HOUGHTON - To say Michigan Tech hockey players are ready for some game action would be an understatement after nearly four weeks of captain-led preseason practices. Even the weather forecast is ready for hockey season, with snow projected for this weekend.
The wait is finally over for the Huskies and their fans as the season kicks off with a trio of events this week.
The festivities include a Meet the Coaches event tonight, a home exhibition game against Brock University on Saturday and an intrasquad scrimmage at Calumet Colosseum on Sunday.
Meet the Coaches will be from 7-8:30 p.m. tonight at the Begg Conference Room at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena, and the event is free and open to the public.
"We're looking forward to that as coaches," Tech head coach Mel Pearson said. "I think it's a good opportunity for us to meet and greet some of our fans and answer questions they might have regarding anything surrounding our team or program."
Assistant coach Bill Muckalt is on the recruiting trail in British Columbia, but Pearson, assistant coach Damon Whitten and volunteer goalie coach Steve Shields will be on hand to update community members about the team and field questions from them.
"I'm assuming everyone is going to want to know who the goalie is, so Shields will be well prepared to handle those questions," Pearson said half-jokingly, adding in all seriousness that the goaltender depth chart is completely up in the air. It will largely depend on this weekend's on-ice events.
Saturday's 7:07 p.m. exhibition is the first intercollegiate competition of the season for the Huskies, and their opponent, Brock University, hails from St. Catharines, Ont.
"First and foremost it's a game to help us prepare and see where our team is at, get a feel for some line combinations, defense pairings, obviously our goaltenders to see how they look. It's a good opportunity for us as coaches and for the players it's like a dress rehearsal," Pearson said. "Obviously we want to put our best foot forward and win the game, but more importantly get a feel for where we're at."
Tech has watched very little film of the Badgers, who have played three games already, including a 3-2 loss and 7-4 win against Lakehead, who Tech beat 5-3 in last year's exhibition.
"We're focusing more on ourselves right now. We have to find our identity, who we are as a team, how we're going to play this year. Brock just gives us an opponent to play against," said senior defenseman and team captain Carl Nielsen, who, along with assistant captains and fellow defensemen Steven Seigo and Brad Stebner, have led practices so far.
"It's been nicer this year. My first two years we were up here the second week in July. You're excited, you see all your friends. The first two weeks it's go, go, go then it starts to fall off a little bit and it starts dragging on," Nielsen said. "This year we got here right when school started, so we're all excited to see all the boys again, excited to go down to campus and get going with school.
"Now, we're just at the point where I think guys are starting to want to get going. Thankfully, we are going this weekend, so it's kind of perfect timing in my opinion."
Pearson and his staff have been allowed on the ice with the team for two hours per week, but they'll finally have their first full 90-minute practice with the team on Tuesday in preparation for next week's regular season home-and-home series with Lake Superior State.
In addition to the Brock exhibition, the Huskies will head to Calumet for the second straight season for an intrasquad scrimmage. More info on the event, including Pearson's goals, the event schedule and community engagement plans, is detailed on page 3A in today's news section.
Lineups are still up in the air for this weekend, but Tech will be without forward Jacob Johnstone, who suffered a fluke ankle injury in practice. Initially, the Huskies thought they may have lost the junior forward for 6-8 weeks, but he may actually start skating next week.
Chad Pietila continues to battle a nagging groin injury, and Pearson lists him as questionable for this weekend.
Tech's coaching staff has been particularly impressed with the improvement by Hancock native Tanner Kero, Dan Sova, Jimmy Davis and Steven Seigo. Several freshmen have made their mark, too, particularly forward Alex Petan.
"He's done a couple things where you go 'Wow.' He's caught our eye," Pearson said.
Forwards Jujhar Khaira and C.J. Eick have also drawn praise from coaches, along with Tech's two freshman goaltenders, who figure to battle for playing time all year long.
The Daily Mining Gazette has been publishing "Tech Tomorrow" features on each freshman, with articles coming on Khaira and defenseman Walker Hyland coming before the regular season starts.