NCAA DI Men's Hockey

CCHA Season Preview: Michigan Tech Early Favorites In Wide-Open Conference

CCHA Season Preview: Michigan Tech Early Favorites In Wide-Open Conference

Michigan Tech, led by goalie Blake Pietila, is favored to claim the MacNaughton Cup, but the CCHA should have a competitive field for the title.

Oct 2, 2023 by Tim Rappleye
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The CCHA season is expected to be an especially competitive one, but the offseason has been wrought with controversy that further clouds the outlook. With Bowling Green officially in limbo at this writing due to an ongoing investigation into hazing within the men's hockey program, it is nearly impossible to include the Falcons in a comprehensive preview of the CCHA. That said, here is a look at the seven other conference members with a contemporary look at Bowling Green and notes on Augustana, which awaits full CCHA membership that's coming in the 2025-26 season.

Bemidji State

The Beavers are normally considered a lock for home ice in the CCHA, but not this year. Bemidji has lost a ton of talent, leadership and mega minutes on defense (Elisa Rosen and Will Zmolek), and their goaltending faded last season. But unlike the 2022 off-season, Coach Serratore did not plug holes via the transfer portal, despite the heavy losses.

Yes, the Beavers picked up a stud defender in Eric Pohlkamp, but will the freshman contribute as much as All-Conference star Rosen? Doubtful. 

More important is the goaltending. Former stopper Mattias Sholl suffered a sophomore slump last season, finishing with a record of 11 wins and 13 losses at year’s end. With a plethora of elite goaltending throughout the league, Bemidji will struggle to reach .500 if Sholl turns in another pedestrian campaign. Perhaps his trip to the Los Angeles Kings development camp this summer will re-set his career trajectory.

Sophomore Lleyton Roed is a star: a scorer with speed, hockey smarts and defensive intensity. Fifth year defenseman Kyle Looft is the only survivor of Bemidji’s big three on defense, a huge body (6-foot-4) who can shoot and defend with intensity. Senior Eric Martin has returned from a wrist injury and will be a reliable scorer, a precious commodity in college hockey. 

Bottom Line: There is too much veteran depth in the CCHA for the reshaped Beavers to contend this year. Serratore faces a major challenge to restore Bemidji into the defensive powerhouse that once was their identity.  

Prediction: Fifth place

Ferris State

Veteran coach Bob Daniels has a lot in his cupboard entering this season, thanks in a large part to returning fifth year players. For one, he has an elite forward line returning intact: Antonio Venuto, Stepan Pokorny and Jason Brancheau form one of the league’s top scoring units. Daniels also has two bona fide starting goaltenders in Noah Giesbrecht and Logan Stein, though his Bulldogs have better results with Giesbrecht. Statistical evidence notwithstanding, Daniels chooses to split this tandem every weekend.

The most prized asset on the Ferris squad is their captain Brendan MacLaren, a defenseman entering his fifth year for the Bulldogs. “If he had a sixth year we’d take him back for that as well,” said Bob Daniels. Former wingman MacLaren had a career-best 16 points his senior year after shifting back to to the blue line. “One week we were thin on defense, had a few injuries, and we converted him back to defense. I remember coming out of that first game saying—I don’t think we’ll ever move him back to forward.”

One forward Daniels will miss is senior Mitch Deelstra, who jumped into the portal and resurfaced at rival Northern Michigan. Eight goals of production from the dependable Deelstra will hurt Ferris while bolster rival Northern, a double-edged loss for the Bulldogs.

Prediction: Sixth place for the Bulldogs, a victim of too many one-goal losses.

Lake Superior State

Coach Damon Whitten has thrown open the windows and gotten out the biggest broom in Sault Ste. Marie, sweeping out a locker stained by prima donnas, sporadic performers and marginal attitudes. The result is room freshened with 10 junior hockey products, Whitten’s attempt at addition through subtraction. 

