2023 St. Thomas (MN) vs Ferris State - Men's

CCHA RinkRap: St. Thomas Trio Displaying Unreal Chemistry

CCHA RinkRap: St. Thomas Trio Displaying Unreal Chemistry

Before Saturday's meeting between Ferris State and St. Thomas, Ferris coach Bob Daniels shared his concerns about the game. He was right to be concerned.

Dec 4, 2023 by Tim Rappleye
CCHA RinkRap: St. Thomas Trio Displaying Unreal Chemistry

An hour before the puck dropped Saturday night between Ferris State and St. Thomas, Ferris coach Bob Daniels sat in his windowless bunker at Ewigleben Arena, sharing his concerns about the forthcoming game. 

“They are going to come out on fire,” said Daniels, whose Bulldogs had embarrassed the Tommies the night before. “If we can just hold on for the first 10 minutes . . .” 

It turned out to be an impossible ask.

A trio of Tommies decimated the Bulldogs with five goals and 13 points in a 7-1 victory, an offensive assault that began a minute into the game. 

The all-Minnesota line of center Mack Byers (3-1-4), distributor Ryan O’Neill (1-4-5) and captain Lucas Wahlin (1-3-4) tore any hope of a Bulldog sweep to shreds. 

Their offensive explosion is the culmination of spending two seasons together. 

“It doesn’t surprise me – they were a top line a year ago,” said Tommies coach Rico Blasi in his postgame interview. “They did the little things right and got rewarded.” 

Minutes after the offensive onslaught, senior Mack Byers was giddy in his own postgame comments. 

“This was my first college [hat trick] – my last one was four years ago in juniors,” Byers said. 

The center then attempted to describe the chemical blend of talents that combusted Saturday. 

“It’s learning each other’s habits, and you just pick up on guys’ tendencies,” said Byers, the tallest and oldest (24) of the threesome. “Ryan’s the playmaker. He’s going to look pass, so you’ve gotta make sure you’re ready. Wahlin has the speed, so he’s probably going to drive wide and take it to the net.”

O’Neill weighed in after the performance, too.

“We’re just three different players,” said O’Neill, 5-foot-10 and a stocky 175 pounds. “Wahls is speed, Mack crashes and buries, and I just try and give it to them.” 

The term “chemistry” has become a hockey cliché, but theirs was on full display Saturday on consecutive power plays. 

On the first, O’Neill had the puck on the half wall and slid it down to Wahlin at the goal line. Wahlin then drove to the pipes and jammed home the goal. 

On the ensuing power play, the identical scenario took place, and Ferris swarmed Wahlin at the goal mouth. This time, he fed the puck across the seam to a wide-open Byers, who drove a one-timer into the back of the net. 

In a single weekend this troika has transformed the St. Thomas power play into the hottest unit in the nation: five goals in 10 opportunities.

“Tonight, they were feeling it,” said Blasi, who is very careful doling out praise, but he can’t help himself when it comes to Wahlin, his sophomore captain. “He’s got a lot of respect. He’s exactly how we want to play to our identity, and he does it every day. That’s why he’s got the “C” on his jersey.”

Though Wahlin has never worn a letter on his sweater, he appears to have found his calling. 

“Coaches and scouts always say, ‘Be a leader, whether you’re wearing a letter or not,’ and that’s what I’ve lived, my model,” said Wahlin, whose neck displays a scar that looks like he brawled with a brown bear. 

At 22 years old, he has become ‘The Man’ in the Tommies’ hearts and minds.

“We follow him into battle every single night,” Byers said. “He plays with emotion, and that’s what we need.”

Stitching a “C” onto the jersey of a sophomore who never even captained a pee-wee team is just another example of the weird science being conducted by a graying hockey professor who has set up shop in St. Paul. 

Few could have guessed that this experiment – injecting Minnesota-bred talent into a Division III program – would bear such fruit so rapidly. 

Barely two years into this trial, the Tommies are atop the CCHA standings.

Loose Biscuits

“Manster” Serving Major Penalty Minutes

The moniker “Manster” is becoming all too real for Ferris strongman Antonio Venuto. His prodigious goal scoring – 11 goals in 14 games, including five in his last four – is being overshadowed by a rash of penalty minutes. 

