Michigan Tech players, Shawhan reflect on NMU rivalry

Michigan Tech’s Gavin Gould battles for position against Northern Michigan at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena on Feb. 25, 2017. Tech renews its rivalry with NMU this weekend. (David Archambeau/Daily Mining Gazette)

HOUGHTON — There’s a sequence in the 1996 movie, “Michael,” that perfectly depicts what Michigan Tech head coach Joe Shawhan wants out of his Huskies. 

It’s OK if you haven’t seen it. Shawhan doesn’t mind setting the scene. The movie was made when most of Shawhan’s players were toddling around, learning to walk, and before some were even born. It stars John Travolta as the Archangel Michael. 

“In this one scene Michael looks out and sees a bull in a field and they just go to battle. He takes his coat off and he and the bull run head to head into each other,” Shawhan says,  smacking his fists together to represent the two parties. “When it’s over, the bull is sitting on the ground, just shaking its head.”

This weekend when Tech (4-5-2, 2-4-2-1 WCHA) takes on its rival, No. 20 Northern Michigan (5-3-0, 3-1-0-0 WCHA), Shawhan needs his guys to be like Michael. They have to relish the grit and the grind, he said. That’s the only way to take down a bull. 

“You can shake hands after and go on your way when it’s over,” Shawhan said. “But I need to see more of an alpha personality when it comes to the competition.” 

They square off Friday at 7:07 p.m. in the MacInnes Student Ice Arena. Tech and Northern have matched up since 1979, with the Wildcats owning a 70-60-14 advantage. The two will meet again Saturday at 7:07 p.m. at the Berry Events Center in Marquette.

In this weekend’s series, the competition is stiff. Tech recently fell from the top-20 rankings, and Northern Michigan just snuck into the No. 20 spot. The Huskies have lost four of their last five games, narrowly escaping the fifth with a tie, and the Wildcats are coming off a 4-1 victory over No. 9 Minnesota State. 

In other words, the two teams are currently at opposite ends of the spectrum. But when it comes to rivalries, wins don’t matter. Neither do losses. 

Nobody knows that like the Huskies. Here they reflect on what it means to be part of such a historic rivalry:

Junior Forward Jake Lucchini

LAASE: Why is this series such a big deal for your team?

JL: “It is a big game for our team because we’ve been struggling lately. This is a good time to get back into it. I think the rivalry will bring another element to the game. We know that it is a big game no matter who we are playing, but playing Northern brings something new. The building here is going to be packed and when we go there it is going to be packed. It is going to be intense, they want to win, we want to win. There really isn’t anything more you can say about it.” 

LAASE: What makes this rivalry better than others?

JL: I don’t know a lot about many other college hockey rivalries, but I think this has to be the best. Especially since it is an hour and a half down the road. We respect them, but we want to beat them in every sport. We want to beat them at everything, even academics.”

Head Coach Joe Shawhan

LAASE: What makes a rivalry great?

JS: “The fans make a rivalry, the excitement, the buildup, the expectations. They bring the energy. If there was nobody in the rink and the two teams met, there might be a scrap or two, but you wouldn’t feel it like you do when everybody is buzzing about it.”

Junior Goalie Patrick “Packy” Munson

LAASE: What was your favorite rivalry growing up?

PM: “Where I grew up it was the Gophers vs. North Dakota. You don’t want to say you hate the players on the other team, but there is just something about them where no matter what you just don’t like them. Having the fans give that extra boost because they take it personally, that is when a rivalry is the best.  

Senior Captain Brent Baltus

LAASE: What can someone who has never witnessed this rivalry expect on Friday?

BB: “This is my fifth year now and it is always very exciting the whole week leading up. There is a lot of energy around town and in both our rink and their rink it is electric in there. There isn’t an empty seat in the house, so it is very exciting to be a part of. When you have a lot of history between two teams it makes for a physical, fast-paced game.”

LAASE: What was your first game against Northern like?

BB: “I wasn’t nervous, at least not any more than any other game. I think as a freshman, you maybe don’t know exactly how big the rivalry is until you get into the game and play in it. So as the years go by, it almost gets bigger and bigger.” 

Junior Goalie Devin Kero

LAASE: How would you define a rivalry?

DK: “A rivalry is when you don’t need anything to build up the game, it is already built up. Rankings don’t matter, nothing matters, every year it is circled on everyone’s calendar — both in the community and on the team.”

LAASE: As a local guy, what does this rivalry mean to you?

DK: “There is a lot of tradition in it. I grew up many times watching Tech play Northern and I’ve always hated Northern, it is just a natural thing. Since we don’t like them, there is always a little extra physicality. It is always a good game, and it doesn’t matter whether one team is ranked a lot higher than the other team.”

Senior Forward Joel L’Esperance

LAASE: How would you describe the MacInnes Student Ice Arena when Tech plays Northern?

JL: “It is a really easy game to get up for and get excited for. The first time I played against them was here, a sold-out crowd that was four rows deep on the glass and it was a crazy atmosphere. I scored in that game and it was an unreal feeling. The crowd went insane.”

Freshman Goalie Robbie Beydoun

LAASE: What are you expecting for your first time playing against Northern?

RB: “This place was already so loud for the other games, so I can’t even imagine how it is going to be this weekend. All the rivalry games I’ve been in, it has just been like a war out there, and I’m sure that is how it will be this weekend. It is fun to see the fans get so into it. It is a lot bigger now than any rivalry was for me before because I’m representing a whole school, rather than just representing a small town or area. I take pride in the jersey and the opportunity to represent Michigan Tech against a school that’s just down the road.”