Team Michigan Juniors and Seniors have spent the past two weeks prepping for the CCM NIT in Plymouth, Minnesota, where they will compete against teams comprised of the top high school players across the country including those from Minnesota, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Wisconsin.
A process that began in March with more than 250 of the top juniors and seniors in the state congregating at the Arctic Coliseum in Chelsea following the conclusion of the winter season, now culminates with the Minnesota showcase later this weekend.
For an eighth consecutive year, teams are assembled and put on display not just for the individual exposure of the players in attendance but to also showcase the strides and growth that Michigan high school hockey has made overall on a national stage in front of junior, NCAA and professional scouts.
Overall, Team Michigan has seen more than 70 players go on to compete in high-level junior and college hockey with some reaching the game’s highest level in the NHL. The 2018 Senior Team promoted eight players off last year’s squad to the NAHL and BCHL alone, serving as a premier launching point for those embarking on junior careers after high school.
This year’s senior team returns 12 players from the 20-man roster from a year ago; a then-junior team that went 2-2-0 at the 2018 NIT.
“It helps knowing what you’re getting yourself into, knowing what scouts are out there and how the tournament works,” said goaltender Sam Evola. “Second time coming around, you’re gonna have more experience. You’re gonna be better.”
The 2018 Mr. Hockey recipient, Evola is coming off of back-to-back Division-III state titles with Detroit Country Day and is currently tendered by the NAHL’s Minot Minotauros. Still, he said there’s plenty to prove in front of the scouts that will be in attendance and that this talented group is capable of turning some heads.
“The NA is great but I’d like to get drafted into the USHL and obviously get in front of some schools and get some school exposure and there’s a lot [at the tournament],” he said. “Guys like Joey Larson, Cam Blanton, Luke Evo. They’re solid players. It’s kinda cool to get to play with these guys before they go to their respective junior programs one last time is pretty cool to finish off your high school career.”
Of the 40 players heading to Minnesota, almost all are involved with the Michigan Developmental Hockey League (MDHL), TPH’s Top 80, Copper Country or Elite Brigade off-season programs. While each provide unique opportunities, Team Michigan is a chance for high school hockey to assemble two teams of the best players regardless of region or affiliation. This year, players were plucked from 20 different programs around the state, from across metro Detroit to the west side, mid-Michigan and the U.P., bringing them together for a two-week span presents unique challenges.
“Some of us knew each other just through high school hockey, MDHL, TPH Top 80 but we bonded really fast,” said Team Juniors defenseman Brendan Miles. “We’re just a great group altogether.”
Miles, a standout D-man in the MIHL for Detroit Catholic Central, battled it out against several of his fellow junior teammates during the regular season, including the likes of Seth Lause (Livonia Stevenson), Nick Marone (Brother Rice), Joey Cormier (Trenton) and Cristian Bronzino (Warren De La Salle) among several others. Now teammates, that comes as a bit of a relief that once opponents now come together to compete on the same side.
“Playing against him, it was difficult for me as a forward to go against him on a rush because he’s just a smart defenseman,” said Bronzino. “Playing with him, makes me feel safe on the back end because if I get beat by my guy — which I hope doesn’t happen — then I know that he’s back there to help us out.”
Miles helped anchor a CC defensive corps that went a near-perfect 29-1-1 this season and he’ll be expected to provide similar support on the back end for the juniors.
One advantage the senior group typically has to their advantage over the juniors ahead of the tournament is having players who know what to expect from the speed and competition level that the NIT is known for.
“You have an idea of what the two weeks is gonna be like and what you have to do to get the group together as a team,” said Tim Erkkila. “Having a lot of guys back from last year is big in the sense that we know what we have to do to build that chemistry so we can be as good as possible in Minnesota.”
A four-year letter-winner for Brighton, Erkkila is one of the most decorated defensemen in high school hockey. With back-to-back Division-I state championships in 2017 and 2018 as well as being named to the Michigan High School Hockey Coaches’ Association (MHSCHA) Dream Team his junior and senior years, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound defender has seen plenty of high-level hockey during his high school career.
As one of the 12 seniors returning to the lineup from last year’s squad, Erkkila said the Team Michigan experience is a unique one for him.
“Honestly, I just had a lot of fun,” he said. “At the end of the day, hockey’s all about having fun. It’s an unbelievable tournament, tons of exposure and I don’t think you can get enough of that. It’s always fun to play with guys from CC — we hate ‘em during the season — then guys from the U.P., I’ve got a lot of connections there. My cousin Sam, he’s on the team so that’s a lot of fun as well.”
Tim’s cousin and senior teammate Sam Erkkila finished up his final season, concluding a three-year career with Calumet. The showcase presents a rare opportunity for the Erkkila family to support both boys on the ice at the same time.
“I’m sure they have a lot of fun watching,” Tim said. “Any time you get to play with a family member that lives 500 miles away, that’s pretty cool.”
Coach Ryan Ossenmacher will coach the Seniors for a seventh time, joined by Jeff Fleming and Jay Thompson. A dozen returners provide a wealth of experience and familiarity for the squad with not one, but two Mr. Hockey recipients in Evola and 2019 honoree Joey Larson (Hartland). Newcomers and first-timers like Gabe Anderson (Hartland), Kevin Bostwick (Houghton), Patrick Donnelly (Houghton), Carter Korpi (Detroit Catholic Central), Anthony Mollica (Jenison), Daniel Nelson (Grand Rapids Catholic Central), Gage Thrall (Davison) and Jack VandDenBeurgery (Plymouth) breathe some fresh air and newness into the group as well.
While the seniors will rely on past experience, the juniors will be flying blind in a way, preparing for the idea of an unknown opponent.
“I honestly have no clue what they’re gonna be like,” said Will Jentz. “Our game yesterday, the coaches said it was gonna be two, three times faster than it was out there. That should just be a lot of fun going out [to Minnesota]. We won’t know, we’ll just have to bring whatever we have and just show them what we have to do and not adapt to what they do.”
Coach Dave Mitchell returns behind the bench for the juniors alongside Joe Ford and Kyle Zagata. A diverse and dynamic group that’s represented by 15 different schools, an obvious challenge for the younger of the two teams is preparing for the unknown and bringing a group together in such a short window of time.
The general consensus among juniors was that cohesion happened quickly with the mood in the locker room and team meetings coming naturally.
Lack of familiarity lends itself more to surprises but Bronzino suggested that the unforeseen can be a good thing too.
“Actually, one of the kids on our line, Brady [Rappuhn] from Saginaw Heritage,” he said. “I haven’t seen them play or really seen him play ‘til now. He’s fitting in real well and you know that those guys that come from areas out there want to work real hard and work their butts off for spots on the power play or the penalty kill, whatever it may be and just want to fill their role and be the best at it.”
Rappuhn is one-of-six juniors from outside of metro Detroit, coming off of an ‘18-19 season in which he scored 24 goals and 62 points in 25 games for the Hawks.
With offensive firepower upfront, there has been a clear focus in training camp and attempting to prepare the juniors for an unfamiliar opponent.
“We’re very strong offensively,” said Miles. “We’re trying to be just as strong defensively and I think in practice that’s what we’ve really tried to work on so I think we’re going to be a really hard team to compete against.”
The Junior and Senior teams will head to Minnesota together on Wednesday morning by bus, before games get underway Thursday afternoon. The two teams will compete in opposite pools, playing in three round-robin games. Playoff and consolation games will bring the tournament to a close on Sunday. Follow @TeamMichHockey on Twitter for updates all weekend long and keep tabs on both squads!
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