Lions hockey shows success on ice, in classroom in 2019

David Archambeau/For the Gazette Finlandia’s Cory Richardson drives up the rink with the puck during a game earlier this season at the Houghton County Arena.

HANCOCK — When current Finlandia Lions men’s hockey coach Joe Burcar was invited back into the fold, there were some obvious expectations locally: he would do his best to get the Lions back to competitive on a nightly basis, and he would do that with local talent.

Stepping into the role for the second time in his career in August of 2016, Burcar’s Lions did start to get some local talent in place in players like goaltender Marcus Gloss and forwards Connor Hannon and Hunter Kero, but the team won just one game in two seasons.

Fast forward another calendar year, and much has changed.

On the ice, Burcar’s Lions won eight games and qualified for the NCHA playoffs, While they did lose in two games to St. Norbert, the Lions showed a tremendous amount of progress in getting to the postseason.

Last month, the Lions made fans happy again, this time in the classroom. The Lions finished the 2018-19 school year with the highest GPA on campus among sports teams.

“That just says so much about the people, the student athletes,” he said. “All the credit needs to go to them. One, you identify a good person, a good athlete, and you bring them here. They are focused on academics. They balance their time throughout the week.”

Fifteen of the 28 players on the team had a GPA over 3.5 for the year. Six were above 4.0. Seven were named to the NCHA All-Academic Team.

WIth a team GPA of 3.25, the Lions exceeded even Burcar’s expectations.

“It is big news” said Burcar. “We are producing quality student athletes.”

Unlike Michigan Tech, where the stress on student athlete is often on the student, sometimes that same level of dedication in the classroom does not exist in an athlete at the DIvision III level. For Burcar, that attitude is simply not acceptable.

“That just back to recruiting quality student athletes,” he said. “You want retention at the school. You want them to, No. 1, get their degree. That is going to carry them in life.

“At the same time, it starts with recruiting character people.”

For Burcar, the support his team is receiving on campus helps as well.

“Yes, we are a small school,” he said, “but we have a tremendous amount of support on campus. Our freshmen have to a minimum of four hours of study table (each week) to help them become good student athletes. Those are the things that help us along the way.”

Burcar is also quick to praise the efforts of his players in finding ways to succeed, despite the schedule demands on a student athlete off the ice.

“You have to give all the credit to the students themselves,” said Burcar. “They are the ones who have to create the time management. Their plate is extremely full from athletics to academics. Some even carry a part-time job. Their week is full.”

This past season, the Lions opened their season on the road, playing their first five games away from Hancock, which further puts pressure on the athletes, especially the freshmen, to learn time management away from the rink.

“We had our two longest road trips out of the way on the first two weekends, and the third was no cakewalk either,” he said. “(They were) compressing a full week into three days to get their work done. These guys, it’s up to them to talk to their professors, manage their time. It’s a lot of daily choices they have to make. Not every day was great, but they made a point of just getting things done.”

In general, Burcar likes the way the hockey schedule works for his players.

“For us, and for a few other sports, we go through both semesters,” he said. “I like the way that hockey is set up. When they get here, they have some time to get acclimated. We don’t start practice until Oct. 14.

“I think it allows them some time to acclimate to being a student athlete. It gives them six weeks to get situated and get off to a good start for the fall semester.”

After the season ends, the student athletes still have work to do, and Burcar is proud to see his players putting the time and effort in, both in the weight room and in the classroom. His players continue to work with their strength coaches while also focusing on their classwork. He feels that keeps his players moving in the right direction.