By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
In the moment, Brighton’s run last month to its latest Division 1 ice hockey championship felt a lot like the successful title chases in 2012, 2013 and 2017.
One team generally isn’t a measuring stick for the rest. But most aren’t the Detroit Catholic Central hockey program. The Shamrocks entered the Division 1 Semifinals on March 9 at USA Hockey Arena perfect against in-state competition this winter and riding a six-game shutout streak that began with an 8-0 win over eventual Division 2 champion Hartland. DCC had won 10 of the last 18 Division 1 titles and finished runner-up in 2017 to Brighton, the last Michigan high school team to topple the Shamrocks.
DCC wasn’t expected to have trouble this time – many of its scores against other top Michigan teams this season were jaw dropping. And Brighton, although the reigning champion, had lost twice to Hartland this winter, and the Eagles clearly had their troubles with the Shamrocks.
Yet the Bulldogs believed, and they pulled it off – avenging an earlier 3-0 loss and stunning the top-ranked Shamrocks 2-1 in a Semifinal. Emotionally running toward empty, the MHSAA/Applebee’s March “Team of the Month” then came back the next day and defeated Saginaw Heritage 5-2 to repeat as Division 1 champion.
“Catholic Central always has been the team. Just look at what they’ve accomplished,” Brighton coach Paul Moggach said. “That’s the bar. You can get over it once in a while. But we’re starting to feel like we are at that level … that maybe we can be that team. The belief in yourself maybe has arrived, that we’re good enough to do this on a regular basis.”
Brighton, which entered the postseason ranked No. 3 in Division 1, finished 25-6-1 this winter. Its lone losses were to DCC on Dec. 16, twice to league rival Hartland, and once apiece to Northville, Livonia Stevenson and Cleveland St. Ignatius.
The Bulldogs are used to facing Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and then DCC during the Division 1 tournament – they previously beat DCC in the 2013 and 2017 championship games and finished runners-up to the Shamrocks in 2014 and 2016. This time, Brighton beat No. 2 St. Mary’s 3-1 in a Regional Final and got DCC one game earlier than usual.
Boasting 10 seniors – including four who had goals or assists in the 2017 Final – Brighton took on the underdog “mask,” as Moggach put it, but despite the expected nerves also had “an incredible level of confidence in ourselves and to give to each other.”
Seniors Adam Conquest and Mathew Kahra scored Brighton’s goals in the Semifinal, both on power plays, and Kahra scored again in the championship game. Sophomore Will Jentz had two goals in the Final, and junior Evan MacDonald and freshman Nate Przysiecki both added one. Junior goalie Harrison Fleming had a combined 44 saves on 47 shots over the weekend.
With time to reflect the last few weeks, Moggach has begun to notice a few things about this run that maybe didn’t pop out entirely at the time – like Brighton’s incredible 17-2 record in road or neutral-site games. He also is able to look back fondly on the “connection” among members of this team – something built on the ice, sure, and during trips like the one to the Upper Peninsula featured on Second Half in January. But he found it created most during off-ice strength and conditioning workouts where a culture of togetherness was emphasized and formed – and that surely paid off in last month’s repeat rise.
“That’s the difference maker,” said Moggach, who has led the program 23 seasons. “I’ve been around the game a long time. I think early in my coaching career, and in most coaching careers, you’re figuring out how to get the Xs and Os done, figuring out power plays and penalty kills and things. And then, how to beat teams (that are more) talented.
“But how to bring it together, it’s a maturation of ideas. … The last couple of years, we’ve really built to a point; we put the work in, we enjoy each other, we complement each other, and I think that brings connections. Then we do things like the trip to the U.P. – we’re not celebrating ourselves, but each other. You start giving more to each other, it comes back in spades, and we’re realizing that as a group and as a program.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2017-18
February: Marquette girls and boys skiing - Report
January: Sterling Heights Stevenson competitive cheer - Report
December: Cadillac boys bowling - Report
November: Ottawa Lake Whiteford football - Report
October: Beaverton volleyball - Report
September: Shepherd girls golf - Report
PHOTO: Brighton co-captain Sam Brennan (5) presents the championship trophy to his teammates after last month’s Division 1 Final at USA Hockey Arena.
When Gage Looker went down with an ACL injury in Gaylord’s first football game this fall, Liz Harding – president of the Blue Devils’ hockey boosters – was absolutely devastated.
Looker, an all-conference hockey defenseman last winter, was playing, as a senior, in his first-ever varsity football game. Harding, also Looker’s mom, was there.
“I caught the one and only picture of him playing football just before he injured himself,” Harding recalled. “I was devastated!”
