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2011-03-28

Friday, December 19, 2014

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Trading one 'M' for another: Investigating an unwritten chapter in the history of Michigan hockey

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 21, 2011

TORONTO — A musty smell permeates the home locker room in the “Barn on Bathurst Street,” the result of housing a junior-level hockey team for more than a half-century.

The first thing you notice is the last thing you’d expect.

In the center of the locker room at St. Michael's College School Arena lies a dark blue block ‘M.’ Seven feet above it and just beneath the low-lying ceiling, a pair of white L-shaped heating ducts converge in the center of the room. On both sides of the duct, names are scrawled in precise, capitalized black lettering.

Beside each name, a system tracks each player’s progress: one dot if drafted, three for playing in the NHL. Each name is followed by the university that the player attended.

Here, in the heart of hockey country, lies a true anomaly.

At St. Michael’s College School, a program renown for producing nearly 200 NHLers and 14 Hall of Famers, the names most prominent in the locker room are college players — those who spurned the money of professional hockey for an education.

For Canadian players, going to the OHL is the rule. St. Mike’s is the exception.

“They’ve always been known for sending people to college,” Michigan senior and 2007 St. Mike’s graduate Louie Caporusso said. “They take a lot of pride in that. I feel like people get a lot more respect in Toronto for going to St. Mike’s rather than the (OHL).”

And no program has benefited from St. Mike’s unique dedication to college hockey more than the Michigan hockey program. Six All-Americans and more than 25 players have made the trek from Toronto to Ann Arbor in the last 60 years.

The duct in the locker room at St. Mike's isn't just a heating vent — it’s an idyllic representation of the unwritten pipeline binding two hockey mainstays: St. Mike’s and Michigan.

Just around the corner in the St. Mike's locker room, a plaque sits at eye-level on the wall.

It’s the only plaque in the room dedicated to a single player. It’s for the son of St. Mike’s — the one who did it right.

That son is Andrew Cogliano.

Cogliano, a Toronto native, came to St. Mike’s in seventh grade and played for every possible St. Mike’s-affiliated team from the under-14 team to the Double Blues high school team to the Buzzers, an Ontario Provincial Junior ‘A’ team, until he left to become a Wolverine in 2005.

The plaque remembers him, and so does the duct. The plaque shows Cogliano at center ice at the “Barn on Bathurst Street,” and details the accomplishments of his last year as a Buzzer.

66 assists (St. Mike’s record)
102 points (St. Mike’s record)
6 — 3-goal games
1 — 4-goal game

But Cogliano is the program’s poster-child not because of these accomplishments, but what he did after St. Mike’s.

Though everyone in the land knew Cogliano would end up in the NHL — where he is today, as a fifth-year player for the Edmonton Oilers — he didn’t take the fast track.

He traded his light blue St. Mike's No. 7 sweater for No. 9 as a Wolverine, and never regretted it.

“Michigan was kind of the one team that I grew up watching,” Cogliano said Thursday. “The idea of going to college and playing there and going to school, it seemed like the right place to be.”

Cogliano was drafted 25th overall by Edmonton in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, but he made his way to Ann Arbor anyway.

“It gave me a chance to develop,” Cogliano said. “I didn’t rush in juniors or in college; I took my time. Playing for both schools got me ready in the sense of making me mature, growing up as a man and be ready for the professional life and the life of an NHL hockey player.”

Under Michigan coach Red Berenson’s watchful eye, Cogliano flourished at Michigan, earning more than a point per game in his two seasons. After his sophomore year, Cogliano punched his ticket to Edmonton.

But Berenson has no issue with Cogliano leaving after two years; he puts Cogliano in the same class as Jack Johnson — players who are just too good for college hockey.

Underneath the plaque hanging in the home locker room in Toronto, a nameplate reads: Andrew Cogliano, ‘Forever Double Blue.’

St. Mike’s blue, Michigan blue. Cogliano is the only current NHLer headlining the double-blue pipeline.

Louie Caporusso tried desperately to calm his nerves as he glanced around the locker room.

As he strapped on his pads before tryouts for the St. Mike’s under-14 hockey team, the Woodbridge, Ont. native took it all in for the first time. He saw the layers of blue, light blue and white horizontal stripes on the wall. He saw the ‘M’ before him. And he gawked at the names on the duct.

That was motivation enough.

“I was so nervous, it was one of the most nerve-wrecking things I’ve ever done,” Caporusso said. “I actually played really well in the tryout. I scored a hat trick, gave it my all, and ended up making the team. I was ecstatic to join that team, to wear that St. Mike’s jersey on the ice.

“It was one of the best moments of my life.”

Hall of Famers Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, Gerry Cheevers and Frank Mahovlich all donned St. Mike's jerseys. So did Tim Horton. Yes, that Tim Horton.

