By STEPHEN ANDERSON
HOUGHTON - Hockey is back in Houghton, and so is a renewed excitement about the Michigan Tech hockey team.
After reaching the WCHA Final Five last season, the Huskies hit the ice Monday for the first time as a team in 2012-13 on the new ice at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena.
The coaching staff is not allowed on the ice with the team until Sept. 15 per NCAA rules, so captain Carl Nielsen and assistant captains Steven Seigo and Brad Stebner, all defensemen, have led two days of practices, and they'll lead more today through Friday.
"I just told them to go out and work hard, try and get back in some kind of hockey shape," said Tech second-year head coach Mel Pearson.
"Work out some kinks, get your hands and timing back together and have some fun."
With systems carrying over from last year for returning players, and with new players recruited specifically for Pearson's system, preparation is much less frantic entering this year.
"We have an extra week this year, which I think helps before our first game," said Pearson, who also acknowledged excellent preseason fitness test results for the whole team. "Last year I felt like we didn't have enough time, but this year I think we'll have plenty of time to get them ready."
The Huskies first game this year is an exhibition against Brock on Oct. 6, while last year's first game was Oct. 1 against Lakehead.
Pearson and assistant coaches Bill Muckalt and Damon Whitten, and volunteer goalie coach Steve Shields will actually wait until Sept. 17 to join the team on the ice. Per NCAA regulations, they are allowed two hours of time per week, and they will likely divide that up with 30 minutes four days per week and allow the team to scrimmage on Wednesdays.
"The biggest thing for me and our staff is figuring out who's going to play with who, and who our starting goalie is going to be," Pearson said.
There are a wealth of forward options among a relatively young group, three goaltenders who will all compete for playing time, and a defensive unit that returns everybody, including a healthy Tommy Brown.
"You never know what you're going to get until school starts, but everybody came in that we expected, and it looks like they're all anxious and ready to go," Pearson said.
Bryce Reddick, who waited several months over the summer to hear a decision from the NCAA on a possible fifth year, was denied the waiver request, so he will not return.
"I don't always understand how the NCAA figures it out," Pearson said. "I felt bad for Bryce because he was just starting to come into his own. Other than that, I don't foresee any cuts, but you never know."
In addition to the seven freshmen announced previously, Tech has added a fifth freshman forward, Patrick Anderson, who played for Tech assistant coach Bill Muckalt with the North American Hockey League New Mexico Mustangs in 2010-11.
Before the hockey season starts, The Daily Mining Gazette will run "Tech Tomorrow" freshman features on Anderson; other forwards Malcolm Gould, Jujhar Khaira and Alex Petan; goaltender Pheonix Copley; and defenseman Walker Hyland. Features have already been published on forward C.J. Eick (tinyurl.com/ctbetn3) and goaltender Jamie Phillips (tinyurl.com/d9luryk).
While the Huskies are excited about this year's recruiting class, the coaching staff is already looking to the future, and they'll be doing extensive recruiting throughout September.
"As much as we're trying to get our team ready and be on the ice a little bit, we have to get out there and recruit," Pearson said. "Now we feel like at least we're going out to watch players we've been tracking for a while and feel good about. We're in much better shape as far as that goes."
Also this fall, as announced throughout the summer, the Huskies will get three new uniforms. Tech got rid of all its old uniforms and the new ones have not arrived yet, but they are expected to come soon.
"If we play as well as they've designed the jerseys, we'll be in good shape," Pearson said.
The Huskies are also making some subtle changes to their locker room for this fall, and continuing to fundraise for a new video scoreboard, which is now on schedule to be in place for the start of next season.
Also looking ahead to the future, Pearson said, without disclosing further specifics, "We've been able to schedule some teams to come up to Houghton that haven't been here in a long time that I think people will be happy to see."
This year promises to be plenty interesting from a scheduling standpoint, too, in the final year of the WCHA in its current structure before realignment goes into effect in 2013-14. Minnesota, Minnesota-Duluth and North Dakota are just a few of the teams coming to Houghton this year, and the Huskies also get to look forward to an outdoor Great Lakes Invitational at Detroit's Comerica Park.
"It's an exciting time," Pearson said. "Every year is different. You still have your question marks this year like we did last year, but I expect to win every game, and that's the bottom line. We have to set the bar high and we will this year."
The Michigan Tech Blue Line Club will be hosting a start-of-the-season "Meet the Team" picnic at 4 p.m. this Sunday at the Ray Kestner Waterfront Park pavilion in Houghton. The event is open to the public and cost is $5 per person or $10 per family and includes hot dogs, hamburgers and soft drinks. A dish to pass is welcome. For more information, email club president Scott MacInnes at email@example.com or treasurer Kathy Pintar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To keep up with the Tech hockey team between articles, follow @steander on Twitter and interact by using the #mtuhky hashtag.