Hero’s welcome: Gremlins greeted at home
HOUGHTON — With a 4-1 loss Saturday, the magical run the Houghton Gremlins hockey team had been on came to a screeching halt against a very talented Detroit Country Day Yellowjackets team in the Division 3 state final contest at the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Michigan.
Sunday, the team returned home to a police and fire escort from Chassell through downtown Houghton and then up the hill to Houghton High School, where the team was greeted by parents, siblings, cousins, and other various friends and neighbors at the school, cheering their return.
For head coach Corey Markham, the run to the state final and then the ensuing assembly at the school on Sunday marked the final chapter in what has been a difficult, exhausting year that has had its ups and downs, from the death of his nephew, which was still fresh on his mind Sunday, to the win over rival Calumet in the Region 17 final to secure a spot in the state tournament.
“It’s hard to talk (about it) without getting tears,” said Markham. “(It was) such a tragic event for the whole Copper Country and for our family in losing my nephew.”
From the incredible tragedy of lost life at such a young age came something that cannot be quantified in words. It is hard to measure chemistry, it is even harder to determine the effect of chemistry on a group of athletes.
Yet, that is exactly what came out of the days that followed the Father’s Day flood.
“Our players, the second after it happened, were contacting me about ways they could help,” Markham said. “They knew what ‘Copper Country Strong’ was all about. The very first day of practice, I got the stickers and told them what it means to me, and to the community, to be wearing that sticker. They wore it with pride. That was a badge of honor the players wanted to wear. It meant a lot to me.”
From the first practice on, it became clear to the Gremlins’ coaching staff that there was something special about the makeup of this year’s group. It all started with the senior class, a group that included Kevin Bostwick and Justin Norkol on the blueline, Brad Gauthier, Seth Francois, Brendan Erickson, P.J. Donnelly up front and then Jett Heinonen and Ewan Beyer, who both play forward or defense, depending on the situation.
Markham loved the leadership shown by his seniors, in particular Bostwick and Norkol, who both were four-year starters and really pushed the pace of the game from the back end as both ended up with over 20 points each.
“The seniors had tremendous leadership,” said Markham. “(They) created a lot of our chemistry. They did a lot of our scoring.
“(Bostwick) deserves all the accolades he gets. He is just a tremendous young man.”
Markham was also extremely impressed with one senior in particular, Francois, who scored goals in both state semifinal and the final. Francois and Bostwick were both named to the All-Tournament team.
“He (Francois) made that and he absolutely deserved to make it,” said Markham. “(In the) championship game, he was our best player, bar none. His energy, his effort, was so unreal. I cannot say enough. He just plays hard, does his shift and comes back to the bench. (He carries) the same attitude, no matter what is happening.”
Following the seniors’ leadership was the junior class, a group that included Ty Halonen on the back end and Niko Rajala and Jiseung Choi as returning players along with newer faces Carson Stevens and Tucker Tapani, all of whom played some key roles throughout the season.
“Our junior class really chipped in,” Markham said. “Those are kids that are going to be our leaders next year.”
A group of sophomores also made an impact this season, starting with goaltenders Jimmy Pietila and Matthew Ryynanen. In front of them, Dane Johnson and Milo Schaefer learned a lot from Bostwick and Norkol, both in practices and games, about how to conduct themselves on and off the ice. Up front, Nathan Erva had a huge impact down the stretch, providing consistent offense and even getting to start in the state final game.
Markham glowed talking about Pietila and what he proved in the playoffs, fighting hard for every save he could.
The Gremlins put together an extremely impressive season going 19-5-1 in the regular season and then going 4-1 in tournament play. Houghton never lost two games in a row. They were never shut out. Two of their six losses came against Calumet. One loss came against Division 2 state champion Hartland.
“Very few teams worked harder than us this year,” Markham said.
They tied Livonia Stevenson. They beat Marquette twice, Calumet twice, Brother Rice, Cranbrook and Warren De La Salle once each. They were the only team to score four goals against Alpena all season, and they posted an 8-0 win over Riverview Gabriel Richard.
Markham felt this team’s finals loss was the most difficult of his 20-year career.
“I don’t think anyone expected this group to get to this point,” said Markham. “It’s the hardest because this is a game, I think, we could have won. Ultimately, we didn’t get the win.”