As a 10th-year student, Caporusso joined the Buzzers, where he enjoyed instant success, tallying 73 points in 48 games to set the Buzzers’ record for points by a rookie.

The next season he led the team in scoring again, but this time he had some decisions to make.

Nearly every player coming through the St. Mike’s ranks faces a monumental choice: stay with the non-salary Buzzers or join the St. Michael’s Majors of the OHL — often seen as a fast track to the NHL.

Caporusso and defenseman Brandon Burlon — teammates then and now — were both drafted by the Majors but chose to keep their academic eligibility by staying at the Junior ‘A’ level.

“I couldn’t resist Michigan, and there was nothing that was going to change my mind,” Caporusso said. “My heart was here in Ann Arbor. (Majors coach Bud Stefanski) could say anything he wanted — I had a very stubborn attachment to Michigan.”

Four years after lacing up his skates for the first time in the Buzzers’ locker room, Caporusso glanced up again, looking at the section on the duct awaiting his name, tracking his future.

“Those ducts are famous,” Caporusso said two weeks ago, smiling at the sight of a single dot next to his name. “That was my goal, to get on there.

“Ever since I was a kid, my dad told me, ‘You’re going to go to St. Mike’s.’ It was like a dream come true to go to St. Mike’s. And once I got there, I watched a game here (at Yost Ice Arena) and realized it’d be a dream come true if I could play at Michigan.”

The young Canadian lifted his head with a grin.

“You could sorta say I’m living out my dream.”

Bob Watt released his grip on the doorknob. After stepping out of chief scout Bob Davidson’s office, Watt closed the door on a dream — a professional contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It was 1952, and the captain of the Majors already knew he’d just made the most ludicrous decision of his life.

All he knew was the Maple Leafs. At the time, St. Mike's was a feeder program for Toronto, who held the rights of every player coming out of St. Mike's. Every Majors' home game and 7 a.m. practice was held at the 14,000-plus seat Maple Leaf Gardens.

The Maple Leafs organization, having paid for his four years of education at St. Mike’s, was left empty-handed. But Watt thought he’d made the right choice.

His St. Mike’s teammate, Dick Duff, had signed with Toronto a year prior, accepting a handsome sum to turn pro with the Maple Leafs.

“When (Duff) turned pro, I knew how much he got for signing — and it was enough to buy a Chevrolet,” Watt said with a laugh.

But Toronto was offering Watt a quarter of what they doled out to Duff. Never mind that Duff would later become a Hall of Famer, Watt felt he’d gotten a raw deal.

“(Davidson) told me, ‘That’s what we’re going to offer you,’ and I told him I was going to school,” Watt said. “My dad had an eighth-grade education, and he always wanted me to go to college.”

With an offer from North Dakota in hand, Watt set out in his 1949 Chevrolet Coupe to visit. But before he left, he fielded a call from Michigan coach Vic Heyliger, who convinced him to drop by Ann Arbor on his way out West.

At Michigan, Watt met then-senior Neil Buchanan. Once they struck up conversation, the two quickly found common ground.

Buchanan had graduated from St. Mike’s just four years earlier. And with his brother Mike Buchanan, goaltender Lorne Howes and defenseman Bob Schiller, the quartet had blazed the trail from St. Mike’s to Michigan, comprising nearly a third of the Michigan roster. They combined for five All-American seasons.

Standing on Hill Street in front of the Coliseum, and beside a troupe of fellow Canucks, Watt knew Ann Arbor already felt like home.

But Watt had made a commitment to North Dakota, and he wanted to honor that obligation. He drove through the night and arrived in Grand Forks at six the following morning.

“At nine o’clock I turned around and said, ‘There is no way, this is so far from home,’ ” Watt said. “So I told the coach, ‘I can’t do this. They offered me a chance to go to Michigan, I’m going to go to Michigan.’ ”

That coach was Al Renfrew. Just months later, Renfrew replaced Heyliger at the helm of the Wolverines — and Watt, Renfrew's former North Dakota recruit, was the first to greet him.

“I met him at the door, and said, ‘Coach, how are you? I’m supposed to be in North Dakota, aren’t you too?’ ”

Michigan — having earned six championship banners in the NCAA Tournament’s first nine years of existence — was the place to be.

And the Bathurst Brigade fueled the nation’s hockey powerhouse.

Four years later, Watt finished with his own All-American honors. Two hundred fifty miles away from Davidson’s office, Watt finally knew he’d made the right choice.

And just before he left Ann Arbor, Watt agreed to show another recruit around campus. The young defenseman’s name was Tom Polanic — St. Mike’s must-have recruit at the time.

Former St. Mike’s players giving St. Mike’s recruits tours around the Michigan campus — Renfrew had discovered how to keep the pipeline alive.

