After growing up in the area, now as coaches, Rouleau, Markham, Giachino continue strong hockey traditions
HOUGHTON — It’s October and Houghton County has just experienced its first snow of the season. It’s barely sticking to the ground, but water is beginning to freeze. There, on the side of a road in Hancock, two little boys have been waiting for winter. Now that it’s here they are taking full advantage of the best thing cold weather has to offer a Houghton County youngster: ice. The duo stands on a puddle no more than three feet wide, crowding around a puck with sticks in hand. As they play their microscopic game of hockey cars speed by. Drivers don’t even glance their way — they’ve got places to be, and besides, what’s more normal in these parts than a kid playing hockey?
If you’re a boy born in the Copper Country, you’re practically birthed with blades on your feet and a stick in your hand. When you learn to walk, you learn to skate. When you learn to talk, you learn hockey lingo. When you learn to count, you learn numbers on jerseys and that there are 51 minutes in three periods.
Your veins are filled with equal parts blood and hockey — maybe a little more of the latter. You find comfort in the cold and a home on the ice. And in the case of three local coaches, you never want to leave. This is your home. And hockey, well, hockey is your life.
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It’s hard to read text messages, and even harder to respond when your eyes are filled with tears. So to any former player that waited hours for Hancock coach Dan Rouleau to text back after his team won the state title two years ago, he’s sorry, but the emotions got the best of him.
“We won at 3 in the afternoon and I was still answering messages at 11 at night,” he said. “They were saying so many cool things, and that made me get even more emotional. You can hardly read with tears in your eyes.”
Rouleau had already won a state championship as an assistant back in 1999, so the feeling wasn’t new, just different.
Back then, he did it with his son and nephew on the team, making the win a family affair. Topping that seemed near impossible, but the 2015 title may have done it.
Those tears were tears of joy, mostly. Tears filled with memories and school pride. Tears of a man who wore the Bulldog jersey himself from ’77-81. But for every ten happy tears, there was perhaps one sad tear, as Rouleau reflected on Hancock, hockey and his life.
Six years earlier, Rouleau was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. He had been experiencing the symptoms: fatigue, trouble walking and muscle stiffness, so he took a trip to his doctor. The doctor was almost certain it was Parkinson’s, but he sent Rouleau to get a second opinion.
A brain scan at Northwestern confirmed the suspicions. Rouleau was losing dopamine in his brain, enough that the doctors were positive with their diagnosis.
So while Rouleau was flooded with celebratory emotions, he was also conscious that this state title could be his last. He knows his years coaching at Hancock are numbered, and each off-season he reevaluates if he is up for another season. But Hancock hockey and Rouleau have been synonymous for so long that it is hard to imagine the separation of the two.
Rouleau’s hockey love affair began just as it does for most kids in the area: He followed in the footsteps of his older brothers. He learned to skate when he was 3 and started playing competitively when he was 5. The Rouleau residence was located near an outdoor rink, and he and his brothers would start playing in the mornings and continue well into the night.
“I was fortunate to be playing on the outdoor rinks at 11 o’clock at night because I had older brothers who would watch over me,” Rouleau said. “All of my friends would head home around 9, but I got an extra two hours of practice. It was ingrained in us to play the game.”
He went from the ice outside his house to the ice at Houghton County Arena and eventually made his way to the coach’s office.
Over the years his love for the game hasn’t waned, but it was purely by chance that Rouleau became a coach at all.
Rouleau was 24 when his 5-year-old son began playing hockey. Unluckily for the little hockey squad, the assistant coach never showed up to practice, but luckily, the head coach knew Rouleau had a history with hockey.
“He asked me if I wanted to come out on the ice, purely because the other guy wasn’t there a lot. If he was there I might not be coaching,” he said with a laugh. “I always said I was going to stay away from it and I would just let my son play, but once I got out there, I got the itch and I wanted to keep doing it. I’m sure glad I stuck with it because it has been a fun ride.”
A long ride, too. Rouleau has been coaching at Hancock for 23 years, nine as an assistant and 14 as the head coach. It’s been a dream job for him, but things have changed since he began. Parkinson’s will do that. But good things have contributed to the change as well — three great things actually, in the form of grandchildren. They have become as much of a staple at Hancock games as Rouleau himself. And after each game, the coach can be seen holding his grandson, clad in Bulldog gear, before he even talks to his team.
The 3-year-old might be the one person that loves Hancock hockey more than his grandpa. He sits right up against the glass, pounding it with his tiny hands, and waving at Rouleau across the way.
