The Lake Superior hockey program was at a crossroads following a last-place finish in the CCHA last season.
The program that won three national championships in a seven-year span (concluding in 1994) had lost its luster, its direction, and more importantly, its work ethic.
Athletic Director William Crawford knew that if there was one man who could bring the program back to prominence it would be the man who built it into that NCAA champion originally former coach Frank Anzalone.
“We went for a proven product,” Crawford said. “If any guy can turn this around, it”s him. He can handle everything.”
Anzalone isn”t alone in his return to Sault Ste. Marie. “The Lake Superior attitude” is also back with the Lakers whether it shows up in the team”s record (4-15-1 CCHA, 7-18-1 overall) or not. Anzalone and Crawford know that their team is not talented, but skill isn”t what they are looking for at this point in the rebuilding process.
“Our one rule with our team is to work hard,” Anzalone said. “As long as we rebuild the work ethic. That”s the first thing. I don”t like losing every game like we are. The bottom line is that is where our program is right now. Our work ethic dropped, and we have to rebuild that first.”
Said Crawford: “His intensity rubs off on these guys. I have noticed that this year. We”re not a good team, but there”s not a kid on this team who doesn”t bust it every time out there.”
Coming into tonight”s game against Michigan, this year”s Lakers are currently last in the CCHA in goals per game (1.5), goals allowed per game (3.85) and powerplay percentage (.087). They have already been shut out seven times on the season.
Anzalone and Crawford both fully admit that the talent is not at the level it needs to be to win games in the CCHA. But in five years, they hope that they will have recruited the type of people that can handle their old-school “attitude.”
“People are more important than players at Lake State,” Anzalone said. “That willingness to go a little further than some other players at other schools is what we need. More so now than in five years. Those are the players who are going to get it going. They have got to be willing to be the bricklayers.”
Finding these bricklayers for the program”s future will be easier said than done. Located in the northernmost part of Michigan, Lake Superior has the lowest student enrollment in the CCHA (3,200 students) and is the smallest public institution playing division I hockey. Being able to convince players with talent and work ethic to settle in Sault Ste. Marie will be crucial to Anzalone”s success.
“I think we can jump to that fifth- or sixth-place level, but I don”t know if we can jump to that next pinnacle,” Anzalone said.
“I don”t know that Lake Superior can ever get back to where it was. We don”t always get the highest talented players. We offset that with a lot of hard-working, high-character guys who don”t mind being in a small town or a small school.”
Crawford, who has been athletic director for seven years, has seen the program plummet to its current level and knows what it will take for the Lakers to get back to the glory years.
“One of the things that Frank was able to do was maintain an attitude,” Crawford reminisced. “We got it into a situation where our seniors would pass down this work ethic and this Laker aura and mystique to the freshmen.”
Even though this aura or Lake Superior attitude hasn”t returned, and may not find its way back for a few years, Anzalone has no complaints with his current situation.
“It”s been great to work with student athletes who want to learn about the game and about life,” Anzalone said. “I love helping them through their academic crises, helping them become better people.”
Anzalone took over the job at Lake Superior in 1982 and coached the Lakers to a last-place finish in the CCHA. Just five years later, he was hoisting up a national championship trophy in Lake Placid, N.Y. after a 4-3 win over St. Lawrence.
“The whole thing has been a little disappointing to see where the program has gone,” Anzalone said. “I put so much into it blood, sweat and tears and to see how south it has gone is tough. But it opens up a window of opportunity for my return and to get back to respectability.”
Two years after the national championship season, Anzalone had problems working with the school”s athletic director. His straight-shooting style and honest approach had become too difficult for his superiors to handle.
Accusations surrounded his behavior as coach, and he was forced to leave the program.
“(Athletic Director Jim Fallis) didn”t feel that I belonged here,” Anzalone said. “It grew and festered and that”s basically what happened. It wasn”t due to something I did wrong violated rules, or beat up players. I lived with that for 11 years.
“I never though I would come back to Lake Superior. I always thought it would be a different program. With the way the cards fell, it looked like I”d never coach again.”
During the 11 years that Anzalone spent away from his life-long passion, he coached various semi-pro teams and even took the reins of a New Jersey high school team at one point. Throughout his absence, he continued to keep up with what was going on in college hockey by talking to coaches on the phone, including Michigan coach Red Berenson.
“We would just shoot the breeze and talk about me not being able to get back into college hockey,” Anzalone said. “Red was good about it. He understood the dilemma I was in. For me it was impossible to get any college job, because of the mystery of me leaving.”
Said Berenson: “Frank built that program when it was a powerhouse in our league. When I came to Michigan we rarely found a way to beat Lake Superior in any situation. I know he”s got the energy and passion to do it again.”