With all due respect to the great cities of Ishpeming, Escanaba and Hubbell, Sault Ste. Marie just might be the most happening place on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Situated on the shores of the St. Mary's River, Sault Ste. Marie (pop. 17,000), affectionately and phonetically known as the Soo, is the home of the Soo Locks, which, unless frozen, allow huge freighters to pass between Lake Huron and Lake Superior. The locks attract 750,000 tourists every summer, and if you believe the billboards on Interstate 75, they are A MARITIME ADVENTURE! According to at least one local, though, the locks are "boring as all hell." If you really want action, just drop a hockey puck. Sault Ste. Marie is also the home of Lake Superior State University, a perennial Division I hockey powerhouse and the nation's No. 1-ranked team as of Feb. 11.
It seems a little odd that this remote outpost, with only 3,200 students, has lured so much hockey talent. The campus isn't the attraction, that's for sure. The place was once Fort Brady, an army base established in the 1890s essentially to protect the waterway. Lake Superior State, as it is now known, was originally a two-year branch of Michigan College of Mining and Technology. In 1966 it became a four-year school. The Lakers won NAIA hockey titles in 1972 and 74, moved to NCAA Division I in 1976, and three years ago won their first national championship.
So how does Lake State do it? The Lakers have built their program by blending a few blue-chip players with a lot of hardworking castoffs and unknowns. The current team is the result of creative recruiting and some dogged player development.
"I'd never heard of the place before," says senior center Jim Dowd, the team's best player and a leading candidate for this year's Hobey Baker Award, hockey's version of the Heisman Trophy. Certainly Dowd's first visit to the school must have given him reason to think twice about spending four years in the Soo. A blinding snowstorm struck while Dowd was heading for the town, and it left him stranded for 10 hours at Detroit's Metro Airport. "I ate about 10 hot dogs waiting for the next plane," he recalls. "But when I finally did get up here and got a look at the hockey program, I signed. I don't remember ever seeing the campus."
We should mention that Dowd's pig-out was the only wining and dining he received as a senior coming out of Brick Township (N.J.) High School. Although the playmaking center had set national schoolboy scoring records, Lake State was the only Division I school that called him for a visit. Seems that not many recruiters take New Jersey hockey seriously.
Apparently not too many were interested in goaltender Darrin Madeley, either. In 1988-89, Madeley was playing for a terrible Richmond Hill club in the Central Ontario Junior Hockey League, and his goals-against average was an ugly 5.30. "But he was facing 60 shots a night," says first-year Laker coach Jeff Jackson, who recruited virtually every member of his current team during his four years as an assistant coach. "It wasn't like he was letting in five bad goals a game." So Jackson took a chance on Madeley, and the goalie responded by leading the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), one of four Division I leagues, in both goals-against average (2.42) and save percentage (.915) last season.
It was a typical Laker coup, according to Jackson. Three years ago he had brought in goalie Bruce Hoffort under similar circumstances, and Hoffort had gone on to become an All-America. "We've made our mark by nabbing unknown players off junior teams that aren't very good," Jackson says.
The Lakers try to bring in freshmen who have played one or two years at the junior level, such as the Central Ontario, Saskatchewan or North American leagues. Madeley, a sophomore academically, is 23 years old. "We like kids who move away from home at 17 to play in a place like Melville, Saskatchewan," says assistant coach Jim Roque. "They're tougher. They know how to take care of themselves." All of Lake State's seven freshmen this year are over 20.
The Lakers are bigger and stronger than your typical college team, and through the years they have been known for a very physical style of play, especially under former coach Frank Anzalone. Anzalone took the reins at Lake State in 1982 and turned the fledgling Division I program into an NCAA champion in 1987-88. Despite his success, the fiery Anzalone was constantly at odds with the school's athletic department.
That power struggle ended last May when athletic director Jim Fallis failed to renew Anzalone's contract. There was some backlash in the Soo—after all, Anzalone was 191-108-22 at Lake State—but the team's fast start this year eased the tension. Moreover, Jackson is popular with both the players and the community.
"Coach Jackson treats us more like adults," says junior defenseman Mark Astley. The soft-spoken Jackson is also more interested in promoting his team than himself. Now, the weekly Laker Hockey Program on radio station WSOO interviews both the coach and the players. "Frank would never have gone for that," Astley says. "It was all him. He'd come right out and tell you that he was the reason we were winning. Maybe it was his way of motivating us."
