The 54th Great Lakes Invitational championship was only the second played at Little Caesars Arena. Each of the previous 53 editions of the event was played at the NHL Red Wings former homes, the Olympia and Joe Louis Arena.
Little Caesars was an immense upgrade over the old “Joe,” which had the sentimentality — and the smell — of the dive bars from one’s post-adolescent past. The visiting team locker rooms were reminiscent of public skating warming huts, individual lights were failing on the Jumbotron scoreboard and foam was coming out of the cushioned loge seats.
LCA on the other hand, is one of the world’s great hockey facilities, with a video board second only to the one in AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, and a practice facility adjacent to the locker rooms. Fortunately for all involved, Olympia entertainment brought ace Zamboni driver Al Sabotka and his crack ice maintenance crew over from the Joe. For a college team to win a championship in HockeyTown is now truly the zenith for a player competing for a Holiday crown.
Forty Michigan-born players were listed on team rosters at the 54th GLI, with Michigan State leading the way with 19 players from the “Mitten State.” Lake Superior State assistant Mike York, a downstate product, tried to describe playing in the GLI as a Michigan native from his frame of reference.
“I grew up coming to this tournament as a kid,” York said. “To have a chance to play is an awesome experience, like watching your idols play and then being able to do it.”
One Michigan product who never played in the GLI was former Wolverine Dylan Larkin. The current Red Wing star only played one season for Michigan, and he was in Montreal with Team USA at the World Juniors when his Wolverines won the GLI.
Larkin was seen outside the Michigan locker room on Monday, having just gone through the Red Wings morning skate. The area outside the LCA locker rooms on championship morn resembled New York City’s Grand Central Station. Michigan and Michigan State were heading out to warmups, the Lake Superior and Michigan Tech equipment managers were sharpening skates and drying out gear and because an NHL game followed the GLI, members of the Florida Panthers and Red Wings were strolling by after their morning skate. One didn’t expect to see 39-year-old Roberto Luongo, now in his 20th NHL season, but there he was, ambling by the Michigan State locker room in street clothes, heading off to the Panthers’ team bus.
Michiganders that were half Luongo’s age relished their chance at the big time. Lake State junior Bryan Bassiico (Maycomb, Michigan) delighted friends and family with his first goal of the year, the tournament-winner for the jubilant Lakers.
Michigan Tech’s sophomore goalie Robbie Beydoun (Plymouth, Mich.) was brilliant in the semifinals, staring down a determined Michigan squad throughout regulation, overtime and into the dramatic shootout, collecting his second GLI win in as many seasons.
“Last year was an unbelievable experience as freshmen, it was a lot of nerves. I think there was more people here than last year, the place was electric.”
And the arena was never more charged than when Beydoun stoned Wolverine sniper Will Lockwood on a breakaway late in regulation.
“They were pressing us pretty good,” said Beydoun, who grew up attending this tourney as a pee-wee. “I’m just trying to stay patient, read his stick and track the puck.”
College athletics creates steep highs and extreme lows for its student-athletes, often in rapid succession. Beydoun went from the zenith of the hockey world on Sunday, to the nadir 26 hours later, when he allowed four goals in Tech’s 6-3 loss to Lake Superior State in the GLI championship game.
Tech has now reached the proverbial altar four straight years at the GLI, only to fall short each time. Second-year head coach Joe Shawhan has suffered two of those championship game losses as head coach, two as an assistant.
“You don’t want to keep going through lessons,” said Shawhan in Monday’s aftermath. “You want to get your team to the point where they perform.”
In an anomaly, the 2018 calendar year had two GLI champions, both from the WCHA: Bowling Green (January) and Lake Superior State (December). This is the only time one year has had two champions, meaning that technically, there is no 2017 GLI champion. This past GLI was the first all “Yooper” GLI championship game. Northern Michigan and Lake Superior State had each made one previous final, but both lost to Michigan in the Championship (1992 and 1996, respectively).
The Lake State coaching staff, head coach Whitten and assistants Mike York and Zack Cisek, are all former Michigan State players. They proceeded to ruin the day of Spartan head coach Danton Cole in Sunday’s semifinals.
“I’ve known Yorkie and Damon a long time,” said Cole, who also had a distinguished career as a Spartan player. “They’re doing a good job. Other than beating us, it’s good see them doing well.”
Although Whitten won’t bring it up unless asked, he now has a perfect record in the GLI: 8-0 as a player with the Spartans from 1997-2000 (four GLI titles), and now 2-0 as a head coach. Boston University heroes Jack Parker and Chris Drury carry their undefeated Beanpot records like badges of honor. Whitten is cautious when asked if he is GLI Bulletproof.
“No, you get in trouble that way.”
His assistant York, a Spartie who graduated two years prior to Whitten, was a singular offensive talent in the late 1990s for MSU. He savored the semifinal win over his alma mater.
“Growing up, I loved them,” said York, who attended every GLI he could with his family. “The two teams you want to beat the most is the team you hate and the team you love. Being a Spartan, the team you’re taught to hate is Michigan. Those are the teams you want to beat the most.”
As an LSSU assistant, York has had the satisfaction of knocking off both the Wolverines and the Spartans this season.
The man known as “Yorkie” played over 500 NHL games in his 18-year professional career. So it was a no-brainer as to who should lead the victorious Lakers on their late-night victory tour.
“Yorkie has been taking us all over Detroit,” Whitten said. “Some of his NHL stomping grounds. He was at all these NHL cities a lot more than I was, so that’s Yorkie’s job.”
2018 (December version) GLI All-Tournament Team
- G Nick Kossoff LSSU
- D Collin Saccoman LSSU
- D Dennis Cesana MSU
- F Jake Lucchini Michigan Tech
- F Luke Morgan Michigan
- F Diego Cuglietta (MVP) LSSU
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached @TeeRaps.