Changing minds: Eick, Watson help inspire hockey players from central Wisconsin

Photo courtesy of Michigan Tech Athletics Former Michigan Tech winger C.J. Eick drives around a Michigan defender during a game in Houghton.

HOUGHTON — Growing up together in Appleton, Wisconsin, former Michigan Tech hockey players C.J. Eick and Cliff Watson found success from youth hockey right up to the professional ranks. When they first hit the ice together, they were part of creating an atmosphere in eastern Wisconsin, and later helped rebuild an expectation of winning in Houghton, Michigan, before moving on to the ECHL, where the pair have bumped into each other at various stops along the way.

“Well, I mean, if you look at it, like, there’s kids in high school elementary school that you thought you’d be best buddies with forever, and it just never works out,” said Watson. “It just was. We were fortunate enough, where we just kept getting put in the same situation, where we’d be together every season. Especially now that we’re still both living in Appleton during the summers, and we train together.”

Neither player foresaw being a part of something far bigger than themselves when they were younger.

“The thing for us too, is that as far as expecting something like this to happen,” said Eick, “I mean, Appleton, especially when we were growing up, wasn’t much of a hockey hotbed, right?

“So there was one older guy than us that went on to play university (at) Wisconsin, but most guys didn’t even really make it into juniors, you know. So, to think that we would be playing college together would have been kind of a stretch, you know. We were just hoping because nobody from the area was making it to college.”

Photo courtesy of Michigan Tech Athletics Former Michigan Tech defenseman Cliff Watson (2) looks to make a lead pass to Alex Gillies (9) during a game in Detroit.

Since the duo moved on to juniors and college, more kids from Appleton have started making their way through the ranks. Watson and Eick are proud to see players from their hometown move on the way they did.

“Yeah, it’s been awesome,” said Eick. “It’s cool to see, you know, now there’s been guys a couple years younger than us that have moved on and got to do the same thing we’re doing. His brother Cooper (Watson), you know, getting to play in the USA Challenge now playing at Tech. Trenton Bliss doing the same thing, going to the (Green Bay) Gamblers (then) playing at Tech.”

With another college hockey program coming along in Arizona State, another player that Watson and Eick inspired is now a Sun Devil. Also, a third Watson brother, Carver, is heading to Mercyhurst.

“Brett Gruber was kind of in our situation, now he’s playing out at Arizona State,” Eick said. “So now I went from this, you know, town where there wasn’t a ton of guys moving on and playing. And now you’re seeing more growth and guys doing it. I think that a lot (of it is) the coaches in the area for our age group were awesome. So everybody had fun.”

Coaches like Cliff’s father, Cliff, who helped inspire them to be better players.

“The coaches there in the area did a great job, you know, developing talent where they didn’t have a ton of that before, or they didn’t have the coaches trying to do the right things,” said Eick. “Maybe it was a guy who played high school hockey. Having guys who knew how to develop skill and move guys on and they did they did a great job in that area.”

“We were definitely fortunate to have parents who, you know, would come out and they didn’t have to come out and coach our teams, they just poured their time, and their passion into bringing us all to practice every night,” said Watson. “I think that’s honestly probably one of the biggest reasons that we are where we are now. I mean, you look at some of the guys that maybe didn’t even have a kid on the team, who are they’re putting in their time and, and I mean, I could go on all day and name all the coaches who did so much for us that really put us in the spot we are today. It’s awesome.”

The pair who simply loved playing together has set a bar for local players in the Appleton area to strive for. They could not be more proud of how their hometown has progressed as a viable place for college recruiters to consider.