Well, this is it. Game #10. I’m wrapping up a trip I’d intended to take in December before a family matter changed my plans. It turns out this was the absolute perfect place to wind down the chase.
The hockey roots in Houghton run deep—far deeper than the trio of Michigan Tech national championships, which are impressive enough on their own. For the uninitiated, Houghton is where professional hockey in the U.S. was born, when the Portage Lakers were formed 115 years ago. Dee Stadium sits on the same spot as the team’s original home, the Amphidrome, and is itself the seventh oldest indoor ice rink in the world. That’s before we mention the MacNaughton Cup, the namesake of my folly, and of which Michigan Tech is trustee.
Yes, I’m sure you knew all that already. No, I didn’t before I got there.
At a glance, I LOVE HOUGHTON! It’s a nice town with plenty of character, and a place I can only presume is beautiful in the spring and summer. Even with the piles of snow that greeted me on this January afternoon I was impressed with the feel of Houghton as well as Hancock. I could very easily live there, I believe.
I checked into my hotel, then night fell and I headed for MacInnes Student Ice Arena. The parking situation isn’t the best for first-time visitors, as the lot in front of the arena isn’t large enough to accommodate all of the fans and it’s not readily apparent that two other lots nearby are fair game. Keep in mind, the college I attended would tow anyone at any hour if they parked in a lot without a permit so I was a little unsure about leaving my car in Lot 23.
The arena is part of the Student Development Complex, and while this is seemingly sufficient it has some disadvantages, as well. The concourses get crowded near game time and during intermissions, and fans have to get their hand ink-stamped for re-entry in order to visit the University Images store. Speaking of such matters, the team store is easily the best-stocked and most comprehensive I’ve come across in the league, and it was a pleasant surprise.
Once you get inside the arena itself, it becomes apparent very quickly that this is a much nicer facility than it appears on WCHA.tv. Because of the camera angle, viewers at home see plenty of the end wall and not much of the elevated concourse that runs behind the opposite goal. It’s a shame because that’s one of the more aesthetically-pleasing attributes of the arena.
The seating is unusually steep—bad for those with a fear of heights but perfect for seeing over fans in front of you and for avoiding the knee-into-seat scenario many taller patrons experience. While it was a climb to reach my spot, it was a small price to pay for a primo perch.
The first goal of the contest with Alaska-Fairbanks came at the 1:15 mark, with the Nanooks managing to take the steam out of Mitch’s Misfits by beating Devin Kero. Another goal nearly 8 minutes later elicited audible groans throughout the arena, coupled with the elated Nanooks fans who lived up to their strong-traveling reputation.
A late power-play added a touch of energy back to the building, but it wasn’t until Seamus Donohue scored at 19:55 that I got the first taste of what makes Michigan Tech special. The goal horn blared, just like in any other arena. The goal light went on, again, just as anywhere else. The extra yellow goal lights against the back wall were a nice touch but it was the fan response that really stood apart. Flags, everywhere. Massive ones. Some clearly Michigan Tech, others black and gold-checkered so you could tell what they were going for. Then there were the flags that seemed to be totally random, as if they’d been taken from a consulate or a truck stop somewhere in Montana.
Considering the goal came at the very end of the period there really wasn’t time for the league-famous “SIEVE!” taunt, but it was an impactful introduction to the finest student section in college hockey. The first period came to an end with the Huskies trailing, 2-1.
The first intermission was spent on air with Nanooks play-by-play voice Bruce Cech, our third and final on-air chat of the season. The interview invariably made note of the rich hockey tradition at Michigan Tech and the passion of the fans and students.
The Huskies scored the first goal of the second period to tie the score at 2, bringing the crowd back into it in full effect.
“DO IT AGAIN, DO IT AGAIN, WE LIKED IT, WE LIKED IT
DO IT AGAIN, DO IT AGAIN, WE LIKED IT, WE LIKED IT
DO IT AGAIN, DO IT AGAIN, WE LIKED IT, WE LIKED IT”
The chant was beyond loud. And it was clear this was more than just the student section involved. This was, easily, the work of one entire side of the arena along with stragglers elsewhere.
In another extraordinary gesture, the in-arena camera crew visited my seat while I was given a mention over the public address system. It can’t be said enough just how wonderful everyone I encountered through this whole thing has been, from league officials to broadcasters, game-day operations to the most casual fan. Hockey people are great folks.
During the second intermission I got to meet Lianne, a Tech student and member of the Huskies Pep Band. She asked me to sign her stripes, and I was humbled to join the ranks of people who’d been invited to leave their mark on her black-and-gold overalls. My signature is pretty terrible on a good day, let alone when I’m signing fabric stretched over a coed’s knee. But, I did the best I could and enjoyed our chat before the band had to get back to work with a rousing rendition of A-ha’s “Take On Me.”
The third period began, but not before the performance of the “Copper Country Anthem.” Nobody could give me a confident answer as to how “The Blue Skirt Waltz” wound up in such a prominent role*. Truthfully, however, it didn’t really matter much to me. It’s another item that is uniquely Michigan Tech, and there’s a lot to be said for those types of contributions to the atmosphere.
Alaska-Fairbanks tied the score at 3 with a power play goal at 5:26 of the third period, and overtime seemed like a given until Joel L’Esperance scored his seventh of the season with 1:06 to go, assuring a sweep of the Nanooks and a joyous home crowd.
Michigan Tech’s post-game skate and autograph session with the players is a very cool touch, and a really good way to ensure a strong fan base going forward. Several people encouraged me to head down to ice level, but I had one last stop to make before leaving the building.
In a trophy case near the University Images store sat the Broadmoor Trophy, the WCHA’s replacement for the MacNaughton Cup when Michigan Tech absconded with it during the Huskies’ 1980’s detour to the CCHA. (I kid.) At the time the announcement hadn’t yet been made about the Broadmoor being decommissioned in favor of the Jeff Sauer Trophy, and so I’m extra pleased I got to see that award in what would be its final year.
I’d done it. 10 games, 10 arenas, 10 great fanbases. I walked into the season curious about what I’d find, and walked out of it with a deep appreciation for each of the fanbases, the schools, the WCHA, and the dedication it takes from all of them to make college hockey a reality. You have my admiration and my deepest gratitude.
Finally, thanks to you for reading my nonsense through the winter. I didn’t really know much about being a Michigan Tech fan heading into that Saturday in Houghton, but after that game—and post-season jaunts to follow the Huskies to Bemidji State and Minnesota State—it’d be a lie to say I didn’t walk away as a bit of a Huskies fan. Y’all are alright.
10 down, the end.
Feature Image Courtesy of Britton Anderson
*(Actually, we can, at least to the extent researched by former HPB member Neil Wisniewski in the early 2010s: The Blue Skirt Waltz was a gold-record single by Frankie Yankovic. A local DJ in the early 1950s would play it frequently, much to the eventual annoyance of many Tech students, who were tired of hearing it. Eventually, the band picked it up and played it as a joke, much like people today would play Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” -Ed.)