Jackson has also lightened the team's practice load and allowed his players a more normal life away from the ice. Anzalone says, "I think that's fine. The kids think their new coach is refreshing. That's fine, because they all know the secret. I taught them that the secret is discipline." He goes on to say, "There's an aura surrounding Frank Anzalone. It's the same aura that surrounded Vince Lombardi, the same aura that surrounds Mike Keenan. Sometimes that's more than people can handle."
There are noticeable differences on the ice this year. The team is no longer the "clutch-and-grab Lakers," as it was tagged by an opposing coach during its championship season. They're more like the L.A. Lakers, fast and fluid. With such skillful centers as Dowd, Doug Weight and freshman Clayton Beddoes, the last thing the Lakers want to do is dump and chase for 60 minutes. They're more apt to circle back with the puck, regroup in the defensive zone and use their speed. "I wanted to add more of a European style," says Jackson. "I think that's what college hockey is all about."
"But honestly," says Dowd. "We didn't have the players before who were capable of anything but the grinding style. We do now."
Time was when the Lakers couldn't compete with the glamour schools when it came to recruiting. No more. Weight, a second-round draft pick of the New York Rangers in 1990, was pursued by both Michigan State and Michigan, while Bed-does turned down a ride to Wisconsin. "I liked that they did everything together," says Weight of his decision to attend Lake State. "At some schools, the guys only see each other at the rink. This was the closest team I'd ever seen."
"We can tell you how the guys on other teams tape their sticks," says senior left wing Tim Breslin. "That's how into hockey we are."
The people of the Soo have a similar passion for the game and for their team. After a 4-0 win over Michigan State on Jan. 19, the first time the powerful Spartans had been shut out in 10 years, a crowd gathered outside the Norris Center sports complex to watch the Lakers—in full uniform—ring the rusty victory bell, a tradition after a home win. Later, Dowd lingered in the arena's cement corridor, savoring the win and signing autographs.
"You got me already," Dowd said to a little boy wearing a blue-and-gold jacket with SOO MICHIGAN HOCKEY printed on it.
"I know," the boy whispered. "But I want to ask you a question. I've got a game here on February 3, and I was wondering if you could come to it?"
"I'll try," Dowd said.
"Well, can I have your phone number so I can call to remind you?" Dowd took the boy's program and obligingly wrote his phone number below his autograph.
After that evening's victory Dowd and Breslin hosted a party at the campus townhouse they share with teammates Jeff Napierala, John Caliguire and Dean Hulett and one other student. "Our place gets trashed," said Breslin. "But we use the deposits on everyone's beer cans to pay our cable bill." Sure enough, as friends of the team filled the living room, each empty can was laid to rest behind the TV set. It looked as if the boys would be able to add Showtime next month.
Upstairs, away from the noise of the party, Dowd and Breslin sat on their wood-frame beds amid piles of dirty laundry and hundreds of uncased cassette tapes. Dowd, who is forever smiling, has a pudgy Irish face and unkempt brown hair that he says he hasn't combed "in the last 10 years." Breslin is slender with a perpetual poker face, though Dowd calls him (as he does six teammates and two of his friends from the U.S. Select team) "the funniest guy—ever." They smirked and made eye contact when asked about their major, recreation management. "This semester we're taking advanced ice-shaving," said Breslin, joking. They both admit that they have basically "gotten by" throughout their academic careers. "We go to class, though," said Dowd, "because all of our professors know us. Most of them go to the games."
Both are on schedule to graduate this spring, and Breslin, the first college man in his family, is quick to point out that rec management requires a business minor.
Dowd and Breslin are two of Lake State's eight seniors. They say they're trying to squelch talk of another national championship. There are still some games left to be played, tough games against teams the Lakers are expected to beat-teams that never gave Dowd and Breslin a look as high school players.
"The fact is, a lot of us didn't have a choice of schools," said Dowd. "It was here or nowhere."
"That's why we're all so close," said Breslin. "We didn't care about a pretty campus or a big city. We cared about the hockey."
In the Soo, that's something worth caring about.