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Team Copper Country helping put area ‘back on the map’

Daily Mining Gazette/Daver Karnosky Bulldogs forward Alex Nordstrom controls the puck in a game against the Pirates during the 2016-17 season at the Houghton County Arena.

HOUGHTON — When now former head coach Micah Stipech sat down a few years ago, he came up with an idea. He wanted to put the Copper Country “back on the map.”

After spending multiple seasons on the bench alongside Corey Markham at Houghton, Stipech knew one thing for sure, the hockey players in the Copper Country are talented, coachable and capable of even more than they were showing in high school games each season.

“We have always had talented players here,” said Stipech. “It felt like we were off the hockey map and no one was really paying attention to us.

“Now you have street credit again, relationships with junior teams, and it opens up doors for future generations. It’s a big step for so many kids to have these opportunities.”

In thinking up ways to showcase that talent for coaches at the junior and college ranks that he knew, he came up with creating an 18U Tier 2 hockey club. In four years, Team Copper Country has gone from a program that moves maybe one or two players on to six more this season, with the potential for several more over the coming seasons.

Finlandia University has recently announced that former Hancock stars Teddy Randell and Dylan Paavola are joining the ranks. Add to that list goaltender Dawson Kero, who made his commitment to the program as of Monday, and suddenly Team CC has as many as five alumni on roster for the Lions as the Hancock trio join former Houghton goaltender Marcus Gloss, who comes into this season as likely the Lions’ No. 1, and Hancock’s Hunter Kero.

Lions coach Joe Burcar, who is in third year of his second tenure with the program, has made it a priority to bring local kids into the fold. Landing a player with Randell’s talent goes a long way towards showing other local players that Finlandia can be a positive landing spot after high school.

“This is something I have talked about,” said Burcar. “It’s important, for me as a coach, and for the program, to get the local kids into the program. They are good people. They are raised by good families. They are easy to coach.”

“We had success with it before.”

Another former Team CC skater who is moving on to college hockey is Hancock’s Zach Ahola, who is heading to SUNY-Canton. For Burcar, Ahola is one who “got away,” but he is happy to see Ahola continuing his dream of playing college hockey.

Former Houghton goaltender Ryall Purdy is playing Division III hockey at Waldorf University and got into five games as a freshman.

Of course, there are six other local players who have already moved on to play college hockey without the help of Team CC. Three at the Division I level in Michigan Tech’s Raymond Brice, from Houghton, and Northern Michigan’s Brendan Jacques and Jesse Junttila, and three others at Finlandia in Houghton’s Connor Hannon and Cale Markham and Hancock’s Devyn LaCourt.

To see so many local kids joining the college ranks whether they played with Team CC or not is something that Stipech is very proud of.

“If our program was a small piece of opening doors or giving them more opportunities, then you feel that you have accomplished one of the goals that program set out,” said Stipech. “It feels very good to see them get opportunities and move on.

“Those kids that are moving on, it’s exciting to see where it takes them.”

Several other Team CC members from the past two seasons are heading out to junior teams this year.

Two of the biggest names to be moving on are Houghton’s Dawson McKay, who is heading to the Bismarck Bobcats of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) and Hancock’s Alex Nordstrom, who is going to the Grand Prairie Storm of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL).

Both kids had opportunities in multiple leagues in part due to the efforts of Stipech, who has spent hours talking with coaches about the quality of the prs he is looking to send their way.

“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to getting these players where they are going,” said Stipech. “Sometimes it’s as simple as getting drafted, other times I have spent many hours talking to coaches. You have to turn over every rock and see what the best fit is.”

McKay had to choose between the Bobcats and the Powell River Kings of the British Columbia Hockey League. After some deliberation, McKay settled on Bismarck, which is coached by Layne Sedevie.

Sedevie sees McKay’s potential as a right-shooting power forward, and given that he stands over 6-foot-3 and currently weighs in at 190 lbs., it would seem that Sedevie’s plan would be a great fit for McKay, who racked up 28 goals and 54 points last season for the Gremlins while serving as their team captain.

“Dawson continued growing last season,” said Stipech. “In high school, when you are that talented, you can do it all. Now, he is a power forward. He needs to understand that is his role.”

Nordstrom also had offers from multiple teams, but chose the Storm, who are also adding a player who last played in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and had forward Zach Okabe commit to Vermont.

It is expected that head coach Matt Keillor will give Nordstrom, who scored 170 points in 80 career games with the Bulldogs, every opportunity to showcase his ability in the Storm’s Top Six.

“He’s going to have an opportunity to adjust in a place that is a lot like the U.P.,” said Stipech. “(We will) see if he can raise his game to the next level. He will be more of a known quantity and he will see how he does against players who can play at the college level.”

As a team, the Storm should be a familiar name for Huskies’ fans. They were the team that current center Alex Smith started his junior career in 2011-12.

Several other former Team CC members are heading to other NAHL squads this season. Both Hartland’s Jed Pietila and Calumet’s Rory Anderson are heading to the Austin Bruins. Kingsford’s Daunte Fortner is heading to Corpus Christi to join the IceRays and Bayport’s Austin Mikesch is going to the Chippewa Falls Steel.

With so many players moving on, Stipech feels that he and his fellow coaches, including the help of local high school coaches like Markham, Dan Giachino in Calumet and Dan Rouleau in Hancock, the state of hockey in the Copper Country is in a very good place and there is potential for it to continue to grow.

While Stipech himself has stepped down from Team CC to take a job with Burcar at Finlandia, former Hancock and Michigan Tech standout Jeff Mikesch will be taking the reigns of Team CC starting this fall, Stipech feels that he is leaving things in a good place.

With the recent success Team CC has enjoyed, and the players beginning to benefit, he feels that things are moving forward.

“Over time, maybe we can become that community that pumps out, at a more consistent rate, Division I players,” said Stipech, “but, it doesn’t just happen by mistake. There’s so many more hockey players in the United States that are in good hockey programs than there used to be.

“I feel like it is trending in the right direction, but it takes a lot of effort and a lot of committed people to make it happen.”

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