Usitalo was all-around sports star
CALUMET — There are opening acts and then there are debuts that dazzle.
Former Michigan Tech hockey standout Mike Usitalo had such an initial showing.
The former Calumet High product began his MTU career in 1970-71 season and led Tech in scoring with 28 goals and 17 assists.
Late MTU coach John MacInnes went so far as to call him the “next Gordie Howe” after that spectacular opening act.
“I think John (MacInnes) really believed Mike had the talent to become a big star,” late northend sports observer Bob Erkkila said in a 2012 interview. “He had that kind of potential.”
During his freshman season, he was picked as WCHA Freshman of the Year, Usitalo put together a streak of three hat tricks and was named Most Valuable Player at the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit.
Those accomplishments earned him a spot in Sports Illustrated “Faces in the Crowd.” That section featured up-and-coming athletes in all sports.
But a freakish knee injury just prior to his sophomore season put a damper on his chances.
Usitalo would miss most of the season with the knee injury, suffered at an intrasquad game.
Despite the loss of his sophomore year, he would finish his career at Tech with 71 goals and 61 assists for 132 points.
MacInnes said the knee problems Usitalo suffered slowed him down.
“If he had been able to avoid that (injury), I believe the sky would have been the limit for him,” the Tech coach said.
As it was, Usitalo was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings and was a member of 1974 U.S. National Team.
After stints with the Kings’ minor league affiliates at Springfield, Forth Worth and Muskegon, he had another knee operation.
“I decided after that to get out of hockey,” he said a few years ago.
Up to that point, Usitalo had put together a sterling sports career.
He never played high school hockey at Calumet High, preferring to play with the CLK Wolverines in his senior season. CHS had just started prep hockey, and the league was in its initial season.
“The Wolverines were a better fit for him,” Erkkila said. “It was a higher brand of hockey and a very good learning experience.”
Playing with such northend legends as Fred Barry and Bruce “Cukie” Coppo, he led the USHL in scoring in 1969.
“He got a lot of good assist feeds from Fred Barry,” Coppo recalled. “I think the expererience really got him ready to go play at Tech.”
Usitalo was just as versatile on the football field.
He scored 34 touchdowns in his career at tailback for the Copper Kings and was an All-U.P. pick at linebacker.
The late Walt Kitti, a coach on the Calumet staff, felt Usitalo could have played Division I football on defense.
“He was that athletic … he had great quickness and liked to hit,” Kitti said.
Also outstanding in track under Kitti, Usitalo was a top sprinter and recorded a jump of 21 feet in the broad jump (now known as the long jump).
In baseball, Mike had the kind of power seldom seen.
“The ball exploded off his bat,” recalled Coppo, a teammate on the ball diamond. “He had unreal power.”
He was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame a few years ago.
Erkkila said Usitalo was one of the top athletes ever produced locally.
“He really could do it all. He was a natural in all sports.”