Hockey is the lifeblood of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and Michigan Tech head coach Joe Shawhan is king of Yooper puck. A goaltender raised in the American Sault, Shawhan has spent more than two decades coaching each of the three Division I schools on the Peninsula: 13 years at Lake Superior State, three at Northern Michigan, and five at Michigan Tech—the last two his first seasons as a Division I head coach.
In the midst of his career as a college assistant, Shawhan wedged in a full decade as coach and GM of his hometown junior club the Soo Indians, the same organization that prepped him for his playing scholarship to Lake Superior State. Always loquacious, Shawhan was temporarily halted by one question—Where will he spread his ashes?
“Ahh… That’s a good question about spreading ashes,” Shawhan said from his office, and he pondered. “I’m obviously a big fan of the Upper Peninsula, I’ve spent most of my life in it.” He and his wife Laura have embraced each of their three hometowns. “We’ve now covered the whole U.P. in Division I, and every time it’s gotten a little bit better.”
Shawhan knows and appreciates the rugged makeup of the U.P.’s citizenry. “This is a hard-working community,” he said, and then pointed to his current home in Houghton. “You see it when you ride around, how well it’s kept up, the downtown is vibrant, they’re happy not having big-market stores around here. Some people say, ‘I could never go there,’ I think the community here has the feeling, ‘That’s good. That’s the way we want it.’”
It’s no coincidence that Shawhan has named a Houghton product, Raymond Brice, as captain of the 2019-20 Huskies. Brice is not an elite goal scorer, but he has those rugged intangibles, a mold that has made local players a fixture on the Husky roster over the years.
“So, Ray fits it. Devin Kero fit it. Tanner Kero fits it. The locals in the hockey school fit it,” Shawhan said of his player ideal: tough and team-first. “There’s a lower degree of entitlement from the people here than you see in a lot of places. That’s what I love about it. As long as we can keep recruiting guys from here that can play, like the guys we’ve had, we’re going to try and keep every guy that we can right here on home turf.”
Shawhan demonstrated that same Yooper determination his first two years as an assistant with Tech: he commuted 200 miles daily from his old home in Marquette to his new job in Houghton in order to keep from uprooting his kids out of school.
Shawan’s rugged individualism occasionally smacks into harsh realities that demand compromise, something the 56-year-old coach stubbornly resists. A case in point came up this offseason with rising senior Gavin Gould. Like every other school in DI hockey, Tech needs more goal scoring. Yet Shawhan allowed Gould, a soft-mitted sniper with 33 career goals, to transfer over to league rival Bowling Green without protest.
“That was fine with us,” Shawhan said. “In fairness to him, his heart has to be there. In fairness to us, his heart had to be here. He’s certainly a very good hockey player, maybe our most talented. But it’s a team that wins. The people who want to be here, that want to be part of the Michigan Tech culture, the Copper Country mentality, those are the people we want here.”
It’s impossible to imagine Shawhan living in any environment other than the southern shores of Lake Superior. He spent several minutes in his office describing the virtues of all his professional homes: Sault Ste. Marie, Marquette, and Houghton. He is sincere and passionate about the virtues of all those ports of call. When pressed once again as to which one of these bedrock cities would be the ideal spot to spread his ashes, he was flummoxed. His solution was a rare compromise.
“Drive across and drop them a little everywhere.”