HOUGHTON - Much of this cast of characters has been around for a while, giving Houghton fans lots to love and visitors much to hate.
The core of a Gremlin hockey team that has two straight regional championships is back for another run and with 16 returning players, they know the path to get there isn't easy.
"It's very seldom that you have the core of our crew that made it down to a state final game, then made it to a state quarterfinal last year. They've had some playoff success and experienced that, and it's great when you have a crew like that to lead your team," Houghton coach Corey Markham said.
Houghton’s Ray Brice, right, and a Fond du Lac, Wis., defender chase after a puck during a game at Dee Stadium last season. Brice and the Gremlins start their 2013-14 season Friday night against Escanaba at home. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
The Gremlins went 22-6 last season, going out in the Division 3 state quarterfinals to Sault Ste. Marie but winning the regional and Lake Superior Hockey Conference championships along the way. Now, Houghton (along with Hancock) is part of a seven-team Great Lakes Hockey Conference with Calumet, Kingsford, Marquette, Negaunee and Escanaba.
Houghton will begin its season with a home game against the Eskymos Friday after a previously scheduled home game vs. Negaunee Tuesday was postponed to allow the Miners more practice time after the end of their football season last weekend. In a change from the original schedule, Houghton will play in Negaunee Dec. 2 before a Jan. 7 game at Dee Stadium.
Most notable among the returners are a trio of players entering their fourth year in Markham's program: forwards Ray Brice, Connor Hannon and Jed Kallio.
The speedy and increasingly powerful Brice has already made a sizable impression in the Houghton record book, setting single-season school records for goals and points last season. His career total of 73 goals puts him just four behind Markham on the all-time list and 15 behind the all-time record set by Chuck Lower. Brice's 127 career points put him within reach of Lower's record 172, especially considering Brice had 38 goals and 28 assists in his junior season.
Brice will start the season on a line with Jonathan Bostwick and Casey Markham, while Hannon and Kallio will join Kingsford transfer Reid Pietila on the other line.
Hannon posted 29 goals and 26 assists in the regular season last year, while Kallio was 14-19-33. Pietila joins the group after earning honorable mention in the GLHC as a freshman last year.
Houghton's third line has two players - Cale Markham and Spencer Donnelly - penciled in, while four players with limited or no varsity experience will fight for shifts alongside them -Alan Jurmu, Wyatt Liston, Jacob Kruse and Erich Walter.
Houghton's program has never just been about offensive firepower, though, and coach Markham won't let that change.
"I do feel like we're going to score some goals this year, but in order to be successful, I feel that you have to be strong in the defensive end, and not cheating, and that's what we're trying to emphasize early in the season," he said.
Five of this year's six defensemen return with some varsity exepreince, though the graduation of Hunter Rajala leaves a big void.
The Gremlins' most prominent returning defenseman is Tristan Foltz.
"Tristan competes hard all the time, his foot movement is tremendous, his skating ability, lateral movement all that stuff, he is one of the top d-men I've had in that category," Markham said.
Cole Jepsen and Zach Verran are back as well, as well as Riley McKay, who appears to have earned full-time status on varsity last year after being one of a handful of players who floated between Houghton's two squads.
"He's someone that has really come on from last year, gotten physically bigger and stronger. He's been a real nice surprise early in camp here," Markham said.
Chad Dunstan should also see more time in the back, while Hal Gemignani makes his debut on varsity.
In goal, Houghton has no newcomers to speak of, as the solid tandem of juniors Jayson Wiitala and Marcus Gloss is back.
Though Markham said he won't hesitate to ride the hot hand, their stats (.878 save percentage and 2.38 goals-against average for Wiitala and .884 save percentage and 2.73 GAA for Gloss) sometimes make it hard to differentiate between the two.
Yes, the Gremlins can be considered favorites. But that doesn't mean they're going to play like the 2013-14 season's in the bag.
"We don't cut corners. We stress just being the hardest-working team each day. We try to preach that, it's something that we try to live by and hopefully it's something that continues to be a standard for us," Markham said.