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A State of Champions

By Craig Peterson, 03/28/21, 12:15AM EDT


Three teams crowned to conclude one unforgettable season.

“Just let us practice! Forget about games, I’ll settle for just getting us back on the ice!”

Games were a pipe dream. Showcases? No way. Cross-state road trips? Canceled. Forget about a 25-game schedule, we were scheming to just find ways of playing 12 games!

The season started on November 2nd. Well, kinda. That was at least when teams could start holding tryouts and running practices. On the eve of opening day, with jerseys pressed and hanging in locker stalls, that very season was left hanging in the balance as Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced a three-week emergency order that prohibited any indoor athletic activity in the state of Michigan.

Coaches around the state were forced to scramble, adjust, roll with the punches, alter game schedules and prepare their teams for an unknown future. They spoke with seniors whose final seasons hung in the balance. They fielded questions from aggressive parents, ill-equipped with nothing more than speculative answers at best.

“Are we gonna have a season?”

“Should we go play travel?”

“Other teams are playing out-of-state, should I?”

We all weathered the storm. Those three weeks went by and a new order was extended for three more weeks.

Again, coaches scrambled, adjusted, rolled with the punches, altered schedules and prepared for the unknown. Sent seniors away for winter break not knowing if they’d return to a start date for the season. Parents grew more anxious and coaches’ responses became redundant.

“We’re not gonna have a season, are we?”

“This team offered us a spot.”

“There’s a showcase in Dallas…”

We weathered the storm. Another three weeks went by and again, a new order was extended for three more weeks.

Scrambled, adjusted, rolled with punches, altered and prepared. 

Weathered the storm. Three more weeks. Extended AGAIN for three more weeks.

It’s now mid-January. Even Buddy the Elf’s optimism was wearing thin at this point. Yet the order was extended again well into February and any last hopes of a winter season were all but lost.

It was like something of an underdog story out of a movie. The clock dramatically counting the final seconds... A fighter beaten down, struggling to get to his feet… When at the last possible second, with their backs up against the ropes, the unthinkable happens. Teens across the state stood up and demanded their voices be heard. A calculated movement “Let Them Play” enveloped social media with thousands of posts, shares and likes from kids all over Michigan, gaining momentum with every retweet. They made their case at the state’s capitol in Lansing responsibly and respectfully with more than 2,000 strong. Dozens more made their formal pleas to the House Oversight Committee. 

Then, 84 days after the initial emergency order was put in place, indoor sports were given the green light to return to competition on February 8th, and a 17-game schedule was approved. More than 2,700 high school hockey players across The Mitten State had finally gotten the opportunity they had so patiently waited for. 

Against all odds and more than 1,146 games later, the unorthodox 47-day season reached its conclusion on Saturday. A day in which even the most confident people questioned if we’d ever get there.

It began in Division-II, with 14-0-0 Byron Center looking to make history against Brother Rice, hoping to become the first team to go undefeated since the 2000-01 season. A scoreless deadlock into the third period, the two teams finally traded goals just 10 seconds apart from one another. Carson Moilanen struck first for the Warriors but it was short-lived as Mason Breit drew the Bulldogs back to all square in the blink of an eye. 

With just six seconds left to go in regulation, it was Rice’s captain Alec Hamady coming through with his eighth goal of the season, ultimately clinching the school’s sixth state title in stunning fashion.

In Division-III, another undefeated squad took its stab at a perfect season, as 14-0-1 Calumet took on Cranbrook in the afternoon game. One of the best forwards in the state squared off against one of the best defenders as the Copper Kings’ Dean Loukus tangled with the Cranes’ Leyton Stenman.

Fueled by a two-goal first period, Cranbrook cruised through the final 34 minutes, earning it 18th state championship in program history and first under the guidance of head coach John LaFontaine. 

Saturday’s finale featured one of the game’s titans in Detroit Catholic Central going up against one of the best cinderellas in Rockford. It was the 20th time the Shamrocks had played for the State Championship; it was the Rams’ first trip ever to USA Hockey Arena.

Just 10 days earlier, the fate of CC’s season rested in the hands of its JV team. With the varsity squad forced into a 10-day self-isolation due to contact tracing, the underclassmen were left to carry the torch in their place. Fast forward through not one, but two victories and a regional championship, the 15 seniors on varsity returned to the lineup to finish the job.

Senior Brennan Sass made it 1-0.

Senior Billy Shields made it 2-0.

Senior Bret Beale made it 3-0.

Then senior Bobby Masters did the rest in net, backstopping the Shamrocks to a 5-1 win over Rockford. 

Only three teams can earn the honor of ending this season with a win. It’s been a year that has pushed us all past our limits, tested us and challenged us in unimaginable ways. Let’s not lose sight of how it all started, how we all endured and how everyone was truly a winner this year for fighting to have any season, let alone one that concluded with a championship.

No one thought we'd be here. Even some of our biggest supporters questioned if a season would be possible. We all doubted it at one point or another. I know I did. So congratulations to our three champs, and to thousands of the athletes, coaches, parents and administrators that made this season possible.

Craig Peterson’s comments and opinions are that of his own, and are in no way directly tied to that of the Michigan High School Hockey Coaches’ Association (MHSHCA), its member coaches, or board members. Any questions, comments or concerns regarding his work can be addressed directly to the author of the article.