When Michigan Tech coach Mel Pearson said, "Maybe this will be the year," before this past weekend's Great Lakes Invitational, I have to admit, it sounded a little bit like when Detroit Lions fans say that before every season.
Nothing personal against Pearson (or Lions fans, for that matter), it's just that when a team hasn't won its own tournament in 32 years, owns just a 4-10-3 record in the ongoing season and its opponents include two historically dominant GLI teams (Michigan and Michigan State) and the No. 7 team in the country (Western Michigan), it's easy for cynicism to erode even the purest optimism.
But this was the year.
This was finally the year the drought came to an end - and in emphatic fashion.
Tech beat Michigan, where Pearson served as an assistant coach for 23 years, and No. 7 WMU, both by 4-0 scores, and the Huskies dominated the 48th annual GLI.
Finally, the MacInnes Cup will return to the MacInnes Student Ice Arena. It's Tech's 10th GLI championship, but first since 1980, Pearson's senior year playing under legendary coach John MacInnes.
"So proud of our players, so happy for our fans and our alumni," Pearson said in a postgame interview Sunday on Fox Sports Detroit Plus. "They've gone through a lot of lean years. It's a special moment for Michigan Tech."
Indeed, even this reporter, a Copper Country native who had to watch the GLI from afar, has never been witness to a GLI championship (not even on TV) before this year. It's safe to say a good portion of the 31,068 fans who watched Saturday and Sunday's games hadn't seen it happen either.
Certainly none of Tech's players had seen it. In fact, none of the Huskies had even played in a GLI championship game, let alone won one (the last championship game appearance was 2007). Watching the championship banner get raised to the rafters at Joe Louis Arena, in front of more than a few Red Wings dignitaries (Mike Babcock, Steve Yzerman, to name a few) had to be a special feeling.
"I couldn't be happier," Tech senior defenseman and assistant captain Steven Seigo told Dirk Hembroff on WKMJ-FM following Sunday's game. "Myself, and Carl (Nielsen) and Tommy (Brown), and Aaron (Pietila), all the seniors, coming in after our first year, we were looking a little down with how the program was going, but we're starting to turn it around, and looking at (the banner) now, it's a great feeling."
The Huskies even got offensive contributions from some upperclassmen forwards Sunday. None of the previous 29 goals had been scored by a junior or senior forward until Dennis Rix, a junior, tallied the eventual game winner in the first period Sunday against WMU. Aaron Pietila, a senior, then chipped in the last goal of the game. Houghton native Blake Hietala and Hancock native Tanner Kero scored the second and third goals.
Of course nobody came up bigger during the weekend than freshman netminder Pheonix Copley, who turned in a performance for the ages. Copley's 70-save effort is just the second consecutive-shutout performance in a GLI, with the other coming in 2007 from Michigan goaltender Billy Sauer, who made 87 saves (50 saves against Providence, 37 against Tech in double overtime). Copley's shutout streak is now at 125 minutes, 45 seconds, and counting, and he picked up his second and third wins of the year. His only previous win (with six losses) came against then-No. 1 Minnesota in the season opener.
Can you say big-game goalie?
He entered the weekend having allowed 27 goals on 181 shots (.851 save percentage, 4.36 goals against average). His stats are now .892 percent and 3.26 GAA.
"I've had some inconsistency, and we've (all three Tech goaltenders) all been battling trying to prove we can be the guy, but it's nice to come in and get a few wins," Copley said on Mix 93's postgame. "For the coaching staff, how much they've given to us, and for the seniors, the guys who it was their last chance, it felt great to do something like this special for them."
Pearson, through his four years winning it as a player, 12 times winning as a Michigan assistant coach and this year at Tech, has now been a part of 17 GLI championships, more than any other person.
In addition to the aforementioned reasons for success in Detroit, Tech's improved penalty kill should not be overlooked. It entered the weekend with the 10th worst (but improving) PK in the nation, and WMU featured the 10th best power play. What did the Huskies do? Stifle the Broncos - who had scored half their 34 goals this season on the power play - on all eight man-advantage attempts. Had it not been that effective, this column could easily be about reoccurring penalty problems which, of course, still need to be addressed in the second half.
But, in the meantime, Tech can celebrate killing off 20 straight penalties. And they killed all 12 at the GLI without their top penalty killer (and scorer) Blake Pietila, who continues to perform that PK role masterfully for Team USA at the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia.
Bring back Blake Pietila and carry over the GLI effort into the second half, and Tech fans have a lot to be excited about.
Who knows, maybe this is the year the Huskies win the WCHA Final Five? After all, the last time Tech was WCHA playoff champion? The 1980-81 season.
Stephen Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/steander and interact throughout the week about Tech hockey with the #mtuhky hashtag.