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Despite a pair of tasty head-to-head matchups between teams vying for critical playoff positions, a historic international game in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, will steal the headlines in this weekend’s WCHA slate of games.
First, a hockey geography refresher: there are two hockey “Soo’s,” a Canadian and an American version, on the north and south sides of the confluence of Lake Superior and Lake Huron, right on the northeast tip of Michigan. The American Soo features three-time NCAA champion Lake Superior State. Three miles north is Sault Ste. Marie, Canada, home of three-time Ontario Hockey League champion Soo Greyhounds. American college hockey and Canadian major junior operate at the highest levels only a short drive away, yet they’ve never intersected.
Thanks to heady marketing by Lake Superior State, and the fact that Canadian Soo legend Phil Esposito’s grandson Niko plays for Lake State, the Lakers will host Saturday’s game against Alabama-Huntsville north of the border in the home of the Soo Greyhounds — only the second official NCAA game ever played in Canada. For college hockey advocates like Mike Snee of College Hockey, Inc., getting the game played up in Canada is a huge win.
“Anything that takes the game to a bunch of new fans, new sets of eyeballs, is good for us,” said Snee from Southern California, where he is speaking to teenage players about the benefits of college hockey.
Players’ ages and sporting politics prevent major junior and college hockey from competing on the ice, but when it comes to recruiting NHL prospects, they engage in bloodsport. Elite 16-year-olds in North America must choose between Canadian major junior, generally considered the fast track to the NHL, and NCAA hockey, an opportunity for late-bloomers who can also enjoy the security of a college degree.
Snee declined to campaign about the benefits of NCAA puck, knowing that having college hockey played in a junior hockey stronghold will speak volumes.
“A fan, who hasn’t seen [college hockey] before, and watches a lot more junior hockey, is going to be seeing an older, more mature player,” said Snee, noting that the average age of a college hockey player is about four years older than major junior.
Its geopolitical backstory makes Saturday night’s tilt between the league’s two loss-leaders the most significant game of the WCHA’s regular season.
Jockeying for Position
WCHA schedule-makers, who cobble together over 100 matchups during the offseason, can’t possibly predict how the dice will come up when the February sprint arrives. This Valentine’s weekend the roll is a pair of sevens thanks to a couple of matchups, games that will have fans rushing through their romantic dinners to get in front of a screen.
The marquee feature is second-place Bemidji traveling to third-place Northern Michigan. A sweep by either side should determine home ice in the projected WCHA semifinals between these same league powers. The Game-Inside-the-Game features the country’s leading goal scorer, NMU’s Griffin Loughran (21 snipes), trying to solve the WCHA’s hottest goalie of the New Year, Bemidji’s Zach Driscoll (.932 save pct).
The Beaver juggernaut has suffered only one loss at home this season, but now they face a crucial road test, knowing they have played below .500 hockey away from the Sanford center. It is a reality check for two teams that both need to get to the WCHA championship game to keep their NCAA tournament dreams afloat.
As soon as the buzzer sounds in NMU’s Berry Center, fans can take in another matchup with major implications. The Alaska Nanooks are hosting Bowling Green on Alaska Standard time, four hours later than Marquette. Just enough time to enjoy the Valentine’s leftovers before tucking into a true hockey fans’ dessert — Bowling Green-Alaska, a clash likely to determine the WCHA’s final home-ice playoff spot.
Having shaken their January hangover (1-5-1) with a dramatic home sweep of Alaska Anchorage, the BGSU Falcons commute to the northernmost outpost in college hockey. Last season’s WCHA runner-ups are attempting to get back into the WCHA’s elite four. Having played two fewer games, they trail fourth-place Fairbanks by the exact amount of points the series is worth — six the hard way.
Although the Falcons are traveling 4,000 miles and will be playing on an ice surface significantly bigger than their home rink, it would be folly to dismiss their chances. They are embracing their new role coming from the WCHA’s bottom five: hunters instead of the hunted. The Falcons are loaded with veteran talent, upperclassmen who power the most productive power play in the country (36 goals). BGSU coach Ty Eigner credits assistant Maco Balkovec with drawing up the plans each week for two power-play units, skill players with the deadly combination of desperation and confidence.
WCHA fans in the Eastern time zone shouldn’t expect to get to bed until after 1 AM both Friday and Saturday nights. They better hope their Valentines love hockey.
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.