Some of the best high school hockey players in the state begin lacing up their skates in the Northwest Hockey Conference this weekend.
At least one team from the NHC has advanced to the final four of the state playoffs every year since the advent of the tournament in 1978 and at least one team has been to the state championship game for 12 straight years from 1988-99.
“I like to compare (the NHC) to Big Ten football,” said St. John's coach Mike Mankowski. “We beat the heck out of each other throughout the season and that gets us ready to play when the playoffs roll around.”
Bowling Green, the conference's perennial power, has won six state championships, finished runner-up six times and made the final four on 14 occasions. St. John's has not missed the final four since 1997.
Yet this season's NHC crown may not go to one of the two powerhouses.
St. Francis is pegged as a slight pre-season favorite by league coaches.
St. John's edged out Bowling Green for second place in the pre-season poll. Findlay - last year's league champ and a two-time state champ - was next, followed by Northview and Southview.
“I think three or four teams from our league have the ability to win it all,” Mankowski said.
Here is a look at the six NHC teams in their predicted order of finish:
COACH: Dale Calcamuggio, third season
LAST SEASON: 18-11-1 overall, 8-4 NHC
KEY RETURNEES: Forwards - senior Nick Blatchford, junior Jim Kozlowski, sophomore Ben Kubicki, senior Tim Alcala; Defensemen - junior Zach Cook, senior Ben Geiger, junior Adam Wood. Goalie - senior Jeff Davis.
OUTLOOK: It's clear why the Knights are tabbed pre-season favorites when Calcamuggio describes his team: “We have experience. We have very good team unity. We have good leadership and we have very good discipline.”
St. Francis returns 14 players.
“Right now our skill level is good,” Calcamuggio said. “We're a step farther ahead than where we were last year.”
Kozlowski returns as the team's leading scorer with 17 goals, while Blatchford and Mettler led in assists. The defense is disciplined and seasoned with Geiger, Cook and Wood all back.
Although goaltender Jeff Davis saw action in only half of the Knights' games last year, Calcamuggio said he would have felt comfortable playing the senior in every contest.
On the negative side, six seniors are gone, durability is a concern and the ability to stay focused and remain committed are pivotal to the Knights' success.
COACH: Mike Mankowski, 10th season
LAST SEASON: 24-8, 8-4
KEY RETURNEES: Forwards - senior Gerrod Kuhn, senior Mike Johnson, senior Jeff Keller, senior Matt Kusner. Defensemen - junior Brad Buck, senior Kyle Stengle, junior Jake Zechman, junior Matt Henson. Goalies -
OUTLOOK: The Titans look to be strong behind the blue line and experienced up front, but could be vulnerable between the pipes with three young goalies.
“Our young goaltenders could have some growing pains early,” Mankowski said. “But we have a big defense that can hit. Our stronghold is that our kids work extremely hard.”
Ten players are gone, but 12 letter-winners and seven seniors return.
Kuhn lit up the scoreboard last season with 31 goals and 32 assists for 63 points. Buck netted 12 goals and 16 assists while Johnson had 38 points (13-25).
“We compete hard in practice every day,” Mankowski said. “I think the league is wide open again. Whoever is most consistent every night will win. We should be able to do that.”
COACH: Dan DeWitt, 12th season
LAST SEASON: 18-11-1, 8-4
TOP RETURNEES: Forward - junior Brandon Piersol, senior Mike Culbertson, senior Brandon Ruhe, senior Travis Slater. Defensemen - senior Drew Bechextine, senior Adam Snyder. Goalie - junior Eric Curtiss.
OUTLOOK: When asked how many titles his team won in the '90s, DeWitt quickly rattled off four years ('91, '97, '98, '99). But the question was aimed at how many NHC titles the Bobcats had won, not the state championships DeWitt readily remembered.
That shows how high expectations are for BG hockey and this year is no different despite the presence of 12 new faces on the roster.
Gone are 12 seniors, including two forwards who scored over 30 points and four of the six starting defensemen.
