Watching warmups last Friday at the packed Mankato Civic Center, a hockey author was struck by the skill and star power of two supreme defenders for the respective combatants: Bowling Green senior Alec Rauhauser and Minnesota State junior Connor Mackey.
The two are emblematic of a league filled with elite veteran defensemen, guys who have stuck around for three and four years, who have threatened the rare 100-point plateau, who wear the “C” on their sweater, and who have forced the pro scouts to sit up and take notice. Between them, these two singular stars represented all those criteria.
Rauhauser is built like a middle linebacker (6-foot-3, 233 pounds) but has the hands of a quarterback; he’s a power-play specialist who dominates games from the blue line in. Minnesota State’s freshman scoring star Lucas Sowder had never been forced to cover a player like Rauhauser during his junior days, and it showed. The Bowling Green captain undressed the raw rookie twice in less than eight minutes, resulting in two goals that keyed the Falcons’ comeback Friday night.
Mavericks coach Mike Hastings tipped his cap to Rauhauser, who never broke a sweat while toying with the Minnesota State defenders: “He’s about as patient as a defenseman is.”
Hastings has his own blue-line star, in 6-2 speedster Connor Mackey, a player most experts believe would be a top-six NHL defenseman today had he not returned to college this fall.
“He checks a lot of boxes,” said a highly-placed NHL scout, who acknowledged that Mackey is primed for The Show. “He can skate and make plays with the puck, has size — a two-way defensive defenseman.”
Mackey’s ability to slice through college defenses was evident on this lightning strike Saturday.
🎥 Check out Connor Mackey's goal that opened up the scoring for the night. 😈 pic.twitter.com/Wch45yKdHK— Minnesota State Hockey (@MavHockey) November 2, 2019
One Minnesota hockey lifer was convinced that Rauhauser, not Mackey, was the best player of the Mankato series. He racked up two goals and added a sensational assist to bring his career point-scoring total to 97. The following Monday, Rauhauser was named the WCHA’s Defenseman of the Month.
Hockey fans in Marquette aren’t that impressed. Northern Michigan has the most honored defenseman of any D currently skating in the WCHA: former All-American and two-time All-WCHA defenseman Phil Beaulieu. He’s already reached the career 100-point mark.
“I’m very happy with that accomplishment,” Beaulieu said about scaling the 100-point peak. “I’m up there with some pretty cool names in Northern history. I was fortunate to play with some really good players like [Adam] Rockwood and [Troy] Loggins. If anything, it just keeps me motivated.”
The senior captain carries the mail for a potent Wildcats power play (23.1 percent), and is a rock-steady defender who has perfected the outlet pass. But against Ferris State in October, it was the Bulldogs’ captain defenseman who stole headlines from Beaulieu, as Nate Kallen scored a pair of first-period goals to open the series. He flew down the right wing, dropped a pair of subtle feints, and then drove two pucks into the back of the net. Goal-scoring is the most difficult feat in college hockey, but Kallen made it look like child’s play.
“Nate Kallen has developed into one of the elite defensemen in college hockey,” said Ferris coach Bob Daniels. “He has the unique ability to create offense while being a great defender. The complete package.”
Daniels’ argument was solidified when Kallen was named WCHA’s Defenseman of the Week for his three-goal effort against Northern. But the following week, Kallen was outplayed by yet another WCHA blue-line captain, Collin Saccoman of Lake Superior State. The 6-2 senior leads all WCHA defenseman with six goals, a good bet to top his career high of 10 from a year ago. Laker bench boss Damon Whitten couldn’t wait to shout the praises of his stud defender.
“Beyond his production on the ice, Collin is one of those guys that makes us better each day due to his lifestyle and practice habits,” Whitten said. “His intelligence, commitment, and compete level elevates our locker room on a daily basis. It's great to see his patience and perseverance paying off, garnering a lot of interest from NHL teams.”
There is yet another WCHA senior defenseman who’s often overlooked because he plays five time zones away. Tomi Hiekkavirta hails from hockey-mad Helsinki, but skillfully plies his craft on the Anchorage blue line. While Kallen and Beaulieu were wowing fans in Big Rapids, Hiekkavirta was seizing control of a crucial WCHA showdown with blood-rival Fairbanks. Locked in a scoreless tie in Anchorage, Hiekkavirta dished out three consecutive assists in the second period, each helper tastier than the last, powering the Wolves to a clutch 4-0 win.
It’s as if there is no end to the list of supremely talented blue-liners in the WCHA, for which there is a logical reason. Unlike higher-profile conferences like Hockey East and the Big Ten, the WCHA is rarely victimized by “one-and-done” freshmen who bolt the NCAA before reaching their peak. Defense is a position that requires multiple seasons to master. Guys like Kallen, Saccoman, Beaulieu, and Rauhauser all paid dues for three years before wearing the “C” for their respective schools. Minnesota State’s Mackey ignored an NHL pot of gold this fall, opting for one more year to develop under Hastings. He will doubtless become a better pro because of it.
As the WCHA season turns the corner into conference play, every weekend provides matchups featuring regal leaders on both blue lines. They are all worth the price of admission.
Tim Rappleye is the author of Jack Parker's Wiseguys: The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice. He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.