Venuto earned major, and game, misconduct in both games this weekend – 30 minutes in penalties. 

Jake Braccini was the recipient of a flagrant elbow Saturday, one that left him visibly woozy and sent Venuto to the showers. 

The morning of the series opener, the 6-foot-3 wingman described his penchant for occupying the top of the crease, known in some circles as bloody-nose alley. 

“Not a lot of people like to go the dirty areas, so thats where I camp out,” Venuto said. “As a younger kid, I was always bigger. I know that’s where a lot of goals are scored.” 

It was at the half wall where Venuto’s elbow connected with Braccini’s chin, hockey’s answer to a mob hit, an act Rico Blasi refused to comment on in the postgame interviews. 

Venuto resembles the NHL power forwards of the 1990s, first-team all-stars Keith Tkachuk, Kevin Stevens and Brendan Shanahan – 50-goal/200 penalty minute guys. 

If Venuto doesn’t clean up his act, pro scouts will start filling the upper reaches of Ewigleben Arena.

Michigan Tech Standout Makes Noteworthy Appearance

It wasn’t exactly Willis Reed coming out of the training room and leading the Knicks to the NBA championship, but it woke up the echoes Saturday night in Houghton. 

At the bottom of the Michigan Tech line chart, it noted that Huskies senior Arvid Caderoth was a last-minute addition to the Huskies roster in their latest must-win game against Bowling Green. 

Going on the air, the Tech broadcasters still were not sure of Caderoth’s status, until the big Swede appeared at the goal line in time for introductions. 

Though the scoresheet didn’t reflect any heroics like Reed, the scoreboard did. 

Michigan Tech lost to Bowling Green without Caderoth Friday and won with him in uniform Saturday. 

“He’s the heartbeat of our team,” said coach Joe Shawhan of his 6-foot-5 captain.

St. Thomas Goalies Also Garnering Attention

The status of St. Thomas goalies Jake Sibell and Aaron Trotter swings between No. 1 or No. 1A, depending on coach Blasi’s assessment of their respective practice sessions. 

In an historic anomaly, Sibell and Trotter each have won a CCHA Goalie of the Month award, a first in the new CCHA. 

Trotter’s stats, however, are superior to any No. 1 in the land. He leads the nation in save percentage (.936) and is second in goals against average (1.75), 1/100th of a point behind Kyle McClellan of Wisconsin. 

“I don’t really expect to be that high,” said Sibell of his glossy numbers. “You really want to, working for it every day.” 

Blasi’s favorite stat – by far – is the win-loss column. 

Does he care about Sibell’s other-worldly statistics? 

“No, not one bit,” said the stone-faced Blasi.

Lake State's Westcott Wins Prestigious Award

A CCHA player, Jared Westcott of Lake Sate, was named the prestigious Hockey Commissioners Award as co-player of the month for November. 

Every player in the country was assessed, and a Lake State Laker got the nod. 

Westcott won it for his prolific scoring for the month (7-7-14 in eight games), a very big deal for the school and the conference. 

When Wescott jumps onto the ice, he prefers the deep end of the pool. 

“I feel most comfortable down on the goal line, I like being around the net,” Wesctott said. “I find it easy to get lost and pick up the trash between their feet.” 

His days of anonymity are over, however, as every team facing Lake State these days spends a week staring at the enemy’s No. 15 scrawled on the locker room whiteboard. 

December has not been kind to the national player of November. 

On Friday, Westcott had the game on his stick on two occasions in the Lakers tie with Minnesota State – a third-period breakaway and an overtime shootout attempt. Both failed. 

It can be maddening for goal scorers when they discover themselves in a slump, because no one knows the cure. 

Ask Stepan Pokorny of Ferris State and Kyle Kukkonen of Michigan Tech. The two bona fide snipers have tallied but one goal between them in 31 combined games this season.    

Final Note

The three Division I teams in Michigan’s rugged Upper Peninsula found themselves in overtime within minutes of each other Friday night. 

In rapid succession, Michigan Tech (OT), Lake State (shootout) and Northern Michigan (shootout) all fell like the many tall pines that surround the three schools.