End of an era: Markham hangs up the clipboard for the last time
HOUGHTON — For more than half his life, Corey Markham has given himself over to the Orange and Black of the Houghton Gremlins hockey program year after year. Next season will be the first time in 26 years that he will not be behind the bench in some form.
Corey, who played four years for the Gremlins, then returned as an assistant coach for one year before taking over as the head coach for the past 24 seasons, announced his retirement from coaching this week. He finishes his career just four wins shy of 400 at 396-216-22.
This season, he led the Gremlins to a 23-2 record in the regular season, a Region 17 championship and a state semifinal. Just about the only thing the team did not do was win a state title during his tenure.
“It’s pretty mind blowing when you sit down and look back on some of the things that we accomplished as a group,” he said. “It was just an absolutely magical season from this drop of the puck. Like I said many times, we just didn’t have the magical ending, but everything else was unbelievable.”
In Corey’s final season with the Gremlins, they beat Hartland for the first time. They also knocked off some traditional powers of high school hockey in the state of Michigan, including Brighton, Saginaw Heritage, and Brother Rice.
“Brother Rice, they won the state championship in Division 2,” Markham said. “We had so many tremendous wins.”
Add to those wins the fact that the Gremlins started the season 20-0 and also won the MacInnes Classic, and Corey’s resume, just for this season, was enough to earn him Coach of the Year for Division 3.
Along with those accomplishments, all three players off of the Gremlins’ top line, Camden Markham, Gaborik Carlson, and Landon Stevens, were all tendered to play junior hockey in the North American Hockey League. For Corey, having all three answer the challenge he laid before them at the start of the season and then to see them all get rewarded for answering that challenge in the end, there has been little in his career that tops this special group.
“It is just a big testament of just the weight training they put in,” he said. “These big, strong seniors, they just (had) a hunger to win. They wanted to win and they proved it. Then, as a coach, to see that all three have signed on to play juniors, I’ve never even come close to anything like that.
“Having three kids sign to play at high-end junior programs, off of one team, much less off of one line. So, that was so great to see as a coach.”
In December, he broke the school record for wins set by his former coach, Don “Mitt” Miller.
“”It feels great to beat it,” said Corey after the Gremlins’ win over Hartland. “Mitt’s my mentor, and he was here for 28 years and meant so much to so many of the guys that played for him. All the years add up, and it was just really special.”
Breaking Miller’s record with his first win over the Eagles also meant a lot to Corey.
“Then, to do it against a team that we had never beaten, that is definitely one of the top teams in the state, just makes it so much sweeter,” he said.
Rick Gadwa, who coaches the Eagles, had nothing but praise for Corey after that game.
“I think the world of Corey Markham,” he said. “I think that he’s such a phenomenal coach. He’s done such great things here for Houghton, and the community, and, obviously, coaching.
“So, it’s a special moment for him, and it’s so well deserved.”
For opposing coaches, Corey’s Gremlins teams, year in and year out, have been a model of consistency.
“You know the product that you’re going to play against when you play a Houghton team,” said Calumet coach Dan Giachino. “They’re going to work really hard, they’re going to utilize and basically try to beat you down low, and use their speed and physicality.
“He certainly coaches that way, and gets them to work hard. Obviously, he’s had a lot of success in that program.”
Over the years, Corey has had to adjust his coaching style as the game has changed.
“I’m just a light years better coach now than I was when I first started,” he said. “I mean, I was really inexperienced when I first started. I had one year being an assistant under Mitt. He had been doing it for 28, well, his last year was his 28th year. He didn’t have practice plans written out. He just kind of knew in his head what he was going to do. For me, learning, it was a big step, but I grew a ton.
“(We now have) way more individual skill development, gearing practices, and helping kids that way, then just different systems, and competing. You grow that way. I’m proud of what the culture of our team was with me in my 24 years.”
One of the biggest impacts of Corey’s tenure with the Gremlins has been in getting teams from downstate Michigan to make the trek to the Copper Country to face the local teams. The trips have meant so much to every team that has done it, which has created so much interest that now there is a waiting list for those teams that want to make the journey.
A large number of coaches from downstate teams marvel at the work ethic of the Gremlins year in and year out.
“Numerous times, I’ve had coaches from downstate ask how do you get your kids to work that hard,” he said. “We were known as one of the hardest working teams in the state, year in, year out. That’s what I’m most proud of, and that comes from the kids and their willingness to just lay it on the line.”
Along with hard work on the ice, Corey learned the importance of off-ice work as well, which helped improve his players’ performances.
“To me, one of the secrets to our success, and we’ve been super successful the last few years, but especially this year, was our weight training program,” he said. “We had everyone involved in the summer, and then every kid was in weight and cardio classes during the school year. So, every hockey player was lifting, and we were physically strong. I felt the great majority of our games, we were the physically stronger team against pretty much everyone we played and that’s the kids putting in that time and working out.
“Then, you have to watch your diet. I mean, if you really want success, and that is your team goal, you have to do those types of things. You perform better when you eat right.”
Corey has spent the last four years coaching his son, which was made even more especial earlier this month when Camden was named Mr. Hockey after breaking school records for points in a season and in a career.
“It made it all so much more special to me to be able to share that and do that together,” said Corey. “So very few people get to do that with their son. That we were able to do that together, it meant the world to me, and it was so, so special.”
Corey has had the privilege, over the years, of coaching several successful squads, including state runner-up squads in 2012, 2015, and 2019, and a final four appearance in 2002. He has coached players who have moved on to college hockey and then onto the professional ranks in players like Raymond Brice and Connor Hannon.
Hannon, who has been playing hockey in Germany, still watches Gremlins games online when he can, and he comes back to the area and skates in the offseason with some of the current Gremlins.
“Corey is a good friend of mine and a person I look up to,” Hannon said. “So I was following the Gremlins a little extra heavy. Then (I) started to meet some of these kids, I started something last summer for the local kids. You get to know them.
“It’s just cool the amount of good quality hockey around.”
Corey announced his retirement on social media by posting a thank you letter to the hockey community. Several players and community members have commented about what his coaching has meant to them.
“Congratulations coach,” said Ronald Olson, a former Gremlins player when responding on Facebook. “You always pushed players to be better on and off the ice. Thank you.”
Players’ parents commented on the announcement on social media as well.
“Congrats on an outstanding career,” said Timm Carlson, Gaborik’s father. “Gaborik loved and enjoyed playing for you so, so much!! Whether it was in junior hockey or the last four years of high school!! Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
Another former player, Bryan Watters, was also very complimentary.
“Congrats coach,” he said. “What a career and way to end it. Proud to have played for you.”
While, as Corey says, the hockey gods were not with his teams when the state title was within reach, he moves on from Gremlins hockey knowing that he has had a tremendous impact on the team, the sport, and the area.