Two struggling hockey leagues found a perfect match, thanks to the behind-the-scenes work of commissioners, athletic directors and coaches.
The Capital Area Activities Conference, a multi-sport league, had just four hockey teams.
The Southwest Michigan High School Hockey League was down to five.
Merging the two leagues was a no-brainer for all involved.
“We learned (the CAAC) was a small league like us,” Portage Northern athletic director Chris Riker said. “It’s tough to have a league with just five teams. By putting our two leagues together, and we had already played a lot of those teams, it just made a lot of sense.”
The new 10-team league, called the South Central High School Hockey League, is bringing a new excitement to both areas and came together very smoothly in less than a year.
Forming a new league boiled down to one thing: “survive and thrive,” said Randy Allen, a former MHSAA assistant director and retired CAAC commissioner.
“I’m tickled pink, and I give high marks to the coaches and athletic directors.”
The league is divided into the Central and South divisions, with five teams in each.
Most teams in the league are co-op teams with Jackson Lumen Christi in the Central and Mattawan, Portage Central and Portage Northern in the South the only teams made up of students from one school.
Other teams in the Central Division are the Capital City Capitals (DeWitt, Lansing Catholic, Mason, St. Johns), Mid-Michigan Marauders (Holt, Grand Ledge, Eaton Rapids, Portland, Potterville), East Side Stars (East Lansing, Williamston, Haslett, Bath, Laingsburg) and Okemos (with Fowlerville).
Co-op teams in the South are the Kalamazoo Eagles (Gull Lake, Battle Creek Harper Creek, Battle Creek Pennfield, Paw Paw, Parchment, Plainwell) and Kalamazoo United (Loy Norrix, Kalamazoo Central, Hackett Catholic Prep).
The first big showcase event featuring all 10 teams is set for Friday and Saturday at Wings West in Kalamazoo.
“One of the other cool things about this new league is we’re bringing them all together for the ‘Annual Youth Hockey Fights for Autism’ at Wings West Feb. 15, and all 10 teams will be playing,” said Frank Noonan, commissioner of the old SWMHSHL and now commissioner of the new league.
Riker said the new league “creates some excitement the way we structured the season with playing in your division and playing crossover games.
“We’re going to have a big championship game where the two No. 1 teams play each other, the second-place teams meet and so on (Feb. 22 at Wings West).”
There are other benefits as well, Noonan said.
“The best thing for hockey in the area is they have set opponents they’re going to play every year and, for the kids who earn (end-of-season) awards, it means more,” he said.
“There are 10 teams competing for the awards rather than our typical six-team old division, so it’s more prestigious, more of an honor to win an award in the new league.”
MHSAA Assistant Director Cody Inglis, who took over administration of hockey for the Association when Allen retired in 2014, put Riker – a member of the MHSAA’s Representative Council – in touch with Allen. The two jump-started talks last March.
One key was getting the Eagles to become a school-based team rather than a club one.
“Karyn Furlong (Gull Lake athletic director) was willing to jump on and sponsor the Eagles,” Riker said. “She did all the leg work in getting the schools on board.
“The Eagles organization also deserves a lot of recognition for saying, hey, we’ve been in this club status and now we’re willing to come in and be a school sport.
“Now they have the opportunity to play in the state tournament, which they’ve never had.”
The MHSAA Semifinals and Finals are set for March 12-14 at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth.
Allen, who went on to serve as commissioner of the CAAC until retiring at the start of this school year, first floated the idea of merging the two leagues to coaches from his conference.
“They were all in favor of it,” he said. “(Inglis) talked with (Riker), and we met to talk.
“At the athletic directors conference (in March 2019), we kept inching closer to forming a new league. We did not hear one word of objection through the entire process. We had 110-percent backing.
“After everybody covered all the bases, we made it final and came up with the official name.”
Allen said the new league has “great leadership from the athletic directors and (Noonan), who took the lead on everything.”
He added that one perk of the new league is getting officials together. “Now we get officials to be part of one overall group, and there is a possibility of mentoring,” Allen added.
Capital City Capitals coach Travis Van Tighem likes the new league.
“It’s great to get some more natural rivals,” he said. “Our league got to be so small we played a lot of other (non-league) teams or showcase games.
“When more games have meaning or some substance to them, you can see kids growing and there are some natural rivalries that it creates, so it’s exciting.”
Travel is not a problem, Van Tighem added.
“For us in Mid-Michigan, it you go outside the Lansing area, it’s going to be an hour anyway. So coming to Kalamazoo, it’s an hour 20 or hour 15, but if we go anywhere else, except for Jackson, it’s going to be at least an hour,” he said.
“Athletic directors and coaches got together, and it really came together nicely. It’s been great so far.”
Other league facilities besides Wings West are Optimist Ice Arena (Jackson), Summit Sports and Ice Complex (Dimondale) and Suburban Ice (East Lansing).
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Portage Northern and Capital City face off in an SCHSHL crossover Jan. 9 at Wings West. (Middle) Clockwise from top left: Frank Noonan, Chris Riker, Travis Van Tighem and Randy Allen. (Below) Northern’s Nolan McCarthy (3) charts his next move with the puck. (Photos by Pam Shebest.)
Twenty years ago, Kwin Morris and Jeff Guy were teammates on an MHSAA Quarterfinal-qualifying hockey team.
Guy even scored the winning goal in the Regional Final for Bay Area Reps, which topped Traverse City West 2-1.
This summer’s accomplishment, though, will go deeper in the history books.
