When it comes to the Great Lakes Invitational, college hockey’s most heralded holiday tournament, these are the good old days for the revamped WCHA. Just after dinner time Sunday evening, when Lake State’s Diego Cuglietta buried Michigan State with an overtime thriller to advance to the championship game, WCHA commissioner Bill Robertson realized that his league, still searching for a new identity, was guaranteed to have back-to-back GLI champions.
Michigan Tech had outlasted the Wolverines of Michigan in a semifinal shootout in the opener, which made the 54th-annual GLI Championship an all-WCHA New Year’s Eve party at palatial Little Caesars Arena. Since Bowling Green won the title a year ago, a WCHA team would be winning consecutive GLI’s regardless of the championship game outcome. From the commissioner’s point of view, the 2018 GLI title game was being played with house money.
“Having two WCHA institutions go head-to-head in Detroit brought a huge smile of satisfaction,” said Robertson. “Lake Superior State and Michigan Tech playing for the 2018 Championship did make my New Year’s Eve, and outlook for the future of the WCHA, very bright.”
Lake State and Michigan Tech both advanced to the championship game at the expense of “brand name” Big Ten schools, Michigan and Michigan State, programs that play in the home of the NHL Red Wings multiple times a year. For Lake Superior, it was the team’s first trip down to the GLI since 1999, a tourney it had never won in three prior trips. That all changed when the Lakers downed a determined Husky squad 6-3 Monday evening.
“It’s hard to do something for the first time at Lake State,” said fifth-year head coach Damon Whitten, who faces the daunting task of returning the Lakers to past glory. “We’ve got five national championships [3 NCAA, 2 NAIA], tremendous alumni history and tradition, but this is our first Great Lakes Invitational Championship. I can’t express how proud I am of these guys.”
Despite significantly outplaying and outshooting both their semifinal (Michigan State) and championship game opponents by wide margins, the Lakers overcame serious adversity en route to the title. Trouble started at the opening bell, when the Lakers found themselves in a 2-0 hole before thirsty patrons had consumed their first holiday cheer. Lakers’ goalie Nick Kossoff’s head was spinning after coughing up his second goal in just over 10 minutes.
“I was pretty jittery that first period, excited to be part of this,” said Kossoff, who righted himself from that point on, earning All-Tourney honors. “These guys picked me up with a few goals.”
No one bagged more goals than Laker captain Diego Cuglietta, who buried four in two games. And none were bigger than his overtime thriller versus State, a roof job from the top of the crease off a brilliant dish from freshman defenseman Jacob Nordqvist. “It was a great play by Nords,” said Cuglietta, the tourney MVP who played with a smile all weekend. “I just kind of blacked out there, I wasn’t sure if it went in originally, I saw everyone start raising their hands…it was a blast.”
Cuglietta is one of four Lake State seniors, all impact players from Whitten’s original recruiting class, who kept the Lakers from falling off course in down in the Big D. Unlike some of the “brand name” schools in the GLI, no player has been using LSSU as a one-and-done stepping stone to the NHL. Four-year contributors like Cuglietta and Kossoff have thrust the 11-6-1 Lakers into WCHA contention, and flirting with the national rankings once again.
“This senior class, they’re different,” Whitten said. “They’ve been through a lot. They were impact guys from day one. As freshmen they played against the best players in the country. We took our lumps early on, but now we’re showing what that is.”
This was Whitten’s first win against Tech in 15 tries, a string of futility going on five years. These Lakers are clearly looking forward, not back, intending to savor their historic championship before slogging north to Alaska.
“We’re down here for a day or two, we’re not going back to campus,” said Whitten, who drove his troops through two-a-days after Christmas in preparation for the GLI. “You do things hard, prepare hard, and when you get to enjoy those things, you do that hard as well. We’re going to find a way to enjoy the Motor City here tonight.”
Hopefully, the GLI trophy won’t be too badly dinged up, as the latest WCHA champion gets its turn to party like the big boys.
Author Tim Rappleye just released his latest book: Hobey Baker, Upon Further Review (Mission Point Press, 2018). He can be reached @TeeRaps.