By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
PLYMOUTH — There was a championship to be won. That was the focus. That's how Ryan Fischer would have wanted it.
So, it's understandable that following player introductions before the MHSAA Division 1 Hockey Final on Saturday night at Compuware Arena, many on the Grandville team didn't notice the tribute that came their way from the Detroit Catholic Central student section.
Chants of "Ryan Fischer ... Ryan Fischer" came from the young men in the Shamrocks' student section, a reference to the Grandville captain who died in his sleep the morning of the teams' Semifinal game on March 7, 2014.
"Honestly, (pregame) was a blur to me, but it also doesn't surprise me," Grandville coach Joel Breazeale said. "It's an amazing community of young people."
The teams put emotional bonds aside when the puck dropped, as Catholic Central jumped out to a 3-0 lead, had its advantage cut to one goal in the second period, then pulled away to repeat as Division 1 champion with a 5-2 victory.
The two teams formed a bond following the death of Fischer. Catholic Central traveled to Grand Rapids on Feb. 7 to play Grandville before 3,000 fans at Van Andel Arena in a game that didn't have the feel of the high-stakes rematch for the Division 1 championship.
"It was a really unusual game there," Catholic Central coach Danny Veri said. "It felt like you were playing a pickup game against a bunch of your family members. The intensity wasn't there. There was only one penalty. Everyone went through the motions. The event was really the focus and the game was almost secondary."
That wasn't the case Saturday night. The victory gave Catholic Central its 11th MHSAA title in the last 19 years and 12th overall, which ranks third behind Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood's 17 and Trenton's 14.
"It was really ironic that they were there," Veri said of the Bulldogs. "You almost feel bad winning against them. The team is nice people, the parents are all nice people. When we went there, they opened up their arms to us like we were family. We made it clear in the locker room we have a game to win and let's move forward."
Breazeale appreciates the support shown to the Grandville community by those at Catholic Central, but also respects the commitment to put that aside temporarily to play a physical sport the way it should be played.
"I don't know if you could ever ask for a better example of competitive sportsmanship that goes right to the level of passion, but somehow manages to keep the respect of the game in there," Breazeale said. "It's a remarkable example between both sports communities and certainly the young men who compete. It's very impressive, especially given what's at stake."
Honoring Fischer's memory was a catalyst for Grandville as it reached an MHSAA Final for the first time after making the Semifinals on two other occasions.
"It's been 53 weeks since March 7 of last year," said sophomore forward Connor Fischer, Ryan's brother. "It's been a journey on the ice and off the ice. We couldn't have made it this far without the support of the community and the support of the 20 kids in that room. It's been a good journey, a trying journey."
Catholic Central (24-5-1) jumped out to a 3-0 lead on first-period goals by JoJo Mancinelli and Andrew Spiegel and a rebound goal by Luc Krasicky at 6:30 of the second.
Grandville goalie Myles Madden stopped two breakaways in the first six minutes of the second period before Krasicky jammed one by him.
The Bulldogs (25-4-2), who were generating some good scoring chances early in the period, got back in the game in a hurry with two goals 14 seconds apart late in the second.
Jacob Baum caught a high rebound, put the puck down and scored with 3:10 left in the second period to put Grandville on the board. As that goal was being announced, Gianni Vitali cut the deficit to 3-2 when he banged in a rebound with 2:56 to go in the period.
The Bulldogs' momentum was short-lived, as Evan Rochowiak blasted a shot from the blue line past Madden on the power play with 1:50 remaining in the period.
"First of all, it was a great play on the power play by Blake (Veri)," Rochowiak said. "When they put two goals in and were one goal behind us, we were getting a little bit nervous. The goal took a little pressure off of us and let us start playing the way we did in the first period."
Rochowiak put the game away by burying a shot under the crossbar with 3:10 left in the third period.
"It's been unbelievably stressful," senior defenseman Andrew Lane said of Catholic Central's bid to repeat. "There's a lot of pressure from the school, parents, family, friends. Everyone's relying on you, especially this year. Last year, we had (injured teammate Matt) Sorisho to play for. This year we were kind of on our own without anyone to help us. Luckily, we had a team that all bought in to one program. It was unbelievable winning again. It was probably the best feeling in the world."
Grandville had only six more shots on goal after cutting Catholic Central's lead to 3-2 late in the second period.
Madden finished with 42 saves for Grandville, while Spencer Wright had 22 for Catholic Central.
"Today was the first day I saw him smile," Veri said of his goalie. "He's so even keel. Today literally was the first day I saw him smile. It was after the game when we were singing our song."
PHOTOS: (Top) Detroit Catholic Central players hoist an MHSAA championship trophy for the second straight season. (Middle) Grandville’s Noah Weigle works to win a face off Saturday. (Photos by Andrew Knapik/Southgate).
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.)