“We’ll want these [newcomers] to spot in, and complement some of our guys,” said Whitten. “Our returners have done a great job of shaping our locker room, cleaning up some chemistry and locker room issues that lingered last year. We feel much different inside that room right now.”

Whitten has two reliable scorers wearing captain letters in Dawson Tritt and Harry Roy, and an elite goalie in Ethan Langenegger. These chess pieces should help the Lakers avoid the month-long winless streaks that plagued them the past two years.

Prediction: 7th place. No more shortcuts, the arduous road to respectability has begun. 

Michigan Tech 

For the past five years, Tech coach Joe Shawhan has been chasing Minnesota State, emulating the Mavericks’ suffocating, puck-pursuit perfection. Now, thanks to the six-prong departure of Mike Hastings from Mankato, and the arrival of scoring ace Austen Swankler, it is the Huskies who sit atop the CCHA pre-season polls. 

Their roster is an embarrassment of riches, featuring both pre-season Players of the Year in Swankler and goalie Blake Pietila. They have been bolstered by USHL champions and shrewd NCAA picks from the transfer portal. The sexy pick of the pre-season All-CCHA team is “Rifleman” Kyle Kukkonen, which ignores  senior Ryland Mosley who led the Huskies in scoring last year. The return of Richter finalist Pietila in goal, will keep Tech’s winning formula intact: defense first.

This time last year Shawhan was terribly worried about his club, and his Huskies went on to the NCAA tournament, a single goal from winning the MacNaughton Cup. This year Coach Joe is much happier with his prospects. A glance at his bulging roster justifies that optimism. 

Potential Downside: Might there be too much star-power in Houghton? Shawhan is used to coaching will over skill, but now he is laden with high-end talent. Swankler will be injected into the lineup after the Christmas break, how will that affect the team’s chemistry? It would be naive to think he won’t be a distraction.

Prediction: First place.The MacNaughton Cup returns to its Houghton birthplace for the first time in nine long years.  

Minnesota State 

The Mike Hastings departure from Mankato was like a queen bee abandoning its hive—chaos reigning in her wake. When new coach Luke Strand finally arrived, he was weeks behind in the off-season coaching chores of talent evaluation and replenishing his roster, one that been gouged of 40 goals due to the hostile convoy to Wisconsin, not to mention the circuit’s best trio of defenders moving on to pro hockey. According to both CCHA polls, the Mankato dynasty is no more.

Yet September arrived and Strand had cobbled together a pretty decent roster, complete with a new player-centric culture. His grasp of the hockey landscape allowed him to plug five holes with NCAA transfers. There are still Frozen Four veterans sprinkled throughout the MSU lineup, impact players like Sam Morton and Lucas Sowder, guys with experience playing under the bright lights. And don’t forget that Minnesota State has a stopper in goal—Keenan Rancier. 

Prediction: Fourth place. For the first time in memory, Minnesota State is being dismissed by fellow coaches in the pre-season poll (6th place!). Armed with chips on their shoulders, Strand’s new-look Mavericks should claw out the final home-ice playoff spot. 

Northern Michigan 

The Ides of March were particularly cruel to Wildcats coach Grant Potulny in 2023. Days after losing the toughest league championship game imaginable, NMU’s prized freshman Joey Larson skipped town, transferring to Michigan State. Of his three league championship defeats, last spring was Potulny’s darkest hour.

October represents a new dawn for the seventh-year coach: new rink dimensions, eye-popping recruits, and can’t miss transfers. Despite his darkening features and grumbling voice, Potulny has justifiable optimism for a banner year in Marquette. Much of it comes from the motivation of his upperclassmen. “There is a hunger with this group that is palpable,” said Potulny.

Among his returnees is the NCAA’s leading active scorer in Andre Ghantous (124 points) and an elite marksman in Muscovite Artem Shlaine (18 goals last two seasons). Will that be enough to catch Upper Peninsula neighbor Michigan Tech? A fabulous pennant race portends.

