Something’s brewing: Year Three for Burcar one full of promise at Finlandia
HANCOCK — When Finlandia Lions head coach Joe Burcar took over the program for the second time in his career in late August, 2016, he did not know a single player on the Lions’ roster. As he started to contact friends, acquaintances and family members to announce that he was heading home to coach the NCAA Division III program for the second time, he received far more raised eyebrows and incredulous looks than even he expected.
“I never thought that (it couldn’t happen), but I had so many people tell me that it wouldn’t happen,” said Burcar. “When I was coming back, I had so many friends in the business who said, ‘You’re not going to be able to change it there.’ (There were) just many people telling me that it can’t be done.”
For a time, it appeared that those who doubted him were right. In 2016-17, his first season back, the Lions went 0-25-0. They were shutout seven times.
While recruiting that season for the 2017-18 campaign, Burcar took almost as many lumps as players rejected the idea of playing at Finlandia for a number of reasons.
To make matters worse, the women’s hockey team was also mired in a losing streak, prompting a national story about the fact that Finandia could go through an entire hockey season without winning a game with either team.
Burcar did land a couple of local kids in Houghton’s Marcus Gloss and Cale Markham, but that was a far cry from what he had hoped for.
In his second season with the Lions, things did not improve very much, at least at first.
From opening night on Nov. 3 through Jan. 13, the team could only muster a 2-2 tie against the Trine Thunder, a brand new Division III program.
Something changed during the midseason break in December. Houghton’s Connor Hannon and Hancock’s Hunter Kero both agreed to jump on board. With them both in the lineup alongside Gloss and Markham, the Lions won their first game in over a year, 2-1, over Wisconsin-Superior on Jan. 16, 2018.
The Lions finished the season 1-23-1, which was a mild improvement in terms of success, but a bigger improvement in areas that are not measured in terms of wins and losses.
This season, Burcar landed a few more names very familiar to local hockey fans: Hancock’s Dylan Paavola, Teddy Randell and Dawson Kero, Traverse City’s Andrew Froese, Howell’s Russell Daavettila, and Brighton’s Lee Pietila.
The Lions opened the 2018-19 season with back-to-back wins on the road over Wisconsin-River Falls and Milwaukee School of Engineering before tying Concordia.
If that start was all the Lions did all season, it would have been enough to show some more modest improvement. However, after dropping five in a row, the Lions did something extremely impressive, they beat Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
“When you back on the season (the start) played such a big part in us building confidence, especially for the returning players to have that,” said Burcar. “I think the opposite would have been the ‘oh, here we go again’ mentality. It was good for the young guys to not get into that train of thought.”
They dropped another four in a row before beating Aurora, but that was more about the fact that the Lions were suffering through some tough injuries to key players like Hannon and captain Alex Rezansoff.
From Jan. 4 on, the Lions went 5-6-1 to close out the regular season and secure their first playoff spot since 2012.
Along the way, the Houghton County Arena stands started to fill up. During Michigan Tech’s Winter Carnival weekend, the Lions played before a filled set of bleachers with fans excited to see exactly what the Lions were going to do next.
“The crowds were incredible, especially in the second half of the season,” said Burcar.
Burcar was extremely proud of what the Lions accomplished, especially for his seniors, who had struggled to win at all during their four years at Finlandia.
“It’s something that we will talk about for years and years,” he said. “First and foremost, I am so happy for our senior class. For them to stay here for their career, with what they went through, they are leaving the program in much better shape. They helped turn this program around.”
The NCHA Tournament was not an easy experience for the Lions as they lost twice to the top seeded St. Norbert Green Knights, but that did little to dampen Burcar’s outlook on the season as a whole.
“We really established and built the culture of the program, I think,” Burcar said. “I think we took a huge step in that direction this year.”
Burcar continues to be optimistic about the direction the program is moving, and he, and his players, take pride in what they have accomplished thus far.
“I enjoy my job every day,” he said. “It’s a good place to be.”