HOUGHTON - Do it for Roger.
That has been the mantra that has coursed through the Portage Lake Pioneers since teammate Roger Lewis was killed in a snowmobile accident in early January. That has been the spirit that helped propel the Pioneers to a 17-3 record and their first Great Lakes Hockey League championship in years.
And that will be weighing on the minds of every Portage Lake skater tonight at the Calumet Colosseum as the first leg in the best-of-three series for the annual Gibson Cup rivalry with the Calumet Wolverines begins.
The Portage Lake Pioneers’ Roger Lewis handles the puck during their December home game with Calumet at Dee Stadium. Lewis, who died in a January snowmobile accident, is still on the minds of the Pioneers as they open the Gibson Cup series tonight at Calumet. (DMG photo by Brandon Veale)
"That was the basis of our whole year and how you can't take stuff for granted, do things 100 percent, every time," Pioneers defenseman Mike Stevens said. "It pushed a lot of guys. it has pulled us together and made us stronger as a group."
"Roger was our leader," Pioneers coach Pat McCarthy added. "He was our leader in the locker room and off the ice. It has been trying times, guys have been crying. Roger is a motivational part of our game and we want to win it for Roger because he was such a great guy."
Last Saturday, the Pioneers started the final regular season game with just four skaters on the ice, penciling in Lewis' name at right-winger on the lineup sheet. Portage Lake went 22 seconds - the number Lewis wore - before adding a fifth man to the ice in the eventual 3-1 win over the Fox Cities Ice Dogs.
It served as a touching tribute to a man who lived and breathed Copper Country hockey.
"He has been such a motivation for us," McCarthy said. "He gave 100 percent every time; he left it all on the ice. we joke for such a little guy he played so big for us."
For today and Friday's game at Dee Stadium, the ceremony involving Lewis will be minimal. While they considered a commemoration of some sort, McCarthy said his jersey will not be retired until the first home game next season and any other observance will take place then as well.
No Pioneer is willing to hang up No. 22 quite yet, with the Gibson Cup and GLHL playoffs still to come.
"I think the biggest thing (behind our regular season title) was that we had Roger Lewis on our mind the whole time and we kind of had that mentality all year and we had to do it for Roger," Stevens said. "Guys were always saying, 'what would Roger do, how would Roger react?' It brought us so close as a group."
Since Lewis' passing, the Pioneers have won 14 of 15 games.
Both coach and players are open about the reason why.
"We think about Roger all the time," McCarthy said. "He really is with us in the locker room and on the ice."
Even with the run of success right now, the Portage Lake skaters know they will have to bring their best game to defend the Cup.
The Wolverines handed the Pioneers one of their three losses in late December and took PL to three games in the Gibson series last year.
"It is always the same thing every year," Stevens said. "It doesn't matter who looks better on paper, every time of year this series come around, it is always a grueling battle. Anything can happen and that is what makes it exciting."
According to Calumet coach Bruce Coppo, the Wolverines experienced success getting physical with the Pioneers skill guys - including 22-goal scorer Ryan Sullivan - and will focus on that strategy once again.
"You really have to get in their face and play the body a little bit," Coppo said. "Most of them have played D-III hockey, so you have to try and take away that space a bit. it is all about pride."