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Team Michigan: One Year Later

By Craig Peterson, 01/24/24, 1:15PM EST


Alumni continue to carry the torch beyond high school hockey

The CCM NIT is one of the top showcase tournaments in the United States, regularly featuring some of the best high school hockey players from Michigan, Minnesota, Colorado, North Dakota and Wisconsin. This annual event takes place in April of each year at the Plymouth Ice Center in Plymouth, Minnesota. “All-Star” teams from the previously mentioned states are assembled  and compete in the four-day showcase, with dozens of junior, college and pro scouts on hand.

Last spring, the Team Michigan seniors won the 2023 event — the first time since 2012 — with a 5-2 win over Team North Dakota in the championship. Since then, 15 players from that championship team have embarked on junior hockey careers at various levels from the North American Hockey League (NAHL), Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL) and Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL), among others.

“I have been fortunate to coach dozens of players from Team Michigan who have moved on to the college ranks,” said Team Michigan seniors coach Ryan Ossenmacher. “A kid like Nick Blankenburg sticks out to me. He was Michigan’s captain and currently plays in the Blue Jackets organization. I fully expect several members from last year’s championship team to progress through junior hockey and move on to college in the next few years.”

In total, 15 players from last year’s CCM NIT championship team have gone on to play junior or college hockey this season. Some at the highest levels like the NAHL. Others who play for the top team in ACHA Division-III. All have made their mark in one way or another, proving both the importance of Team Michigan and the success rate of the Michigan high school hockey path.

Logan Nickolaus playing a key role for second-place Wisconsin Windigo

In three seasons with Byron Center, Logan Nickolaus scored 58 goals and 132 points. He continued to prove his dominance at the state level as a standout forward on Team Michigan with a goal and two assists at the 2023 CCM NIT. Now as a member of the Wisconsin Windigo, he’s helped put the organization back at the top of the Midwest Division of the NAHL. Nickolaus has appeared in 36 of 37 games for Wisconsin, scoring four goals and eight points. 

Fellow 2023 graduate and Team Michigan teammate, Cam Markham began the ‘23-24 season in Wisconsin alongside Nickolaus. The 2023 Mr. Hockey recipient was traded two weeks ago from the Windigo to the Austin Bruins, where Markham joins fellow MI-HS alumni Parker Anderson (U of D Jesuit, 2021), Jackson Rilei (Calumet, 2022) and Austin Salani (Hancock, 2021). Coincidentally, all three of them also played for Team Michigan at the conclusion of their respective senior seasons.

Hartland’s tandem of Jack L’Esperance and Braden Pietila also broke through to the NAHL this season. L’Esperance recorded an assist in four games with the Chippewa Steel. Pietila, on the other hand, is one of the top contributors on the blue line for 15-18-2 Odessa Jackalopes. The 6-foot-1 defenseman has two goals and 11 points on the season. 

Quietly one of the more consistent players for Team Michigan last spring, Landon West closed out his high school career with 52 points in 30 games for Detroit Catholic Central. He won his second straight Division-I state championship with the program, following it up with the 2023 CCM NIT championship just a month later. West then joined the Colorado Grit this fall; a first-year organization in the NAHL. He’s played in 26 of 37 games for Colorado, adding three goals and nine points.

Sam Mielock, Gaborik Carlson make mid-season moves to the OJHL and SJHL

The NAHL receives plenty of attention as one of the popular landing spots not just for Michigan high school hockey prospects, but top youth hockey players in general. While it does produce the second-most Division-I college hockey players — behind only the United State Hockey League (USHL) — there are several other paths through Junior-B that aspiring prospects can navigate their way through.

Two members of last year’s Team Michigan seniors have done just that this season.

Gaborik Carlson (Houghton, 2023) enjoyed some success with the Grande Prairie Storm in the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) this fall before making the jump to the SJHL with the Melville Millionaires. He has a goal and four points in his first five games with Melville; a team that is in first place in the league’s Viterra Division.

Similarly, Sam Mielock (Forest Hills Central, 2023) began the ‘23-24 season in the United States’ Tier-II junior league National Collegiate Development Conference (NCDC). The NCDC is a division of the United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL), and has produced 68 active NCAA Division-I hockey players, according to College Hockey, Inc. Mielock played 18 games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights and five games for the Jersey Hitmen. On January 14th, he made his debut in the OJHL with the North York Rangers. 