Doctors indicated surgery was necessary and recovery would prevent Looker from getting back on the ice, the football field and the track where Looker had dreams of great success this year.
“Knowing hockey is his passion — and thoughts of him not playing did not set well with me — Gage started what I would call standard physical therapy a couple days after surgery and then added an additional blood flow therapy with our local trainer to his weekly routine,” Harding said. “Through his hard work and determination, he is back on the ice.”
The Blue Devils, after graduating their other four all-conference players from last winter, were 2-11 this year when Looker returned to the ice against Big North Conference rival Petoskey. Gaylord has won three of seven since.
Gaylord coach Jamie Voss believes Looker’s return was pretty much a miracle. And he thinks Looker is playing at about 80 percent despite being only a few months removed from the injury.
“Gage tore his ACL and was told by doctors his sports life was over,” Voss said. “Gage would not accept this, and he trained harder than any kid I have ever witnessed to prove the doctors wrong.”
Sans injury, Voss notes Looker was certain to graduate on several all-time Gaylord hockey record lists.
“The reports on his progress and rehab were literally off the charts for this type of injury,” Voss said. “His doctors reported early that they have never seen this occur before regarding the strength developments in the afflicted areas that support his ACL tear.”
Voss admitted he had to hold his breath a little – as many Gaylord supporters did – when Looker joined the starting lineup against Petoskey. That moment came after just a week on the ice, including full contact practices.
“More important than records to Gage was his commitment and obligation to be our team leader as our compete level was predictably down this season,” Voss said. “Gage is one of the best athletes and citizens that I have ever been allowed to coach.
“He is not only a leader to the players on and off the ice, but Gage also is the kind of kid that coaches learn from,” Voss went on. “He is mature beyond his years.”
Looker, who started playing hockey at 4 years old, dabbled with football as a freshman although an eighth-grade hip injury kept him away from the field until this fall. Looker’s size – 6-foot-3, 245 pounds – led to many encouragements to give football another try.
“I went the rest of my high school career being told that I needed to play football,” Looker said. “So I said ‘why not’ my senior year because I could use the extra strength for hockey.”
Looker knew the morning after his one-and-only career football game that he needed medical attention promptly. A quick MRI showed extensive damage.
Looker was told he literally “blew apart” his ACL.
“My stomach dropped,” Looker said. “I was not ready for that at all.
“I was shown what my PCL looked like and then went to where my ACL should be, and it was gone — some say it was deleted,” Looker continued. “I was told I will not be able to play sports for about seven to nine months, and I was speechless.”
Two months after surgery and extensive physical therapy, Looker tried to skate. It went so well he began to entertain thoughts of playing hockey again. He may aspire to compete in track & field this spring.
“He runs a 56-second quarter mile and throws the shot put 48 feet, 10 inches,” Voss said of his dominating defender. “And although he is restricted from running, something tells me this kid will run track this spring.”
While it is not the senior hockey season it could have been without the injury, many are glad to just have Looker on the ice. His mom is among them.
“I am overjoyed to have him back on the ice,” Harding said. “At least he is getting in a few games and is out there making a difference.
“The smile on his face is priceless,” she continued. “Perhaps he'll continue with track as he is set to break records there too.”
Rehab fresh out of surgery was “very boring,” so Looker started intensifying his recovery with therapy four days a week for a few months.
“It was a lot of commitment, but I needed my senior year of hockey,” Looker said. “I was doing the basic things, and then I had a machine that could stimulate my muscles and pump blood to my knee.
“It is called ARPneuro,” he continued. “I was skating with that on my leg as well as doing mini workouts at home.”
ARP — accelerated, recovery and performance — reportedly accelerates recovery time by decreasing chronic pain and increasing range of motion without the use of medications.
“I was always putting as much work in as I could,” Looker said. “It definitely paid off in the end.”
Looker’s coach agrees.
“I have never heard of this, nor witnessed it,” Voss said. “Gage Looker is an anomaly, and in my opinion a different type of tough.
“Gage returned to practice full contact three months after he tore his ACL,” Voss continued. “And he played his first hockey game logging 30 of 51 minutes a week later.”
Looker credits the support and effort of his medical team and his teammates for helping him get back on track. However, no one gets more credit that the booster president.
“My mom and teammates helped me through it,” he said. “My mom was always on me about doing my workouts and keeping me disciplined.”
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Gaylord’s Gage Looker has returned to the ice this season only a few months after a serious knee injury. (Middle) Looker, right, watches his football teammates from the sideline this fall. (Below) Looker tries to stuff the puck past Tawas’ goaltender. (Photos by Rob DeForge/RD Sports Photo.)