With the lone exception of Boston’s Beanpot Tournament, the Great Lakes Invitational is the premier annual college hockey tournament in the land. And thought the Beanpot might have been around a decade longer, its teams simply can’t touch the historical hockey resumes on this year’s GLI quartet. Eighteen national championship banners have been hoisted collectively by the four schools: Michigan Tech (3), Lake Superior (3), Michigan State (3), and University of Michigan (9), an embarrassment of riches.
Tech is the tourney’s original host of the Mitten’s State’s sporting treasure, played over New Year’s in the heart HockeyTown since 1965. Last year Bowling Green wrested the championship trophy out of state, carting it an hour south into Ohio. It was the first non-Michigan team to win the GLI since Colorado College in 2005, and it had the family of Falcon hockey bursting with puck pride.
“I was certainly very happy for the school,” said current Vegas Golden Knights GM George McPhee. “Winning the Great Lakes Invitational is fantastic. I’m sure everyone has their sights set on winning a national championship isn’t out of the question.”
One might pardon McPhee’s bias toward his alma mater, but seeing your boys hoisting the hardware at Little Caesar’s Arena can certainly stir the blood. Michigan Tech coach Joe Shawhan had his team playing the best of all four of this year’s entries in November, but they hit a rough patch, playing sub .500 hockey their last four games.
“We don’t want a month ago to be our peak,” said Shawhan on his latest radio show. “Hopefully the break will give us a yearning to get back.”
Tech will return to formal practice on December 27, two days later than their semifinal opponent Michigan. Shawhan thinks his Huskies will be amped to play under the hot lights of HockeyTown.
“We’re really looking forward to the GLI again this year,” said Shawhan. “It’s always a highlight of our season. Our fans and alumni do a great job of supporting us wherever we go, but it’s especially strong at the GLI. It always feels like home.”
The hockey zanies from Houghton, led by their band with its black and gold clown stripes, give the tourney an unmistakable flavor.
While Tech and Michigan play the GLI every year, Lake Superior will be crashing this affair for only the third time in its storied history. They will be matched against Michigan State in their semifinal, a school the Lakers’ coaching staff knows inside and out.
“We’ll prepare for Michigan State, it’s a program we know well as a staff, because we all attended there,” said Damon Whitten, whose playing career with the Sparties was marked by an astounding four straight GLI titles. “I’m a Michigan native [Brighton], I grew attending back at Joe Louis Arena, great memories with my family watching college hockey, guys I grew up idolizing, guys I wanted to be like. Some of my best memories center around the Great Lakes Invitational.”
And putting nostalgia aside, Whitten knows success at the GLI will have instant benefits to his program.
“For us coming down, in state, having a presence in metro Detroit, very fertile recruiting ground, we want to take advantage of that as well,” said Whitten. “Our Michigan natives, they get it. We’re in an NHL venue, great competition, and some storied programs, including our own, so we’re excited to be part of it.”
The Lakers’ veteran defenseman Steve Ruggiero, a Long Island native who spent a year in lower Michigan with the NTDP, knows that it doesn’t pay simply to be "happy to be here," even if it is only the third GLI appearance ever for his school.
“As much as we’re grateful to be in the game, we mean business, and our goal is to win. We don’t look at it as, ‘Aww, we’re playing Michigan State.’ It’s a hockey game, we belong here and we’re going to compete. That’s our focus, no question.”
Simple probability says that it is likely that at least one WCHA team will be in the championship game on New Year’s Eve day. For a fledgling league that has yet to participate in the Frozen Four, a chance of the WCHA going back-to-back in the grandest college tourney of the holiday season is a very big deal, indeed.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached @TeeRaps.