“He just loves hockey,” Rouleau said. “Ever since he was 1, I would stop at his house and he would run to the door with two hockey sticks. I have to play hockey with him constantly.”
Rouleau’s little hockey lover is part of the reason his coaching days are winding down. He wants to share the game with his grandchildren while he’s still feeling healthy. But Hancock hockey is a way of life for him, so when Rouleau stops coaching the Bulldogs, he will complete a three-step transition that he started at age 5, going from player to coach, to fan.
“I will absolutely still come and watch this team play,” he said. “Everybody bleeds red, but I bleed Vegas Gold and red. So I will always be a fan of Hancock. I will be watching for years to come, and hopefully, my grandsons will be a part of it.”
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When he was 25, Corey Markham took over as the head coach of the Houghton hockey team. Just eight years removed from playing there himself, and after three years as an assistant under the tutelage of Don Miller, Markham stood on the ice for his first game in charge. The details of the contest are fuzzy; he doesn’t remember who the Gremlins played, or if they won or lost. But he remembers the pressure he put on himself, and the uncontrollable nerves he felt.
“When I was young, I just remember being so nervous for games and wondering if I had my team prepared or not,” he said. “That was a long time ago, and I’ve certainly grown as a coach as time went on.”
Now Markham is four wins away from hitting 300 as a coach, so the nerves don’t bother him anymore. But as a 25-year-old his feelings made sense. Like Rouleau, he grew up watching his future school, but Markham was born to be a Gremlin. He was also destined to be a coach from the start.
Upon entering Dee Stadium, hockey fans come across a black board covered in bumpy white letters, celebrating Houghton’s record leaders. The name “Corey Markham” shows up three times: Fifth on the career goal list, second in total assists and fourth in career points.
Markham was blessed with size and strength — great qualities for a hockey player — but it was his brain that allowed him a place in the record books. Markham was a smart player, and he used that to his advantage by always being in the right place at the right time.
Markham has long been a student of the game, so being a coach comes naturally to him. After earning his degree at Northern Michigan, Markham got a job teaching physical education at Houghton High School. Then, he became an assistant for Miller. In high school, Miller taught him how to play, but on his staff, Markham learned how to coach.
“He was a stern disciplinarian,” Markham said of his former coach and mentor. “He made sure that everyone was always working hard and that you did things the right way. For me, the biggest thing I took from him was the work ethic. If you don’t work hard, you will never be successful, no matter how talented your team is.”
And when you coach in hockey country, success matters — big time.
“The Copper Country is known as a hockey area,” he said. “Tradition is huge, and you notice it at the Christmas tournament with how big the crowds are, and then when we get to the regional tournament they are even bigger. It means a lot. Everyone talks about high school hockey, and within the state, all of our teams are always ranked very high. We have a lot of respect from the state association on the talent level of our teams.”
Keeping the legacy of Houghton hockey alive and well is important to Markham. He always knew he wanted to be a coach, but coaching at Houghton? That was something he wished for, but never saw coming true.
“In your wildest dreams you would like to get that, but the chances of something like that happening, it just doesn’t happen too often,” he said. “I just knew with the coach I had in Mr. Miller, I wanted to follow in his footsteps and go to whatever high school and be a teacher and coach. I just had that strong feeling that was what I wanted to do for a career, and it just worked out that I was able to come back to my hometown.”
Markham didn’t know he would end up in Houghton, but he always wanted to raise his family in a similar area. Growing up, he came to appreciate what he called a “community of giving with a hometown feel.” So when Markham got his teaching job at Houghton, he and his wife Mandy — a Hancock graduate, who he promises is a “full Gremlin now” — knew they would be here for the long haul.
Living in Houghton is a forever thing, but coaching at Houghton High isn’t. Like Rouleau, he sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Hockey season is long and time-consuming, and Markham has three kids who he wants to spend more time with. His son is a seventh-grader, and Markham hopes to coach until he graduates high school, but after that, he’s ready to shift his focus.
Since the Houghton hockey program began (and with the exception of two years in the ’70s) the Gremlins have had two coaches: Miller and Markham.
Miller passed the coaching torch to Markham, and now Markham hopes to do the same to one of his former players someday.
“To me, the best part of coaching is getting former players who want to come back and help,” he said. “You go from having those kids as players to wanting to come back and help out the program, and you get a different relationship with them from a kid to more of an adult relationship and friendship.
“I hope that how I coach and my enthusiasm for the game rubs off on the younger coaches. That is something I would love to see, is them going on to coach anywhere; or even take over for me one day. I love sharing any knowledge that I have, and I love getting feedback from them.”
