Shortly after dropping his son off for hockey practice, Lake Superior State coach Damon Whitten looks out from his office window at the Taffy Abel Arena.
A collection of banners stares back at him. This is his office view every day, a reminder of the proud tradition of Lakers hockey that includes an era that stretches from 1987-96. They made the NCAA tournament eight straight times during that run, winning three national titles and finishing runner-up once.
Since the 1995-96 season, the Lakers have topped the 20-win plateau just twice, most recently in 2018-19.
It is something that weighs on Whitten, especially given the position of the banners in respect to his office.
“This is a program with multiple national championships and many league championships,” Whitten said. “My office overlooks the rink, and I look out at many banners. That’s the expectation. It’s been a long time, but we still have fans and alumni who know those championship days very well, and want to get back to that level. We share that goal. We’ve made good progress over several years, but there’s a long way to go still. That’s kind of our focus is finishing some of those steps.”
When Whitten took over the reins of the Lakers, he was replacing Jim Roque, who reached 21 wins in his second season, but never could coax more than 18 wins out of any other Lakers squad.
Whitten was fresh off of the transition at Michigan Tech from Jamie Russell to Mel Pearson. Having served the Huskies under both as an assistant coach, he felt he learned much from the two that he could take into his new job with the Lakers.
“I learned a lot from Jamie Russell,” Whitten said. “Obviously, it was a tough ending with that. We quickly built that program and did a really good job with a really connected staff, and a big focus on recruiting.”
Whitten could not help but carry some of the swagger he had leaving the Huskies into his first season with the Lakers. He, like his team, which had won 16 games the season before, learned quickly that they were going to have to work that much harder to produce victories. His group won only eight games in that first season.
“I was a young head coach, so I had a lot to learn,” he said. “I think we all think we’re ready, but there’s a lot to learn.
“That transition is one of those things. Finding the way to connect with my team more and build relationships. When you go from assistant coach to head coach, the way you have to build relationships, and the work it takes, changes significantly.”
Looking back, Whitten hoped success would come quicker than it did, but once it did, it came in droves in 2018-19 as the Lakers won 23 games.
It helped that he had three seniors who racked up at least 25 points. One of which, Diego Cuglietta, popped 25 goals and his 41 points were good for 21st in the country.
“Diego ended up leading the country in goals that year,” Whitten said. “I think that was big for us to show that you can come to Lake State and lead the country in goals. We’re not going to just kind of sit back and hope we win close games. We wanted to impose our will upon the game and recruit players like that and have a team built with skill, talent and the ability to score goals.”
The Lakers opened with seven straight wins that season. They racked up an eight-game winning streak in the middle of the season. They swept the Bemidji State Beavers, at home, to earn a trip to the WCHA semifinals, where they lost to the Minnesota State Mavericks in two games, scoring just once over the course of the series.
They followed that impressive season with a pair of wins to open 2019-20 against Mercyhurst. They then dropped six straight and 13 of their next 19. To be fair, they faced some high-ranking competition in teams like Michigan, Denver and Notre Dame on consecutive weekends.
Whitten felt that his team, which had lost a number of key seniors to graduation, to a point, took the season for granted.
“I think as much as we tried to guard against that,” he said. “There was a little bit of complacency that people in our organization, players and staff, thought, ‘Hey, we’ve arrived,’ a little bit. ‘We’ve had this great season, and we’re there.’ That’s not the way it works.”
Learning on the fly is not easy, but Whitten felt his team did a good job coming down the stretch, which led to a playoff berth at Bemidji State. The Lakers were able to force a third and deciding game before their season ended with a 3-1 loss at the Sanford Center.
With the COVID-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on the 2020-21 season, the Lakers learned another lesson in not taking hockey for granted. For them, just like for most teams, just getting the chance to open the season Saturday, Nov. 21, meant so much to the players and coaches alike, even if it meant hosting the Huskies without any fans in the building.
“To me, I think a defining moment this year was our first game,” Whitten said. “To finally make it through all the protocols and the delays and the startups, the uncertainty. Then, all of a sudden, you’re standing there, with the national anthem playing, empty arena, finally, another team across the ice from you, and you’re like, ‘Oh, man, now I’ve got to coach. Now there’s pressure to win, and perform, and have your team ready to go.”
Even though the game ended in a 0-0 tie that needed a shootout to decide, Whitten felt like the game was a “win” just because they got to play it.
“I can tell you post-game, it was amazing to be back on the bench. Our players felt it that normalcy, that compete. Our players are just wired to play this game, and compete, and so it gave some normalcy back to all of our lives and we’re very thankful.”
They followed that game up with a 4-1 win on Sunday over Huskies. They started the season 4-0-2 before taking their first loss of the season at home against the Beavers on Saturday, Jan. 2. The next bump in their schedule came two weeks later in a pair of losses to the Mavericks.
From that weekend on, the Lakers have lost just three times during a stretch that also saw them play nine games in 20 nights. While it was a novelty this season, Whitten feels that his players would not want to repeat it exactly next season, but, perhaps, some of the split-series scheduling might work for both teams during the middle of the season.
“I would never want to repeat what we did and play nine games in 22 nights,” said Whitten. “However, I did like the Tuesday night or Tuesday afternoons, in some cases, games, which you know, hopefully not a thing in the future with fans. But, I would be very interested to work with Ferris (State), Northern (Michigan), or possibly Michigan Tech. Maybe splitting a series somewhere and playing that, because I can tell you, when you get to late January, February, your players aren’t in love with practicing five days a week.”
They closed out the regular season with a split with the Beavers and a win over the Ferris State Bulldogs to finish in a tie for second with the Bowling Green Falcons. The Lakers had one more regulation win than the Falcons and also swept the Falcons during the season, giving the Lakers the second seed in the WCHA playoffs.
Despite not having fans in the arena, the Lakers made the best they could of the situation, sweeping the Alabama Huntsville Chargers. With the series win, the Lakers now advance to face the Beavers again in the semifinals in Mankato, Minnesota.
Beavers sweep Huskies
Despite Michigan Tech scoring first both nights, Bemidji State won both Friday and Saturday night to earn a spot in the WCHA semifinals.
Brian Halonen got the Huskies on the board just 2:33 into Friday’s contest. The Beavers answered 5:27 later with a goal from Aaron Miller.
Alex Ierullo gave the Beavers the lead 6:22 later. Lukas Sillinger, who had assisted on Ierullo’s tally, got one of his own 11:42 into the second to seal the win.
Saturday, the Huskies’ Tommy Parrottino scored 12:09 into the first. The Beavers struck back with two goals in 51 seconds from Brad Johnson and Ethan Somoza in the second to take a 2-1 lead into the third.
Alex Adams and Ross Armour both potted empty-netters in the third to seal the series victory.