When Red Berenson took over as coach of Michigan before the 1984 season, he inherited a program that had captured only one NCAA Tournament bid since winning its last title exactly two decades earlier.

Since the “decade of dominance,” the Michigan hockey team lacked its usual luster. What’s more, the Wolverines hadn’t skated a product of St. Mike’s since Polonic and three others played on the 1964 championship team.

Berenson understood the importance of bringing Canadian talent back to Michigan and unearthing the near-forgotten pipeline between Toronto and Ann Arbor. Berenson knew the relationship existed because the majority of his teammates at Michigan had come from Canada — and the lion’s share of them were St. Mike’s graduates.

“Everyone was from Canada in those days,” Berenson said. “When I got here in the late 50s, I think we had two Americans on the team. One of my linemates, Al Hinnegan, and our captain Bob Watt were from St. Mike’s.”

In the 10 years after Michigan coach Vic Heyliger’s 1952 recruiting class, 14 players made the crossover trek from St. Mike's to Michigan. But in the second half of Renfrew's tutelage, the pipeline ran dry.

Berenson quickly revitalized the relationship, heavily recruiting Bryan Deasley, one of the most highly touted Canadian forward prospects of the mid-1980s.

After hearing Berenson’s mission, Deasley was on board.

Over the next six years, Michigan skated five Buzzer recruits, including three-year captain David Harlock.

Emblazoned along the brick façade of the arena is St. Mike's mantra: TEACH ME GOODNESS, DISCIPLINE AND KNOWLEDGE.

Young men flood the halls between class periods, each student wearing dark khaki pants, a white shirt, tie and dark blue blazer. St. Mike’s is no hockey factory — the nation’s only Catholic all-male prep school churns out the best hockey players and students.

Bob Schiller, one of the pioneers of the pipeline in the early 1950s, recognized the demand for academic excellence at both St. Mike’s and Michigan.

“It was a joint venture,” said Schiller, who majored in aeronautical engineering at Michigan. “You knew you were going to play hockey at a good level, and you got to keep the education going as well.

“The education at St. Mike’s was very rigid. They’re Basilian priests, and they were tough. But because you played sports, you didn’t get any breaks.”

And as if the caliber of students the school graduated wasn't enough, the Basilian Fathers of St. Mike’s have been sure to keep hockey in check for the past century.

In the mid-1960s, the hockey program shut down altogether. It certainly was no burden financially; on the contrary, the Fathers had determined hockey at St. Mike’s had become so professional that it was overshadowing the academics.

And for a college hockey coach, these players are simply a different breed.

“Kids are different in every era, but there’s something different about kids from St. Mike’s,” Berenson said. “They can relate to what’s going on at Michigan.”

Without the school’s dedication to education, the connection with college hockey might never have existed.

And without the feeder relationship with St. Mike’s, Michigan wouldn’t be the program it is today. Of the Wolverines’ nine national championship teams, all but one title roster has fielded a player from St. Mike’s.

But the most striking connection between Michigan and St. Mike’s is the one that got away. More specifically, “The Next One” that got away.

In 1989, 16-year-old Eric Lindros, playing his first and only year at St. Mike’s, was already considered one of the greatest prospects ever. The London, Ont. native’s on-ice accolades quickly earned him the nickname, “The Next One,” prophesied as the second coming of “The Great One” — Wayne Gretzky.

But in the 1989 OHL draft, Lindros was used as a pawn by Phil Esposito, then-part-owner of the Sault. Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Knowing that Lindros would refuse to move 500 miles away from home and drop his education to join the Greyhounds, Esposito selected Lindros as the first overall pick.

The Sault Ste. Marie franchise was financially desperate, and the owners knew that selecting Lindros would skyrocket its value. And it worked. Fortunately for the Greyhounds, the OHL had a rule that prohibited trading first-round draft picks for a full year after the draft.

The franchise sold, but it lost Lindros’s respect.

“The whole episode showed me that hockey is a bottom-line business, even at the junior level,” Lindros wrote on his personal website. “I felt like a piece of meat.”

Instead, Lindros looked to the NCAA. His family had already visited Michigan a few months earlier, but he was still more than a year away from eligibility.

Berenson’s team had completed its second-consecutive winning season, but the coach knew Lindros would be a landmark addition, bringing the Wolverines back to national prominence.

When Lindros first visited before the OHL draft, Berenson was sure to make the right impression.

Berenson called Lindros into his office with an offer he hoped the 6-foot-4 power forward wouldn't be able to pass up. Hanging in the coaches’ room when Lindros entered was a traditional white Michigan jersey, with the trademark 'M' on the chest. Berenson then revealed the back of the sweater: LINDROS 88.

Lindros had been No. 8 at St. Mike’s, but Berenson was making a statement.

