Denfeld News

April 2, 2008
Soo Evening News

Lakers won first NCAA hockey championship 20 years ago today
By Scott Nason

SAULT STE. MARIE - April 2, 1988, the beginning of a decade long reign of Laker hockey.

For almost 10 years, Lake Superior State University dominated the college hockey landscape. The assault on Central Collegiate Hockey Association titles and NCAA championships had been building the previous few years.

However, the Lakers were officially introduced to the rest of the college hockey world 20 years ago today when junior forward Mark Vermette put the puck through a maze of players, into the back of the St. Lawrence net - at 4:46 of the first overtime - sending LSSU to the first of three Division I NCAA hockey championships, when they defeated the Saints 4-3 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

That goal sent the thousands of Laker fans in attendance, the campus of LSSU, the city of Sault Ste. Marie and fans and alumni across the country into an unprecedented frenzy. National newspapers and media outlets were scrambling to find out where this tiny school that just claimed the NCAA hockey title was located. CNN's John Fricke infamously announced there was celebration tonight in Marquette, Michigan. After this game - and ever since - there is no doubt, in the college hockey world, where the home of Laker hockey is. The national championship had a profound affect on many LSSU players and staff who recently commented on their experiences.

“It was surreal, like a dream,” said Lake Superior State head coach Jim Roque, who was a first-year assistant coach, graduating from then Lake Superior State College the year before, after a four-year playing career. “It was my first year coaching, after playing the previous four years. The guys made it easy for me and it was a lot of fun. That year was exhilarating and you felt like you could do it forever. It made me want to stay in coaching.”

Bill Crawford, 27-year Laker radio announcer and current LSSU Vice President of University Relations and Marketing:

“We came out of nowhere, no one had any respect for us and it was amazing,” “What happened? We're a Division II school in Michigan and we're the national champions. It put us on the map. People said Lake Superior State and Sault Ste. Marie and it became synonymous. It was a big deal.”

Doug Laprade, 1988 freshman forward, and current Sault High hockey head coach:

“Watching the frozen four and NCAA basketball ‘March Madness' you look at the kids in it trying to do something we already did, you didn't realize at the time what an accomplishment it was. As you get older you realize how infrequent it really is. I can't believe it has been 20 years.”

Pete Stauber, 1988 sophomore forward, and current Patrol Lieutenant in Minnesota:

“When we got fitted for our championship rings, I found out my father's ring size and requested my ring to fit his finger. I gave my father the championship ring for Christmas the following year and he wears it proudly at many hockey functions. But for a few seconds that Christmas morning, I have never worn the championship ring and will not until my father passes. I told him I'll have plenty of time later on.”

Tim Harris, 1988 freshman forward, who currently works in management for the Lear Corporation:

“The goal I scored in the St. Lawrence game will always be special, but I will never forget Verm's (Vermette's) OT goal, that was complete pandemonium when he scored. I will also always remember how poised we were going down 2-0 against Maine. There was never any panic on the bench or on the ice. We just knew we were going to win.”

LSSU was down 2-0 early in the national semifinal to highly ranked Maine, before storming back for a 6-3 victory.

“The entire year from September right until the end of spring term was a dream come true,” Harris said. “I mean going to the Joe, winning the NCAA, visiting the White House and just enjoying the season as it unfolded, priceless.”

When asked what is his fondest memory from the 1987-88 season freshman forward Ed Fuss said, “being part of a team that was very talented, dedicated and hard working.”

Fuss was a walk-on that season and is currently a Director of Renovations for Pecora Brothers. He is thankful of the support he had from the team.

“The upperclassmen accepted me as a walk-on,” he said. “I believe everyone on that team took on a role and was helpful in the team's success that year. The entire roster, the coaches, the managers, the fans, etc. It was a secret recipe for a championship team. One that you could not replicate if you tried.”

Before and during their run to the title in the 1987-88 season, the Laker hockey program was a relative unknown nationally. They made their first NCAA playoff appearance during 1984-85 season and made two recent trips to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA Championships.

However, they were coming off a disappointing loss to Ohio State in the opening round of the 1987 CCHA Playoffs in Sault Ste. Marie and were fielding a young and inexperienced lineup coming into the ‘87-88 season with 15 new faces on the roster.

After going 3-0-1 in their first four games during the regular season the Lakers faced an early test at long-time nemesis Bowling Green.

“Early in the year we swept BG (Bowling Green), the first game in overtime and the second game 7-3,” said Roque. “We felt we had the makings of a good hockey team. It was a huge weekend for us and we built lots of confidence.”

The Lakers had a goaltending battle brewing with two solid netminders competing for the No. 1 spot. Help in making that decision may have come from an unlikely source according to Crawford.

“Hoffort was a back-up to start the year and Mike Greenlay was the main guy,” said Crawford. “Hoffort had trouble seeing, he wore glasses, and they got him contact lenses 10 games into the season. All of the sudden he became the starter. It improved his vision and improved his game.”

The Lakers stormed through the first half of the season with little or no trouble. However, in the middle of January they lost to Ferris State, 4-2, in Big Rapids. On the bus ride home, the Lakers had only begun their night and were in for a surprise when they got home, which according to Pete Stauber, became one of his fondest memories.

