Hockey royalty: Copper Kings gear up for long high school hockey season

CALUMET — After coming up short last season in their quest to repeat as regional champions, the Calumet Copper Kings hockey returns arguably the deepest team in the area as they prepare to make another run at the state title that eluded them two years ago. After a quick rebuild last season, the Copper Kings are ready to enter 2018-19 as one of the top teams in Division 3.

“Last year we had a little bit of a reloading year,” said Copper Kings coach Dan Giachino. “We had a very young squad last year, and we took some lumps during the early part of the season. The group really improved as the season progressed.

“We were a pretty competitive hockey team at the end of the year. We’re looking at returning a lot of kids (for) this upcoming season (that have) experience and talent.”

The competition for ice time is high among this group of 15 returning players who have The last year or two together.

“The competition is wide open at the beginning of the year,” Giachino said. “The kids know that (and) push each other in practice every day. Everybody wants more playing time, so it definitely creates a competitive atmosphere.”

Since he took over the Copper Kings, Giachino has been working to get his players to understand that they have practice as hard as they want to play. Last season, that lesson started to click for several of his players.

“It’s just a matter of pushing each other,” he said. “These kids have known each other at least a year, some two (or) three years. They know how to get the best out of each other.

“At the beginning of the year, we can get on our feet and get running rather then getting (into) the first few weeks of the season, where you’re trying to get the new kids to come along. We should be able to hit the ground running with as many returning this year.”

Calumet’s look to bring another year of experience to their blue line this season with all six defenseman as upperclassman. They are led by senior Josh Vandenburg, who is in his third season with the Copper Kings, along with juniors Lincoln Beiring, Nick Djerf and Hunter Rowe who gained experience last season. Senior Landon Johnson and junior Cam Kauppinen also found their way into the lineup last season.

“We had a very young defensive core last year,” said Giachino. “We had four our five sophomores on our defense last year. All (of) those guys were able to get a year of experience under their belt.

“We’re going from inexperienced to being an experienced group. We’ve returned all six of our defenseman. I feel pretty good about the experience and talent level on defense. We should be pretty solid there.”

Offensively, Giachino and his team are in their second week of practice, and that gives them a chance to work out some line combinations before facing Hancock this weekend. The offense is deep, especially with senior Brent Loukus and Sam Erkkila back to drive the attack.

“We have eight returning forward,s so we have a lot of numbers coming back,” said Giachino. “We’ll see what kind of improvements were made over the summer and where we’re at this year. It’s going to be (a) daily competition, and that’s what we need.”

Loukus, who scored 21 goals and 60 points and Erkkila, who had a team-high 28 goals and 54 points, are players that Giachino hopes to see step up into real leadership roles to set examples for the younger players on the team.

“We have two returners in our group, seniors Brent Loukus and Sam Erkkila,” said Giachino. “Those two have been All-Conference (and) All-State players for the last two years and, as seniors, we look to them to be leaders and lead our offense.”

Both have also been key cogs of Team Copper Country’s back-to-back national titles, so they have a penchant for playing well in big games.

Two sophomores will fight for more ice time this year. Dean Loukus had a strong rookie year with 16 goals and 44 points. Tanner Rowe had nine goals and 31 points, gaining steam in the second half of the season, where he scored three goals and put up 19 points in 15 games.

“We also have Dean Loukus and Tanner Rowe (who) are both sophomores (that are) very highly-talented hockey players,” said Giachino. “We look for them to do some significant things (and) be some good, strong players for us. We have a lot of experience through the lineup at fourward so we’re definitely feeling happy with those guys.”

Juniors Scott Loukus, Gabe Coppo, and Alex Mattila also saw a lot of playing time last year. Senior Rylan Anderson adds even more depth and has a knack for scoring timely goals.

Junior goaltender Alex Studebaker brought consistency to the net for the Copper Kings when then-senior Nick Voelker struggled. This year, the net belongs to Studebaker, who has played well against tough competition, defeating Rochester United and Marquette last season while holding the Bloomfield Hills-Cranbrook-Kingswood Cranes to just two goals in a 2-1 loss.

Junior Sam Kiiskila will keep push him for playing time.

“(For) our goaltending situation, we have Alex Studebaker,” Giachino said. “He played really well for us last season when we needed him to, and we look for him to be a leader and to be one of our top players as well.”

Calumet opens their season with the Copper Island Classic series over Thanksgiving weekend against Hancock. Giachino is excited to get a shot at the Bulldogs after they were the team that eliminated the Copper Kings in the regional title game.

“That’s always a big way for us to start the season against one of our biggest rivals,” he said. “It’s been very competitive over the last 25-30 years (with) the teams going back and forth. (It’s) kind of the first steps for our season and it’s a good way to start.”

The Copper Kings will then travel to face the Cranes for a two-game series before returning to the U.P. to play Marquette. They will host Utica Eisenhower before facing the Houghton Gremlins in back-to-back games at the Dee Stadium and then at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena in the second game of the MacInnes Holiday Classic.

Novi, Brighton and Brother Rice all come to Calumet in January before University of Detroit-Jesuit come to two for a two-game series.

The Copper Kings see Hancock, Houghton and Marquette over an eight-game stretch to close out the regular season.