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Every day when Dan Giachino walks into the Calumet Colosseum, he finds himself slightly awestruck. He looks up at the blue and white banners hanging from the rafters and the coach knows he is part of history. From his playing days in the late ’90s until now, the building hasn’t stopped amazing him each time he opens the door.
“It is a special thing that I get to go there every day and take it all in,” he said. “The building has gotten a lot of updates and improvements, but ultimately it is the same building and the same ice that I grew up playing on.”
That building is part of the reason Giachino is still in Calumet. He graduated with a teaching degree but struggled to find a job as openings were few and far between. So Giachino took a job doing child support calculations at the courthouse. It wasn’t his dream job, but it allowed him to stay in his dream location. And living here allowed hockey to remain front and center in his life.
After playing as a Copper King, Giachino played four years of hockey at Finlandia before he had a realization. Coaching hadn’t really been on his radar, but Giachino figured out that his hockey abilities were more mental than physical.
“I realized I could help kids and help them get better,” he said. “We have a lot of hockey talent around the Copper Country and to try and guide them to make them better is fun. It is something I enjoy doing; just being able to connect with them and at the end of the day making them better hockey players when they leave the program.”
This is Giachino’s third full year as the head coach, and like Rouleau and Markham, getting here was a process. He started out coaching a midget Triple-A program, but the time commitment of a seven-month season was too much, so when Calumet debuted its first junior varsity hockey team, Giachino applied for the job. From there it was a natural progression to the head coaching gig.
And that is the only hockey job he ever wants. If the day comes that Giachino can no longer coach at Calumet, for whatever reason, then he won’t coach anywhere else.
“Hockey-wise, I don’t know that I would go on to anything else,” he said. “We just have a love of hockey here. You see how the Copper Country community gravitates real strongly to high school hockey. There has been a lot of success over the last 30 years between all three of the local programs. People love to rally around the local schools. That is something that keeps you wanting to do more and wanting to give back. You see that support and you see the people who show up to every single home game, people who don’t have kids on the team and they travel to games. You don’t see that everywhere.”
The fans keep Giachino wanting to do more, but his real support system is his wife of 11 years, and their two daughters, ages 3 and 5.
Hockey is a huge commitment of both time and energy, but Giachino’s little ones love it. They are too young to truly understand, but they both know how to skate and are interested in the game. When hockey is on TV at the Giachino household, the two little girls will happily sit and watch with their dad.
If it wasn’t for Ava and Mia, Giachino wouldn’t be the coach he is today, as they have taught him a valuable lesson.
“I think they have certainly helped with the patience side of things,” he said. “Coaching helps me to be a better dad, and being a dad helps me to be a better coach.”
Now Giachino has the patience to understand what kind of team he’s dealing with. The expectations tied to being the Calumet hockey coach are high, but some seasons they just aren’t attainable.
“We have had groups where we haven’t been that strong, and we’ve had groups where we have been to the state finals,” he said. “You learn how to coach to the group and what you have, and to learn what you have. You know that some years you have a legitimate chance of winning something, and some years the emphasis is just to get better.”
And for Giachino, that is what coaching is all about. At the end of the day, he simply wants to create better hockey players. Kids in the area are always going to play hockey, but he wants to make sure they play it well and play it right.
“Our job is to get them better, from the time they get into the program to the time they leave,” he said. “It is a culture. A lot of kids want to play hockey, their parents played hockey, and the expectation is if you are a young boy, you are going to play hockey when you get to be 5 or 6. We have a lot of people in the area who have a lot of hockey knowledge and that are willing to pass that down to our kids. That is what has sustained the level of hockey for the last 40 and 50 years.”
When he was playing, Giachino never imagined being one of the people passing down hockey knowledge, but now as he looks up into the Colosseum rafters, he knows he’s in the right place.
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There is too much of an age difference between Rouleau, Markham and Giachino for the coaches to be anything more than acquaintances and competitors. They never played against each other in high school, never ran in the same circle, and now, they never hang out off the ice, but they know each other. Because at their cores, the three men are the same. They all love hockey, they all love their alma maters, and they all can’t imagine their lives without the sport they played and the school they attended.
“I have a lot of respect for them and for what they are doing,” Markham said. “We all have extreme pride in our schools and we are fortunate to be back at our old schools and coaching. I think that adds to the rivalry because we all played for our school and we know what it means.”
It’s Houghton. It’s Hancock. It’s Calumet. It’s high school hockey in the Copper Country. And it means everything.