Before we start discussing Husky hockey, I want to add my voice to those offering—and asking for—prayers and condolences for the Humboldt Broncos’ families. The tragic bus accident, an event that could strike almost any team in the northern climates, was a terrible event. It’s just one more reminder that what happens on the ice is secondary to enjoying our time here on Earth. The Old Dog, who’s closer to his end than his beginning, is keenly aware of that simple fact.
We know that Humboldt, like so many small towns that love hockey, will be strong and will rise from this heartbreak. But we also know that they will never forget what happened. It’s my hope that we all remember.
With the Huskies’ season over, it’s time for the Old Dog to pick the Top Ten events for the past season. In roughly chronological order, here are my picks and reasoning. And, I need to add one thing. Most of these events are inter-related, so the pieces really do fit together.
- Mel Pearson leaves for Michigan and Joe Shawhan is promoted to head coach. When Pearson departed after six seasons, many of the Husky faithful were dismayed, and just as many were angry with the way he left. At the same time, most of us weren’t sure who Joe Shawhan was or why he should be given control of Tech’s program. As the year unfolded, Pearson had success in Ann Arbor, but Shawhan was “Superior” in Houghton. He fulfilled his promise of “get better every day” and also worked his way into the hearts of Husky fans with his open, unvarnished “I’m a Yooper” ways. His photo with the Misfits on his Twitter site last week was a classic. If he can continue to have success in the coming years, Shawhan could be on his way to a place just below John MacInnes in Husky history.
- Huskies win the Icebreaker Tournament. As the season opened, Tech lost a close game to Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame game. They then faced Union College, just two years removed from a national championship in the opening Icebreaker game. They dusted the Dutchmen 6-3, and then claimed the tournament trophy with a 4-3 victory over this year’s NCAA champion, Minnesota-Duluth. The season was looking very, very bright at that point.
- Fall swoon and goaltending woes. After the Icebreaker, Tech showed some of their weaknesses in October, November, and December. They were up and down—a repeating theme—and were unable to deal with league powers Bowling Green and Minnesota State, while struggling with Alaska-Anchorage, Alaska-Fairbanks, and Ferris State. During this period, the goaltending was shaky, the special teams labored, and they generally drove all of us fanatics crazy. During the final game before the holidays, Keegan Ford was lost to a season-ending injury, which started a trend that would continue during the winter.
- The emergence of the Class of 2022. As the season rolled along, it became apparent that the freshman class could become something very special. Mitch Meek and Seamus Donohue were elite defenders, and Justin Misiak was a skilled and driven forward. Grayson Reitmeier slowly but surely emerged as a solid center. Finally, Cooper Watson and Tyler Rockwell also demonstrated bonafide Division I level skills and performance on the blueline. Robbie Beydoun had some great moments in goal as well—but he will have a big hill to climb next year after Packy Munson’s season ending hot streak and the addition of Matt Jurusik to Tech’s roster.
- Holiday tournament roller-coaster. It’s not often that a team gets to play in the Hall of Fame Game, the Icebreaker and two holiday tournaments, but that’s just what the Huskies did, and they gave us thrills and heartburn in both tournaments. At the Great Lakes Invitational, they dominated Michigan State and were in turn overpowered by Bowling Green. They replayed that scenario at the Ice Vegas shindig, beating Boston College and then letting Arizona State jump out to a big lead that the Huskies couldn’t overcome. The Old Dog’s hair got even grayer after these games.
- Injury woes and getting swept in Big Rapids. As the New Year progressed, injuries played an important role. Mitch Reinke, who would go directly to the NHL after the season, missed nine games. Captain Brent Baltus missed nine, too. Jake Jackson missed five. Alex Gillies had his season cut short by injury. Seamus Donohue missed time, as did Munson and Devin Kero. All of this culminated at the end of January when Ferris State swept Them Dogs in Big Rapids. It was perhaps Tech’s worst weekend of the season, and virtually eliminated them from home ice in the WCHA playoffs. They followed that with an odd split at Bowling Green, getting blown out on Friday before shutting out the Falcons on Saturday. It’s not a coincidence that Baltus returned to the lineup for that Saturday win.
- Winter Carnival turnaround. After Bemidji State took the first game of the Winter Carnival series 4-2, the Huskies turned the tables with one of their best nights of 2018, smacking the Beavers 5-1 to win the MacInnes Cup. We didn’t know at the time, but it was a hint of things to come.
- Playoff win at Mankato. After Tech meandered to a fifth place finish in the WCHA, they opened the playoffs in Bemidji, where they swept the Beavers in two of the oddest games the Old Dog has ever seen. Then, the following weekend, on the road again in Mankato against WCHA Champion and 3rd ranked Minnesota State, the Huskies put on a clinic for post-season hockey. Losing a tough 2-1 game in the opener, they stormed back and gained a spot in the WCHA playoff championship with back-to-back wins against the Mavericks. The clinching game was a 2-1 overtime nail-biter that Jackson won with a snapper from the high slot with 5 minutes left in the first OT period. It was a thrill you didn’t think you’d see again. But we did–and it happened the very next week.
- WCHA Playoff Championship Win in Marquette. Heading to the Berry Events Center to face arch-rival Northern Michigan in the WCHA one game, winner-take-all championship game was great theater. And Them Dogs were up to the challenge, choking NMU’s powerful offense and getting a goal from Reitmeier to take a 1-0 lead. With sterling goaltending from Munson and disciplined defense, the Huskies kept the Wildcats at bay and added an empty net goal from Joel L’Esperance to take home the new Jeff Sauer trophy and an NCAA tournament berth. Five road wins in the WCHA playoffs is something that can never be topped unless more games are added to the format, which seems unlikely.
- Overtime Loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament. While Notre Dame’s win was a crushing blow, the Huskies proved they belonged on the big stage, and only two strokes of luck let the Irish escape with the victory. This game was perhaps the most impressive evidence of Shawhan’s “better every game” philosophy, as Tech played the national runners up to a dead heat—and, truth be told, deserved to win the game. The game gave all of us who love the Huskies a reason to be proud, and, more importantly, the hope and belief that the 2018-19 season may have even greater accomplishments to offer.
When all of this is added up, the Huskies gave us more thrills and more entertainment than most of us dared to hope for. They also handed us a fair share of heartbreak, too. More than anything, though, it raised expectations for next year as the Joe Shawhan Era starts Year Two.
Over the summer, the Old Dog will be back from time to time, offering observations about next year’s roster, the state of the WCHA, and college hockey in general. Until then, WOOF WOOF WOOF!