By this point last season, Lake Superior State was coming off a split with Alaska Anchorage that included its seventh win of the season in the Lakers’ 26th game of the season.
However, that win was part of a second-half turnaround of their fortunes that saw them win seven more times, including a win to force a third and deciding game in the WCHA quarterfinals.
A big reason for that turnaround, then-sophomore Ashton Calder scored a goal and added an assist in the 5-3 win over the Seawolves. The 6-foot-1, 201-pound forward added seven more goals over the Lakers’ run, helping propel them into the playoffs and force that third and deciding game.
He finished the season with 28 points, 12 of which were goals. It was clear by the end of the season to coaches around the WCHA that Calder had grown into the catalyst of the Lakers’ offense.
This season, he already has five goals in his first eight games, and leads the team with two game-winners as he continues to drive the Lakers’ game in the offensive half of the ice.
Ask his head coach, Damon Whitten, why Calder is so effective, and he immediately points to Calder’s size.
“With Ashton, part of it is his frame,” Whitten said. “He’s a very strong kid. He’s got tremendous size and strength. He’s a very hockey-strong hockey player. He’s big and heavy on pucks. That’s a big piece of his game, using that strength and heaviness to protect and to possess pucks.”
There is another aspect to his game that Whitten is thrilled with.
“When he’s really dangerous is when he’s playing with pace,” said Whitten. “We saw last year against (Michigan) Tech. (He scored) some great breakaway goals, used his speed to get some (offensive zone) entries and beat defensemen.
“He did it this weekend a couple times as well. So he’s putting both those pieces together pretty consistently so far this year, playing heavy and doing a good job that way, but also playing with more speed to his game and zone entries. (He is) very, very dangerous every night. He’s scoring. He’s going to the net. He’s shooting the puck. He’s confident and having a big impact offensively for the team.”
While the offensive part of his game has always been there at the collegiate level, exhibited by the fact that he was a member of the WCHA All-Rookie Team as a freshman, Whitten credits Calder for working extremely hard to add the physical component to his play. Working with strength and conditioning coach Taylor Brown since the summer following his freshman year has helped him add bulk, which has afforded him the strength he plays the game with.
“It was after his freshman summer though, when he just really made a commitment in the weight room and put those pieces together,” Whitten said.
Whitten admits that commitment off the ice was not something Calder, a Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., native was ready to do when he first arrived on campus.
“Talking with our strength and conditioning coach, Coach Brown, he (Ashton) told him, ‘I don’t love being in here. This is not a spot I like to be,’” said Whitten. “Our strength and conditioning coach did a great job to reach him, to show him the value of it, probably the science of you do it, how it can help you be a better hockey player.
“(He) just totally rededicated himself that way and reshaped his body and is phenomenal now. He’s in great shape. He gets it. He’s stronger, he’s quicker, he can play bigger minutes because of his conditioning level. He deserves the credit for what he did to commit himself fully to having a great summer and that showed with a great start last year.”
Calder’s success is coming at a great time for Sault Ste. Marie youth hockey as well. Whitten has seen youngsters on outdoor rinks pretending to be players like Calder, senior Chase Gamelin and Marquette, Mich., native Spencer DenBeste. Whitten is no stranger to seeing local talent emerge at the college level, considering he was on the Michigan Tech staff when Tanner Kero, a Hancock, Mich., native, was succeeding.
“I think it’s huge for our communities,” he said. “You look at what Tanner Kero meant a few years back in Houghton and Hancock and the energy it put into the program, especially when you’re a big impact player, and to do what Tanner did. We’re seeing here with Ashton [that] any kid that’s in our building, or anytime you go to a rink around town at night, their favorite players are Chase and Ashton. It re-energizes your whole youth program. All these kids in Sault Ste. Marie, they dream of the NHL, but they want to be Ashton Calder or Chase Gamelin before they get to the NHL or be a Laker, wear the anchor and be like those guys.
“So it’s huge for our youth hockey, keeping excitement in the air, keeping kids playing and getting kids playing. It provides a real shot in the arm for all these kids and (gives) motivation. for them to achieve a chance to play Division I hockey like these guys are doing.”
Another reason for young fans to be excited to see Calder in action is the fact that he was honored by the Lakers this season by receiving a letter on his uniform, something that signifies the expectation that he is a leader on and off the ice, something Whitten felt he had already unofficially earned before this season.
“I think he’s ready,” Whitten said. “He’s earned it. I think the guys in the room even as a young guy, he was a pretty central figure. He’s a guy that pulls guys together, kind of brings groups together. He’s kind of one of those glue guys that brings different groups together.
“He’s always been very strong in the locker room and had the respect of the room. That part is pretty natural, pretty easy, for him.”
What Whitten likes about Calder wearing a letter is that the junior appears to be making the most of the situation.
“I think he really is thriving on being counted on and all those situations, whether it’s penalty kill, defensive zone situations late in the game, or any time,” said Whitten. “He loves being the guy offensively as well. I think he’s responded really well. He’s thriving in the role and really enjoying it. It’s great to see this hometown kid off to a great start, being a leader, being just such a big part of our program.”
Calder, who played part of the 2013-14 season as a 15-year-old in the now-defunct Midwest Junior Hockey League for the Soo Firehawks, posting 32 points in 24 games, and the Lakers are heading out on the road for just the second time this season this weekend as they travel to Marquette to face Northern Michigan. Whitten feels that, given the reduction of fans in buildings, home-ice advantage is different during the age of COVID-19.
“There’s home-ice advantage in terms of matchups and getting what you want on the ice, but not having your whole crowd is such a different feel,” he said. “(That) really swings things to visitors on the road. It’s just such a different feel that way. I think that’s pretty impactful when you don’t have your crowd behind you.
“Anytime you go on the road, you want to get a good start, take the opposing crowd out of it. That’s done for you now in COVID. It’s a strange feeling being in your own building or any building empty. They’ll miss that this weekend and hopefully we could use that lack of crowd to get off to a good start, find a way to win some hockey games.”
Michigan Tech goaltender Blake Pietila was named the Hockey Commissioners Association goaltender of the month for December.
The sophomore led the WCHA in save percentage during the month (.955), sported a 1.52 GAA in December, and earned his fifth of the season on Saturday in a 4-0 shutout of Alabama Huntsville at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena.
“He sure has been consistent,” said Huskies coach Joe Shawhan after Saturday’s win. “He’s been outstanding. He earned his shutout.
“He’s taking pucks in the body. He’s not having to look spectacular because he is anticipating the play. He’s reading it so well.”
High-flying Falcons continue hot start
Already the top-scoring team amongst WCHA programs, Bowling Green added another 10 goals this past weekend.
Cameron Wright led the way Saturday with a pair of tallies, adding an assist to lift the Falcons to a 6-1 win over Ferris State. He scored again Sunday in a 4-2 victory over the Bulldogs.