Guy and Morris teamed up with Joe Lorenz to complete a dream that started a decade ago. They crossed all five of the Great Lakes on paddle boards while raising awareness and funds for water quality.
They put their balance, endurance and stick-handling skills together for the cause.
‘After 10 years and over one hundred grand raised for the lakes, it feels amazing,” Morris said. “I think the best part is knowing my kids will grow up knowing their old man did something cool for the environment in a unique way.”
It all started at a December social event in Traverse City. Guy, a financial adviser, and Morris, a middle school science teacher, had just gotten into paddle boarding when they began to wonder if they could cross Lake Michigan.
Lorenz, a personal trainer, promptly gave assurances they could — and joined them — even though he had never been on a paddle board prior to the holiday gathering.
Morris, Guy and Lorenz successfully crossed Lake Michigan in 2015, pausing in the cold of the night to look at the Northern Lights. They finished the nearly 100-kilometer journey in just under 25 hours. That accomplishment convinced them to launch Stand Up for Great Lakes, a non-profit organization to raise money and awareness for the protection of the lakes.
The trio also is supporting the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, a non-profit housed at the University of Michigan.
“It feels amazing to have finished crossing all five lakes and complete a lifelong goal,” Guy acknowledged. “The dollars and awareness we have raised is incredible, and hopefully it continues to grow.”
Lake Huron was the toughest to cross by far, the former Reps noted. The 90-mile, 29-hour paddle brought seven hours of rain and high waves.
“Plus Joe knocked me in and Jeff fell in after catching a fish,” Morris observed.
Ontario was the team’s second-hardest challenge and the shortest paddle. Huge waves from the side all day took quite a toll on the paddlers, who were accompanied by safety boats on each crossing.
Lake Superior featured glassy water, a spectacular sunset and the paddlers pausing to conduct a ceremony over the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck. The northernmost Great Lake ranks as the group’s favorite.
Guy graduated from Kalkaska High School in 2003 and went on to play hockey at Hope College. He also played football, baseball and golf for the Blazers. He and his wife, Melissa, have a daughter, Emma.
Morris graduated in 2005 from Elk Rapids High School, where he also played baseball. He went on to get a teaching degree from Western Michigan University. He and his wife, Megan, have two children, Fitz and Knox. He now works for his former school district, teaching science.
The pair played for the Reps through a co-op hosted by Traverse City St. Francis that included athletes from Charlevoix, Elk Rapids, Kalkaska, Kingsley, Lake Leelanau St Mary, Mancelona and Suttons Bay. The Reps’ first coach was Michigan High School Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee Rex Luxton. He coached through 2008.
Morris and Guy look back at their high school playing days and coach with fondness.
“We had some great teams, and I think I still have the career goal record there,” Guy recalled. “Also, our coach on the Reps Rex Luxton was highly motivational to me while playing for him and later in life.”
Morris echoed Guy.
“I loved the whole experience,” Morris said. “Playing for my high school … Friday night games … school rivalries … playing for Rex Luxton … amazing friends and teammates — almost surreal that it will have been 20 years.”
The former coaching staff of the Reps are not at all surprised Morris and Guy challenged themselves to make a difference for the Great Lakes.
The coaching staff remembers Guy as a natural scorer coming through with big goals, and Morris as a strong two-way player who scored five goals in one period in Sault Ste. Marie. The past coaches also remember all the traveling the two did for practice and games because of the geographic nature of the squad.
“I had no idea they had any interest in the water kind of stuff,” Luxton said of his former players’ feat. “When I started following their bid to raise awareness, it didn’t surprise me they would attempt something like this.
“I think it illustrates how much determination they have and how much hard work they were willing to put in,” he continued. “It is just outstanding, particularly with the cold weather in the Great Lakes.”
Cody Inglis, a senior assistant director for the MHSAA, was an assistant coach for the Reps during all of Morris and Guy’s time with the co-op. He finds himself beaming with pride and happiness knowing these former players are giving back and making it a better world.
“What Jeff and Kwin have done physically and mentally to cross all of the Great Lakes on stand-up paddle boards is remarkable in itself,” Inglis pointed out. “When you add in the fact that they have put in charitable causes and the preservation of the Great Lakes as a reason for doing it – it makes it even more special.
“It’s not surprising given my recollection and remembrances of Jeff and Kwin, as they were really good hockey players and better people.”
High school hockey is where Morris and Guy’ friendship blossomed. Spending 24 or more hours together — and with Lorenz — has forged a greater lifetime bond that already had included being a part of each other’s weddings.
But they admit they had no inkling of this type of accomplishment back in high school.
“Sports were the most important thing in my life in high school,” Guy revealed. “Working really hard to win as many games as possible was the main goal – along with getting good grades and trying to get into a good college.”
But teamwork, learned on the ice and through other high school sports, can make anything possible.
“Any sport where you have to work as a team helps push yourself out of your comfort zone,” Morris concluded. “That's where the best things in life happen.”
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PHOTOS (Top) Clockwise from top left: Jeff Guy celebrates a goal while playing for Traverse Bay Reps with Kwin Morris to his left, Guy (left) and Morris (right) take a photo after one of their paddle board trips, and Morris bringing the puck up the ice for the Reps. (Middle) Guy, Morris and Joe Lorenz take a photo together on the lake shore. (Below) Morris accepts a medal during the 2004-05 season. (Photos courtesy of Jeff Guy, Kwin and Jo Morris.)