Prediction: Second place for the Wildcats.

St. Thomas 

On CCHA media day, Michigan Tech coach Joe Shawhan revealed that he was the one that had given St. Thomas its single first-place vote in the CCHA Coaches’ Poll. “I had a feeling it was Joe,” said Tommies coach Rico Blasi. “He says it to me all the time. I’m not sure if he’s playing with me or what.”

Shawhan is dead serious. He picked the Tommies for home ice in the playoffs last year, and struggled mightily before defeating St. Thomas in their quarterfinal series last spring. If anyone wants a real-world definition of hockey “culture” affecting play, tune in to Blasi’s Tommies. Every forward backchecks to the far wall for 60 minutes, they team up on faceoffs, they lay out to block shots. Everyone checks ferociously regardless of size. Ask Sam Morton of Minnesota State who lost most of last season after to Jake Braccini finished his check in Mankato. Braccini is one of eight sophomore Tommies, the dominant class in Blasi’s arsenal.

The kids are bolstered by a half dozen veterans arriving via the transfer portal. Senior Mack Byers will look to break the 20-goal mark this year, having netted 18 last season to lead the squad. Junior goalie Aaron Trotter saw the most shots per game in the CCHA last season; he hopes that total shrinks along with his GAA.

Bottom Line: Blasi has the most decorated resume of any CCHA coach, and now he has the tools to fuel his Tommies’ climb.

Prediction: Third place with a bullet for St. Thomas.

Bowling Green 

In a case of bizarre timing, the projected CCHA co-player of the year was twisting in the breeze of the transfer portal on media day. Austen Swankler, the league’s top returning scorer from last year, detonated a bomb within the Bowling Green hockey community by blowing the whistle on three teammates for a hazing incident before hopping into the portal and trucking home. The result is not only a gaping hole in the BGSU roster, but Ty Eigner, their extremely popular coach, is in limbo pending investigation. It makes forecasting the Falcons finish in the CCHA impossible, at least until the fate of the three unnamed players is revealed.

Prior to the hazing bombshell, there were three serious contenders for league honors at the end of the year (in addition to Swankler): Goalie Christian Stoever, defenseman Ben Wozney and forward Ryan O’Hara, Swankler’s sidekick. Now there are many more questions than answers.

Prediction: Coach Eigner survives this investigation. He has been a model of decency and honesty throughout his 17 years of Falcon bench hockey. Due to the justifiable hyper-sensitivity toward hazing at Bowling Green, it’s unlikely these student-athletes will play this season. 2023-24 has all the markings of a lost season for BGSU hockey.


Augustana debuts in college hockey as a Division I independent for the next two seasons. It will then become and official member of the CCHA in 2025-26. Head coach Garrett Raboin has cobbled together a roster made up primarily of transfers with plenty of Division I game experience. Most notable is goaltender Zack Rose, who played parts of four seasons Bowling Green. If Rose can stay healthy, he will mitigate the Vikings growing pains.

Of the remaining 14 transfers, two have championship experience from this past spring— Arnould Vachon and Anthony Stark of Colgate. Vachon was captain of the Raiders who claimed two victories over eventual national champion Quinnipiac en route to the Whitelaw Cup, handed out to the ECAC tournament victors.

Vachon and Stark are quintessential student athletes, hungry for both graduate degrees as well as hockey success. “They are roommates here on campus,” said Raboin, “connected in this new opportunity as they walk into the unknown. To get two of those guys that have been through it—won a league championship, then to come help us get our start? What a gift.”

How Raboin blends 15 veterans and 11 rookies into cohesion will be a case study that plays out each weekend. The Vikings will play each member of the CCHA twice, initiating rivalries for years to come. 

January 26 is a red-letter date on the Augustana hockey calendar as the Vikings host Ferris State in their brand new 3,000-seat Midco Arena. The sparkling facility will give the Vikings instant credibility in their recruiting battles for years to come.