“I didn't let anyone have a high number back then,” Berenson said. “But (Lindros) was big time, and we knew that. Gretzky was 99 — I gave Lindros 88.”

The offer was made and the decision was left up to Lindros. He chose Michigan.

In an effort to keep the star recruit nearby, Berenson gave Lindros’ family the number of Andy Weidenbach, the coach of Detroit-based Compuware, a team in the Tier-II hockey league. For the fall semester, Lindros tore up the ice just 40 minutes from Michigan.

But a rule change allowed Sault Ste. Marie to trade Lindros to the Oshawa Generals for three players, two top draft choices, $80,000 cash and two more players sent in the span of two years. Experts estimated the price for the 16-year-old ended up at over a half-million dollars.

Lindros returned to Ontario, never playing a game for Michigan, but it was a give-and-take with him. Michigan gave him No. 88, which he wore for the remainder of his career — a 13-year NHL career after being drafted first overall at age 18 by the Quebec Nordiques in 1991.

And Lindros gave back in a different way.

In his short stint with Compuware, a Detroit-based Tier II level program, Lindros made a profound impact on a certain teammate — defenseman Mark Sakala.

Sakala, then a senior at Riverview High School, was a gifted student, but was disappointed with the inability to find an educational institution that coupled his passion for hockey with rigorous academics.

Enter Lindros, who, along with his parents, convinced Sakala’s parents to head to Toronto and spend a year at St. Mike’s, playing alongside Lindros’s brother, Brett Lindros.

Sakala took their advice, enrolling at St. Mike’s for a 13th year of school.

A year later, Sakala had his name on the duct and a Michigan ‘M’ on his sweater — Lindros had neither.

Light flickers off the golden band as Sakala leans back in his chair, slowly turning the 1996 championship ring around his finger. The head of the ring bears a raised edge encircling a deep blue background, all centered on a gold block ‘M.’

Without a second thought, he says a date he’ll never forget: March 30, 1996.

Sakala removes the ring, showing the proof engraved on the back.

March 30. It was the day Berenson won his 300th game and completed the turnaround — recapturing Michigan’s heyday glory after a 32-year drought.

It was the day Brendan Morrison knocked in a Bill Muckalt rebound to topple Colorado College 3-2 in overtime and then proclaimed, “This is for all the (Michigan) guys who never had a chance to win it.”

And it was the day Sakala at the end of the bench realized he almost never had that chance either. Without Eric Lindros, he wouldn’t have been there. Without St. Mike’s, he wouldn’t have been there.

And without his engineering degree necessitating a fifth year — no chance.

When he reflects, Sakala doesn’t think about the championship. He thinks about the championship mentality that carried him and his teammates to where they are today. Three doctors, a lawyer, a Princeton graduate, a Michigan professor, the assistant general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins and three current NHLers — that Wolverine team knew success.

It wasn’t just a hockey team, Sakala asserts, it was the perfect combination of education and athletics that makes Michigan unique.

“They were winners there and winners on the rink and in life, in both realms,” Sakala said, pausing for a moment to sip his coffee. “It’s not so much that hockey made them winners, I really feel like it’s the entity of the two.”

And it’s that blend that built the pipeline between St. Mike’s and Michigan.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” Sakala says. “Both of those schools produce winners. Both are championship programs not because they won one or two championships, but because they did it on both sides — academics and athletics.”

Dressed in a black sweater, jeans and a silver wristwatch, Sakala is the picture of success. Wearing a national title ring, and as a top-flight engineer for Chrysler living in Birmingham, Mich., Sakala understands that the word ‘champion’ is a dichotomy.

“If you look at some of the other schools that were strictly hockey factories, they’ve come and gone. They weren’t consistent, like Lake State, who was a powerhouse when I was there. Jeff Jackson was the coach, Doug Weight came out of there, a lot of good players. But they were strictly a hockey factory, that’s what mattered most. And where are they now?”

Sakala left the question unanswered.

As Michigan historian John U. Bacon posits in Blue Ice, Sakala knows that “sports do not exist in a vacuum.” This goes beyond the rink.

Sakala knows that better than anyone. The ‘Big Two’ at Chrysler LLC — Chairman C. Robert Kidder and Chief Executive Officer Sergio Marchionne — are Michigan graduates.

And Marchionne, the 58-year-old man dubbed the “savior of Chrysler” after being charged with rebuilding the bankrupted corporation, learned his trade as a student at St. Mike’s.

“With St. Mike’s, it’s that entity — both academics and hockey — that prepared me for Michigan, prepared Sergio to be top dog at Chrysler,” Sakala says, setting his drink down. “At Michigan, it’s the same thing.”

St. Mike’s and Michigan.

Captains on the ice, captains of industry, Michigan's finest — imported from St. Mike's.


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