“Just after exiting the freeway, coach Anzalone stood up and said when we arrive at the rink we'll have 10 minutes to get our hockey stuff back on and he was going to ‘condition' us,” said Stauber. “We all got dressed and lined up on the boards. Coach Anzalone had us all do about five or six ‘over and backs' and then he'd yell a name out and whichever player was named was allowed to leave the ice.

“Coach Anzalone did this for an hour or so. He told us that he had evaluated our play and those players who had played pretty good were allowed off the ice immediately,” Stauber continued. “Myself and Mike de Carle were the only ones left on the ice. Mike and I did a few ‘over and backs' alone, and finally coach tells us we're done. I was so tired and mad but had enough energy to say to Coach A., ‘Is that all you got?'. I knew after I made that comment I was either on my way back to Duluth or continue to be part of the team. I'm glad I was still able to be part of the team.”

The Lakers finished the 1987-88 season with a 33-7-6 record, 22-4-6 record in the CCHA, finishing first. Forward Mark Vermette was named CCHA Player of the Year, tallying 45 goals. He was also named to the All-CCHA First Team.

“Vermette scored two goals his freshman year and something like six his sophomore year and then scored 45,” said Crawford. “Just think about that. These days, if someone scores 30 goals they're a superstar. He had a tremendous year.”

Frank Anzalone was named CCHA Coach of the Year and Spencer Penrose national Coach of the Year. Goaltender Bruce Hoffort was also named to the All-CCHA First Team. Mike de Carle and Kord Cernich were named to the second team. Terry Hossack took an honorable mention. Anthony Palumbo and Pete Stauber were named to the CCHA All-Academic Team as honorable mentions.

In the CCHA playoffs the Lakers defeated Ohio State 6-2, 4-1, in the first round to advance to the Joe. In the CCHA semifinals-after being down 4-1 in the third period - the Lakers rallied to send the game to OT where they defeated Western Michigan, 5-4. They met Bowling Green in the CCHA championship game where they fell, 5-3. It was their last defeat of the season. Karl Johnston and Brett Barnett were named to the CCHA All-Tournament Team.

The NCAA Championships expanded to twelve teams that season and the Lakers received the No. 2 seed in the West and a first-round bye. They hosted little-known Merrimack College in the quarterfinals at the Norris Center. The Lakers fell in the first game 4-3, and stormed back the next night defeating Merrimack 5-0, winning the total goal series 8-4. The victory sent LSSU to the final four in Lake Placid, N.Y. Other teams joining the Lakers were highly-touted Maine, Minnesota and little known St. Lawrence University. The Lakers defeated Maine 6-3 in the semifinal, creating the unlikely match up of Lake Superior State and St. Lawrence in the final.

The game was televised on ESPN and many people watched the Lakers - for the first time - on national TV, turned down the sound and listened to the radio broadcast of Crawford and longtime Laker athletic director Bud Cooper. After claiming the championship, the Lakers arrived by bus late the next day to a large crowd greeting them in the Norris Center parking lot. The next day, there was a parade down Ashmun Street in downtown Sault Ste. Marie, followed by a reception at the Norris Center.

Bruce Hoffort was named MVP of the national championship, making 49 saves in the title game. Mark Vermette was named to the AHCA/TITAN All-American First Team, Hockey News/Bauer National Player of the Year/and finished second in the Hobey Baker balloting, losing out to Minnesota goalie Robb Stauber, brother of LSSU's Pete Stauber.

The 27 players that made up the 1987-88 Laker national championship team remain a tight-knitted group to this day and plans are in the works for a reunion this summer in Gaylord.

“Everyone on that team got along that year,” Laprade said “There wasn't one person on that team who didn't fit in,” he said. “You need to have talent, hard work, a good coaching staff and what we had, character, to win. That year defined my character and taught me what hard work was.”

Commented Stauber: “Laker hockey was a great time in my life. Those four years flew by and my closest friends are those I meet while at Lake Superior. The greatest thing I took away from LSSU was my diploma. Coach Anzalone made sure we were aware we were student-athletes. School always came first.”

On what he took from his Lake State experience, Fuss said: “You can accomplish anything when you put your heart and mind into it.”

“I think something that is special to me but didn't become apparent until years later is the bond I have with those guys,” said Harris. “We all got together in Chicago for the absolute horrific passing of Tim Breslin and we rallied around one another.”

Tim Breslin lost his battle with cancer and passed away in 2005.

“That told you how close we all still are even though we don't see each other on a daily basis,” Harris said. “We all seemed to pick up like university was the year before and it's still that way today. These are friendships that will stay with us forever.

“It taught me how to handle adversity,” said Harris. “It taught me how to turn a negative into a positive. When you work hard good things happen. I was fortunate to play 10 years pro after Lake State and this great program helped enable me to do that.”

Harris wanted to take the time to speak to the fans directly: “I would like to take this time to thank all the individuals and fans that were indirectly involved with the team and all the great years after that,” he said. “There are too many to list but you all should know who you are. Without all your support over the years these memories and championships earned may never have come to fruition. Thank you and go Lakers.”

Longtime fans of the Lakers, residents of the Eastern Upper Peninsula, Lake Superior State University students and players that have donned the anchor on their jersey for the past 20 years would be the first to thank the players and coaches that built the program into a national powerhouse and officially put Lake Superior State University and Sault Ste. Marie on the map, 20 years ago today.

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