Buckeyes take four of six points in series against Notre Dame and Western Michigan and his stats are noteworthy. In overall play, Hjelle’s goals against average is 2.00 and his save percentage is .934; in conference play, he has a 1.88 goals against average and .938 save percentage.
He’s also been named the CCHA goaltender of the week five times this season, earning that honor every time. There’s no doubt in my mind that without him, the Buckeyes would not have a first-round playoff bye — and either Notre Dame or Western Michigan would be pushing Miami even harder for the regular season championship.
Coach of the Year
I don’t know who the league will pick, but my Coach of the Year is Bowling Green’s Chris Bergeron.
Bergeron inherited a challenging situation when he took over in Bowling Green at the beginning of the 2010-11 season and has done an admirable job of changing the culture of hockey at the once-great program. It’s been slow going for many reasons, not the least of which is how difficult it is to recruit to a last-place team.
Bergeron’s approach, though, is reaping rewards in tangible ways this season. After taking his last-place team all the way to the CCHA championship tournament in Detroit last season, Bergeron had to keep that momentum going — for himself as well as his team.
When I talked to him in early December, Bergeron said that he didn’t know what to say, that the team was struggling. He sounded as though he was working his way through whatever it was that was ailing his players as well.
“We’re trying to lean on a three-month period where we showed a little success,” he said, referring to the second half of the 2011-12 season. Other teams, said Bergeron, had years of success from which to draw. “It’s 15 or 10 weeks for us,” he said, “and it’s not enough.”
After finishing the first half of the season 3-10-4, the Falcons are 10-6-1 since the end of December.
Earlier this month, Bergeron was cautiously optimistic — but you could still hear the angst in his voice when he talked about his team and its prospects for this season.
“We’re going to try do the right thing every day,” he said. Of the prospect of finishing above last place (or near the cellar), he said, “We’re not finishing ‘here’ — I don’t even want to use the word where we finished the last few years.”
No, it’s clear that the Falcons are not finishing where they have in the last few years. Bowling Green is on the verge of hosting a first-round playoff series.
Bergeron is quick to take responsibility for anything resembling a stumble on the Falcons’ path to hockey recovery. He should take credit, too, for the solid progress that the Falcons have made as well.
Rookie of the Year
There are several good candidates for this award. In spite of the year that Michigan is having, two Wolverines players come to mind, defenseman Jacob Trouba and forward Cristoval (a.k.a. Boo) Nieves.
Then there’s Jake Hildebrand, the solid goaltender who has played so much in Michigan State’s net. While the Spartans may not be near the top of the standings, it’s not because of Hildebrand’s play.
Other notable forwards include Notre Dame’s Mario Lucia, Bowling Green’s Dajon Mingo and Alaska’s Tyler Morley.
This year’s standout, though, is Miami forward Riley Barber. Barber leads the RedHawks in scoring (14-20–34) with three game-winning goals and four power-play markers. On a team that takes more than 13 penalty minutes per game, Barber has just eight infractions for 16 minutes all season.
Barber is definitely the Girl Reporter rookie of the year.
Team of the Year
Bowling Green is the last-ever CCHA Girl Reporter Team of the Year.
As a program, as a unit, the Falcons have worked their way from the default last-place CCHA team to a team to be taken seriously. Something like that happens only when players trust their coaches, trust each other and believe that they’re building a future for Bowling Green hockey.
And they are building a future for Bowling Green hockey.
From their run at the end of last season to their ability to overcome a bad first half this year, these Falcons have convinced me that this is what college athletics is all about. I have no doubt that these players are learning things now that will aid them for the rest of their lives. They’re young and they may not fully grasp what they’re doing in BG, but with the perspective of time they’ll appreciate these years even more.
For those of us who have been watching this progression, it’s been a pleasure.
Ferris State Memorial Defenders-of-the-Realm Award
This is a no-brainer. Not only was Northern Michigan 6-2 in nonconference this season, but the Wildcats’ entire nonconference record is against the WCHA. Talk about taking one — or six — for the league.
The two losses were against Nebraska-Omaha on Oct. 5 and Michigan Tech on Feb. 12. Granted, the 8-2 loss to Tech two weeks ago was a tough one, but the Wildcats beat the Huskies earlier in the season.
Additionally, NMU split that series with UNO and swept both Wisconsin and St. Cloud State; the sweep of SCSU was on the road.
Congratulations, Wildcats, and thank you for doing your part to defend the realm.
Chris Richards Most-Likely-to-Be-Overlooked Award
Several players come to mind, including two from Lake Superior State, forward Domenic Monardo and goaltender Kevin Murdock. Alaska forward Andy Taranto likewise is a worthy candidate.
This year’s winner, however, is Bowling Green sophomore forward Ryan Carpenter, who leads the Falcons with 15 goals and 13 assists. Carpenter is fourth in the CCHA in goal scoring.
I’m guessing that he’ll be left off all CCHA teams when those awards are handed out.
Best Offensive Goalie
It was an average year for goalie scoring in the CCHA. Four goaltenders earned a single assist: Alaska freshman John Keeney, Ferris State sophomore CJ Motte, Michigan State freshman Jake Hildebrand and Northern Michigan junior Jared Coreau.
The race for Best Offensive Goalie was tricky, though. Leading with two assists through the first half of the season was Notre Dame junior Steven Summerhays. In one week in February, though, a challenger emerged in the form of Ohio State senior Brady Hjelle. Hjelle had an assist on the final goal in OSU’s 3-1 road win over Alaska on Feb. 9, and then added another on the tying goal of the Buckeyes’ 6-3 home win over Western Michigan Feb. 16.
Although both Summerhays and Hjelle tied for assists, Hjelle had more points per game than did Summerhays. Hjelle’s two assists came in 28 games; Summerhays’ points came in 30. That’s .071 points per game for Hjelle and .067 for Summerhays, making Ohio State senior Brady Hjelle the last-ever Girl Reporter Best Offensive Goalie in the CCHA era.
Unless Summerhays registers another point this weekend, that is — or some other goaltender does something superhuman.
Mike Comrie Most-Likely-to-Leave-Early Award
Another no-brainer: Michigan defenseman Jacob Trouba.
Players of the week
These aren’t Girl Reporter Awards. Nope. These are just your ordinary, sanctioned, league-given honors.
Rookie of the week: Miami forward Riley Barber, who had two goals and an assist in the RedHawks’ road sweep of Lake Superior State.
Offensive player of the week: Michigan sophomore Alex Guptill, who looked phenomenal against the Buckeyes in the Wolverines’ road sweep of Ohio State. Guptill had the game-winning goal in each contest and added another marker and a helper besides.
Defenseman of the week: Miami freshman Matthew Caito, who had the game-winning goal in Miami’s 2-1 win over LSSU Saturday, plus an assist on the RedHawks’ first goal in the game. Caito had a goal in Friday’s 5-4 win, too.
Goaltender of the week: Michigan State junior Will Yanakeff, who made 37 saves in Friday’s 1-0 win over Alaska in Fairbanks. Yanakeff also stopped 39 of 42 in Saturday’s 4-2 loss.
2. Boston College
3. St. Cloud State
5. New Hampshire
7. North Dakota
8. Western Michigan
10. Minnesota State
13. Notre Dame
19. Ferris State