“We have to fill holes on defense,” DeWitt said, “but (a state title) is something we still shoot for because it's not fair to the returnees to change those expectations”
Bowling Green looks to be strong up the middle with three centers back along with goalie Eric Curtiss.
“It's always an advantage when you have a quality goalkeeper back,” Dewitt said of Curtiss, who yielded 2.10 goals per game with a save percentage of .901. “Last year was his first year, so we expect him to continue to improve.”
A good nucleus of eight starters returns led by Piersol (20 goals, 19 assists), Culbertson (10,16), Slater (7, 12) and Ruhe (9, 9).
COACH: Mike Root, 22nd season
LAST SEASON: 21-6, 9-3
TOP RETURNEES: Forwards - senior Adam Maidment, junior Jon Runion, junior Tyler Holtgreven, senior Andrew Boyd. Defensemen - senior Greg Lande, senior Sean Abbott, senior AJ Bame. Goalies - junior Josh Rinehammer, sophomore Kyle Settlemire.
OUTLOOK: Root won only his second league title since 1978 last season and he admits hopes for back-to-back championships seem slim.
The Trojans lost seven seniors, including five four-year varsity players, from last year's squad that knocked off St. John's in the regular season finale to capture the title.
Only four seniors return and the team will be led by Runion, who is the team's top returning goal scorer (14). Runion also had 12 assists, while senior Adam Maidment tallied 15 points.
“We lost some real good quality kids,” Root said. “We have seven voids to fill. We basically have a bunch of sophomores who don't have varsity experience.”
But the Trojans do have veterans in the most critical spot. In the net, Rinehammer and Settlemire split time last season. Rinehammer made 228 saves and had a 1.52 goals against average, while Settlemire posted 283 saves and a 2.04 GAA.
To get through what he termed a rebuilding year, Root said his five seniors, eight juniors, five sophomores and two freshmen will switch from a wide-open style to a conservative defensive style.
COACH: Jim Cooper, 25th season
LAST SEASON: 16-16, 4-8
TOP RETURNEES: Forward - junior Erik Lindstrom, junior Chris Garris, junior Mark Falcone, junior Ryan Hakeos, freshman Larry Willard, freshman Brett Molnar. Defensmen - senior Ian Davis, senior Pat Brighton, senior Blaine Schmich. Goalies - senior Pat Spoonmore, junior Tom LaBoy, sophomore Alex Prior.
OUTLOOK: The Wildcats could be vulnerable between the pipes with three young netminders. A youthful but promising offense will be bolstered by a veteran defensive crew, according to Cooper.
“We're a little deeper offensively than we have been in sometime,” Cooper said. “That coupled with a veteran defense should keep the pressure off our young goalkeepers and let them get their sea legs.”
Northview lost six good senior players, but three senior defensmen (Davis, Brighton, and Schmich) should help keep an already tight-knit group together.
“The kids are really close right now and that always helps,” Cooper said.
Two freshmen, Willard and Molnar, will center two of the top three lines. All three goalkeepers will see the ice, but Cooper hopes one emerges to become “a dominant goal tender.”
Cooper said he has no doubt that this team will play better harder than last year's team that finished fifth in the league.
“We're starting to mature a little bit and the depth factor should pay off for us,” he said. “The question is whether our goaltending holds up.”
COACH: Mike Greeder, 11th season
LAST SEASON: 15-13, 5-7
KEY RETURNEES: Defensemen - senior Nick Heiing, senior Zack Powell, senior Ross Gatwood, sophomore Dean Helvey. Goalies - junior Jordan Schwartz, senior Jarrod Craft.
OUTLOOK: Pretty bleak.
The Cougars lost their top seven forwards and top two offensive lines.
In order for Southview to pull out a few close wins, its veteran defense must step up.
Craft and Schwartz both saw time in net last season and could help the Cougars keep some games close. Greeder said the goalies could be the best pair in the league.
“After losing my first two forward lines, I'm hoping our solid defense corps and good goaltending keeps us in games defensively,” Greeder said. “Hopefully we can get a few goals from newcomers in order to win some close games.”
Picked last by all six coaches, Southview must avoid shootouts and pull out some one-goal wins.