Four other members of the 2023 Team Michigan senior squad are currently active in various Junior-B circuits across Canada. Traverse City Central’s Owen Dawson has played in 27 games in the SJHL for the Notre Dame Hounds. Owen Penny (Livonia Stevenson, 2023) has seven goals and 14 points in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League (GOJHL). His Fort Erie Meteors are in second place in the Golden Horseshoe Conference. Former Team Michigan teammates Ben Pouliot (Hartland, 2023) and Landon Stevens (Houghton, 2023) reunited this fall to play for the Soo Eagles. Pouliot is second on the team in scoring with 44 points while Stevens has 18 points in 30 games. 

ACHA for Mattix McMullen, Tier-III junior hockey for Nick Kurtiak and Mason Czarnecki

Available options for prospects post-youth hockey are endless. In addition to the previously mentioned junior hockey leagues, several Michigan high school hockey players opt to pursue higher education and being playing college hockey. That was the case for defensive standout Mattix McMullen from Brighton. After anchoring the Bulldogs’ backend with back-to-back 20-point seasons, he walked onto Davenport University’s ACHA Division-I team this past fall. He has six points in 13 games for the Panthers as a freshman.

Goaltender Ryan Price (Livonia Churchill, 2023) also pursued the ACHA path, playing for Grand Valley State University’s Division-III team. He is 6-0-0 in six starts for the Lakers, with a 2.17 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. GVSU is the No. 1 ranked team in Division-III with a perfect 19-0-0 record this season. 

The other half of Team Michigan’s senior goalie situation last spring was Flint PowersNick Kurtiak. That tandem combined to allow just five goals against in the 2023 CCM NIT, stopping 72-of-79 shots faced, collectively. Kurtiak is currently backstopping the first-place Rochester Grizzlies in the NA3HL’s West Division. He has a 9-2-1 record this season with a 2.40 goals-against average and .902 save percentage; both numbers are among the top of the league in the respective metrics.

Kurtiak’s Flint Powers teammate doubled down as a Team Michigan teammate last spring, in forward Mason Czarnecki. While they had worn the same jersey for much of the past three seasons, they now wear opposing sweaters in the NA3HL this winter. In fact, should Czarnecki’s third-place Bozeman Icedogs make the playoffs, these two former teammates could become foes in the NA3HL playoffs later this year. The 6-foot-2 forward is second on his team in points with 35, and leads the Icedogs in scoring with 20 goals in 33 games.

The importance of sending top prospects to Team Michigan tryouts

Team Michigan is run by a collection of Michigan high school hockey coaches. They volunteer their time to scout and evaluate three separate tryouts in Gaylord (March 11th), Grand Rapids (March 12th) and Livonia (March 13th), looking to assemble the best possible rosters to represent the state in competition on a national scale. None of them are paid employees and receive no financial gain from being involved. 

Simply put, the better Team Michigan junior and senior teams perform, the more it does to collectively garner recognition for Michigan high school hockey. Players from perennial Top-5 programs have been well represented over the years — Detroit Catholic Central, Brighton and Houghton in recent memory. But participating in Team Michigan festivities has also highlighted top players from the likes of Ann Arbor Skyline, South Lyon Unified, Midland Dow, Jenison, Mona Shores, Alpena, Davison, Kingsford and many more. 

“There is not a more scouted event thanthe CCM NIT,” said Ossenmacher. “The top players in high school hockey need to be at the Team Michigan tryout. It has grown to such a level that even our festival in Chelsea has become heavily scouted.”

Once satellite tryouts have been completed, top players from Gaylord, Grand Rapids and Livonia will advance to the second round of tryouts. That consists of a three-day evaluation process held at Chelsea’s Arctic Coliseum in late March. From there, the top 20 juniors and top 20 seniors will be selected to play for Team Michigan. 

For coaches, if you believe you have a top player — or players — in the state on your roster, we encourage you to not only send your prospects to the tryouts, but attend the events yourself. 

For players, if you believe you’re a top prospect in Michigan high school hockey, we encourage you to register for a tryout location near you to be considered for this year’s teams.