HOUGHTON - In 2011, the Houghton Gremlins carried the John MacInnes Holiday Classic title and a spark into the new year. Starting tonight, they and others look to repeat the feat.
The 38th edition of the four-team holiday showdown begins tonight at John MacInnes Student Ice Arena and features an impressively strong field. Houghton meets Calumet in game one at 6 p.m. and Hancock faces Sault Ste. Marie in the nightcap, to start at about 8. Tickets are $5 both nights.
To demonstrate the strength of the field, three of the participants are ranked in the top five of both the Michigan High School Hockey Coaches Association Division 3 poll and the U.S. High School Hockey Online computer rankings.
Houghton's Hunter Rajala collides with a Hancock player during the championship game of the 2011 MacInnes Holiday Classic at Michigan Tech. The 2012 tournament, the 38th annual, begins tonight. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
Sault is second, Houghton third and Calumet fifth in the last poll before Christmas, taken Dec. 17, while Houghton, Sault and Calumet are 2-3-4 in the USHSHO rankings.
The defending champion Gremlins took home the title for the first time since 2003 last year, taking a 5-4 decision from cross-canal rivals Hancock in the title game after beating Sault Ste. Marie 2-1 in double overtime in the semifinals.
Houghton is flying high going into the tournament with an 8-0 record and a 7-1 victory in its back pocket against its opponent in tonight's first semifinal: Calumet. The Gremlins whipped the Copper Kings 7-1 at Dee Stadium just six days ago with the help of four power play goals.
Junior Raymond Brice leads Houghton in scoring with 13 goals and seven assists, while Connor Hannon has 11 goals and eight assists.
The Copper Kings (5-3) righted the ship quickly the last time they got beat, turning a mercy-rule loss at Bloomfield Hills into a confident win at Lakeview Arena against Marquette in their last outing.
The Calumet offense is led by Brendan Jacques' five goals, while Bryce Johnson, Lucas Lahnala and Eric Mattila have posted four apiece.
Calumet suffered an upset loss in last year's semifinals, falling 4-3 in overtime despite putting 61 shots on Hancock goalie Devin Kero.
Hancock (3-5) looks a little different going into this year's tournament than it did in 2011, but after losing its first four to tough competition in Marquette, Calumet and Traverse City Central, the Bulldogs have come in to tonight's second semi on a two-game winning streak after comfortably taking down L'Anse and Jeffers in consecutive outings.
Dylan Hanke's hat trick provided the offensive oomph to get the Bulldogs past the Copper Kings last year and the now-senior is firing the Hancock offense again with a team-leading six goals. Brett Lepisto recorded the second hat trick of his prep career Dec. 21 against Jeffers on the very same MacInnes ice and has five goals and six assists to lead Hancock in points.
Sault High comes into Houghton tonight in the midst of one of its best seasons in years. The 8-2 Blue Devils come in off a split at a tournament hosted by defending D-3 state champions Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett.
The Blue Devils dropped a 7-3 decision to Muskegon Mona Shores in the opener but bounced back for a 5-4 win over Grosse Pointe South with help from an Eric Hillock hat trick. Mona Shores went on to knock off Liggett in the title game.
Sault's other loss came in overtime to Birmingham Brother Rice, the defending Division 2 state champions who, playing up in Division 1 this season, were the top-ranked team in the last MHSHCA poll before Christmas.