Finlandia women aim to change culture

Daver Karnosky/Daily Mining Gazette The Lions' Hannah Tormanen carries the puck through the neutral zone during the first period of a game against the Sabres Saturday at the Houghton County Arena.

A few weeks ago, in preparation for my weekend preview of the Finlandia Lions women’s hockey team’s upcoming weekend against the St. Norbert Green Knights, I interviewed head coach Matt Marchel and he made an interesting statement that stuck with me. He talked about changing the culture at Finlandia.

In several of my conversations over the past six seasons with former Michigan Tech Huskies head coach Mel Pearson, I got the same statement several different ways. Looking back over his time with the Huskies, Pearson did just that, and it shows in the MacInnes Student Ice Arena every home game the Huskies play now. There is a distinct buzz in the arena every night.

While Marchel and the Lions won on Saturday over Marian, the victory was just their second of the season, hardly the stuff of culture change, to the average fan, that is.

The truth is, there is a culture change happening before fans’ eyes at the Houghton County Arena, and it is time to start taking notice.

The Lions are 2-6-1 overall, but more importantly, they are 2-5-1 in the ultra-competitive NCHA. No.4 Adrian is the only school ranked in the current Division III women’s poll, where they rank the Top 10 teams, but Lake Forest (who currently leads the conference) and St. Scholastica have both garnered votes multiple times already this season.

The Lions’ record has them tied with Northland, who Finlandia has yet to play. The Lions have survived the first half of their conference schedule and picked up five points, which is the most they have had in conference play since 2009-10 when they picked up five wins overall and three points in NCHA play When I asked Marchel about what it meant for the state of the program that the Lions earned their second victory on Saturday, he worked hard to downplay its value in the immediate sense.

“I don’t like to look at it that way,” said Marchel. “Obviously, looking at the past, you kind of have to … It is huge for the standings right now and it is huge for momentum.”

Marchel is more focused on the fact that the Lions have 10 conference games left on their schedule starting with a pair of games on the road at Northland.

“We are a hockey team playing in a conference here,” said Marchel. “We are not just playing two games every weekend. We are in the playoff picture right now.”

He then brought the two thoughts together to finish the discussion.

“It is huge for us and, I assume, for our morale and everything,” said Marchel. “Again, we are a hockey team playing in a conference, and it’s not just a game-by-game thing. We have to look at the standings.

“We are hopefully not on the ground floor right now. We are scratching at the ceiling.”

There are a number of reasons why he is right in suggesting that the Lions are doing just that. Captain Sierra Meiners, the Lions’ most consistent threat the past two seasons has five goals and 11 points in nine games. She scored 13 goals and 16 points all of last season. More importantly, with a three-assist night Saturday, Meiners doubled the number of assists she had all of last season (3).

Sophomore Bella Abear scored just three goals and six points last season. This year, she has the same numbers in nine games. Classmate Kait Ryynanen had two goals and six points last season. She has two goals and four points through nine games.

While the stats are good, the quality of play has also improved. The Lions are no longer a team that just looks to feed Meiners as its lone threat anymore. Saturday, Ryynanen scored twice and Abear scored a goal on a 2-on-1.

Abear’s goal is part of a larger change. All of the players are starting to jump up into the play and create matchup problems for opposing defenders in ways they have not done so before. They haven’t been able to capitalize on those plays until Saturday, but when Abear struck in the third period, it drastically changed the nature of the game.

There is a change occurring at the Houghton County Arena involving the Lions’ women’s team. Marchel has his players are doing the little things necessary to earn victories. Those efforts have started to pay off and could continue to in the second half for a team that has more confidence already than it has had in years.