Wisconsin Windigo hold training camp in Houghton
HOUGHTON — For three men who stepped on the ice at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena on Friday afternoon, there was a sense of being home. Who were those three men? All three are Houghton natives, including two trying out for the North American Hockey League’s Wisconsin Windigo. The other, their potential head coach this coming season.
Blake Hietala, who is also a former Michigan Tech Huskies forward, is looking for the right combination of players for his second season at the helm of the Windigo. Two players looking to be part of that combination are the current Mr. Hockey for Michigan, Camden Markham, and defenseman Matthew Rowe, both of whom are graduates of Houghton High School and both are former Gremlins.
The pair could be important pieces for the Windigo if they make the final roster. At this point, they are both taking part in the two-a-day practices and scrimmages that last through Thursday.
For Rowe, who was part of the Madison Capitols 18U team that won the Wisconsin state title last season, getting the chance to take part in this camp is both a lot of work and a lot of fun.
“It’s good,” he said. “It’s a lot of skating, a lot of work every day. It’s a lot of fun, though. (It’s) good to hang out with the guys and just be together and play a game that we love to play.”
For Markham, being about to compete in training camp at home is really exciting for another reason.
“It’s super cool having training camp up here,” he said. “It’s been a blast showing the guys around town.”
Because Markham and his family live just outside of Houghton, he is also enjoying finding other ways to help the team with the experience.
“I’m having a couple of boys stay at my house, so, yeah, it’s been a good experience so far,” he said.
Both Rowe and Markham agree that being able to stay at home is a very nice bonus to the experience thus far.
“It’s really nice,” said Rowe. “(I) get to sleep on my own bed, get to be on the lake. (I am taking) a lot of saunas after practice to go and relax.”
On the ice, Markham admits that things are moving faster than they did last season with the Gremlins.
“It’s just a heck of a lot faster,” he said. “Everybody thinks at a completely different pace, and the game is just a lot harder here than it is in high school, but it’s fun.”
He admits that there is plenty of room for improvement.
“It’s a big adjustment,” he said, “but (it’s) something I can work on.”
Rowe, who was younger than most when he graduated from high school, found success last season playing AAA hockey, which served as a bridge between high school and juniors, where the Windigo play.
“Last year (there was) not as much skill, not as much speed,” he said. “So it’s definitely a step up, but you just take it day by day and try to get better.”
Markham agrees with his former Gremlins teammate, especially since the camp is showing him where he needs to work on improving his game.
“Yeah, it’s way different, but every day, every practice, you’re getting better, playing with way better guys, and so that’s a blast always,” he said. “It’s always fun to get better and be with guys that are better than you, so that you can become a better overall hockey player.”
Markham got to spend the last two months of the Windigo season around the team after the Gremlins lost in the state semifinals to East Grand Rapids. He played in three games at the end of the regular season, picking up an assist along the way.
“I think being there last year for those last two months of the season, that helped a lot, kind of staying up to pace with them,” he said. “Just overall, every day, I feel like I’m getting used to it a little bit more.”
Rowe has enjoyed getting a chance to play with different defensive partners throughout camp, which has given him a chance to pick up some things he wants to add to his own game.
“You’ve got guys from all over the place,” he said. “Everybody brings a different skill set, different part of the game. It’s fun just to play with everybody and kind of piece it together and try to build a good team.”
For Markham, being around a whole batch of new teammates is a different experience, because he has had players like his best friend, Gaborik Carlson around his whole career. However, with a cousin in camp as well, he is quickly making new friends and learning from his new linemates every skate.
“It’s definitely different not having my best buddy with me, playing with him, but I’ve already made friends,” he said. “I have my cousin on the team, so (I am working on) making new types of chemistry with different types of guys. It’s been super fun, and it’s a lot different being able to play without your friend.”
While both Rowe and Markham are enjoying the experience, they know they have to impress Hietala if they want to be part of the puzzle this season. Rowe has a lot of respect for the job that Hietala has to do in building the best team he can.
“He’s good,” said Rowe, when asked about Hietala’s coaching style. “He’s very serious and doesn’t put up with a lot of BS. So, he keeps everybody’s heads in the game, and keeps us going. (He) pushes us and really helps us improve.”
The Windigo will be on the ice twice a day at the MacInnes Student Ice Arena until Friday, when they head to Janesville for their first preseason action.