College hockey received some tough news Monday as its southern-most program, Alabama-Huntsville, fell victim to budget cuts and lost its varsity status.
After hosting the 2012 Frozen Four, the Chargers will become a club program starting next season.
But in the state of Michigan, there couldn’t be a more exciting time to be a college hockey fan. No matter the spot on the mitten — or even above it — there is bound to be a team nearby playing high-caliber hockey.
Michigan coach Red Berenson believes the unbounded talent in programs across the state starts with homegrown players. It’s not too difficult for coaches like Berenson to keep nationally-recruited skaters in their home state with some of the nation’s best competition awaiting upon arrival.
“That’s where the players are going to go (is Michigan),” Berenson said. “They’re not all going to come (to Ann Arbor) and they’re not all going to be a good fit.”
And with the talent pool overflowing from the Upper Peninsula to Metro Detroit, those recruits aren’t limited with choices of where to play collegiately.
In fact, of the 20 ranked teams in the USCHO.com poll, five play their home games in Michigan. Right now, the 4th-ranked Wolverines (0-1-1 CCHA, 4-1-1 overall) are caught in the midst of a vicious portion of their schedule, consisting of three consecutive two-game sets against Michigan schools boasting local products.
“Everybody’s playing with confidence and something to prove,” Berenson said. “But these teams have proven (themselves) already.”
No. 6 Ferris State is a perfect example of an in-state team that has struggled historically against the nation’s best. But this season, the Bulldogs have staked their claim as one of those elites. With Ferris State coming to Yost Ice Arena Thursday fresh off a sweep of Miami (Ohio), confidence will be peaking. There’s nothing the Bulldogs would like more than to leave with a historic sweep of the Wolverines.
In that series, Michigan natives like senior defender Greg Pateryn, freshman forward Travis Lynch and fifth-year senior netminder Shawn Hunwick will face off against fellow Michigander C.J. Motte — Ferris State’s goaltender.
Even No. 18 Lake Superior State, a team Berenson picked to finish in the league’s bottom half, has looked stellar early on, gaining critical momentum for conference play.
“In this league, every weekend is tough,” Berenson said. “At the start of the year, nobody thinks they’re going to finish in last place.”
And all of the in-state programs are CCHA members, with the exception of Michigan Tech. Translation: Most weekends of conference play will be as trying as last weekend’s affair with Northern Michigan, which felt more like a heavyweight fight than a hockey series. In Friday’s loss and Saturday’s shootout win, there was hardly a moment on ice without a goal scored, lead exchanged or punch thrown.
As long as the state continues to serve as a breeding ground for the top talent out of high school, college coaches will visit — from near and far — to tap into the fertile soil and get their share of Michiganders.
“If you look at the USA hockey magazine, they show you where all the (college hockey) players come from,” Berenson said. “When it comes down to how many from each state, Michigan is right up there.”