By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
PLYMOUTH — The stage was big, the lights were bright, but no bigger or brighter for Hancock freshman Alex Nordstrom than for his older teammates.
Many of Hancock's players weren't born the last time the Bulldogs skated in an MHSAA championship hockey game back in 2000.
So, competing for the Division 3 title on Saturday was a foreign experience for all of the Bulldogs, from the oldest to the youngest.
Nordstrom certainly didn't perform like a nervous freshman, following up his Semifinal overtime heroics by scoring two goals in Hancock's 4-2 victory over Grand Rapids Catholic Central before 1,154 fans at USA Hockey Arena.
Pressure? What pressure?
In Hancock's biggest games, Nordstrom produced with the poise of a veteran. He had two goals and one assist in a 5-2 Quarterfinal victory over Sault Ste. Marie, scored the overtime winner in the Semifinal against Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood, then had another two-goal, one-assist performance in the title game.
"I kind of just focused and told my brain it's another game," Nordstrom said. "Just go out there and do what I do; just play."
In 30 games, he tallied 33 goals and 26 assists to finish second in team scoring to sophomore linemate Teddy Rendell.
"He was a key part of this puzzle," Hancock coach Dan Rouleau said of Nordstrom. "The kid was our second-leading scorer this year. He had great chemistry with a sophomore on his line. The kids were our top two scorers this year. It bodes well for the future of this team."
So, maybe Hancock won't have to wait 17 years for its next MHSAA championship. Although the Bulldogs have had a strong program for decades, their only title came in 1999 when they beat Big Rapids, 7-3, in the Class B Final. They lost to Cranbrook in the 2000 title game.
The team's goaltender, Dawson Kero, is only a sophomore. Kero made 20 saves.
The Bulldogs (24-6) won the championship not only for their own school, but for the Upper Peninsula as a whole. U.P. teams had gone 0-5 in MHSAA Finals since Marquette (Division 1) and Calumet (Division 3) won titles in 2008.
"Usually when a team from the U.P. comes down, you have the whole Upper Peninsula-backing mentality up there," Rouleau said. "It's really cool. We're a little isolated up there, but we've got some good hockey players up there, I'll tell you that."
Even bitter rivals become supporters when U.P. pride is at stake downstate.
"There might be a couple kids or parents who do not, but I think we got about 95 percent who are backing us," Rouleau said.
It looked like Hancock would run the Cougars out of the rink after one period, as the Bulldogs jumped out to a 3-0 lead and had a 17-8 advantage in shots on goal.
Jack Fenton scored at 7:17 of the first period to open the scoring, then Nordstrom made it 2-0 at 10:05.
A potential back-breaker came with 18.2 seconds left in the period when Danny Hill buried a two-on-one pass from Nordstrom for a shorthanded goal to make it 3-0.
"Obviously, in any hockey game you want to get out to the quick start," Rouleau said. "That was our game plan for here today. To get a three-goal lead was huge, because it turned out to be the difference."
But the Cougars weren't at or near the top of the rankings all season because they're pushovers. They got on the board at 8:41 of the second period when a shot by Ethan Tellier made it under the crossbar. Catholic Central cut the lead to 3-2 on Chase Madden's power-play goal at 12:24 of the second.
Despite being outshot 30-16 through two periods, the Cougars were back in the game.
"Obviously, a disappointing start for us," Catholic Central coach Mike Slobodnik said. "We got overwhelmed. A lot of credit goes to them. They just really came out and pressed. We didn't have the start we wanted, being down 3-0. We came in between the first and second period and talked about how we've got to be better than that. We didn't change anything. We didn't feel it was a system thing. We had to work harder. We had to be better in certain areas of the ice. In the second period, we did that. We lost to a great hockey team, too, that's for sure."
The Cougars stayed in the game throughout the third period, thanks to some stellar netminding from junior Jacob McClelland.
With Hancock trying to get a two-goal cushion, McClelland made three saves in a row while playing without a stick with just under five minutes remaining. McClelland finished with 37 saves.
"He was great," Slobodnik said. "Jacob's a great goaltender. He's a great kid. He has over a four-point GPA. He's one of those guys on our team who understands the core values of what it means to be a Catholic Central hockey player."
Hancock's biggest scare came with 7:58 left in the game when Kero made a save and ended up on his back, not appearing to know the location of the puck. After the Cougars got a whack or two trying to get the puck loose, the whistle stopped play.
The Bulldogs could breathe a little easier after Nordstrom took a pass from Rendell and scored into an empty net with 57.4 seconds remaining. Even then, some of the Hancock players weren't taking anything for granted.
"Me and Jack (Fenton) and Danny (Hill) try to pound into the younger kids' heads that we have to keep going hard, not ever giving up," Hancock senior captain Dylan Paavola said. "That's when comebacks happen. We don't want any of that, because we haven't won a state championship. We didn't want to screw this one up, I guess you could say. I could say I felt comfortable with 3.6 seconds left."
Hancock players praised their fans, many of whom got on a bus in the middle of the night to make the nine-hour trek to Plymouth for the championship game.
"It's nice to bring back a state championship for all these fans," Nordstrom said. "They drove down today at 3 in the morning to come watch us. It's nice to bring back a state championship for them."
A Go Fund Me page to help pay for Hancock's trip to Plymouth raised $6,620 from 99 donors in two days.
"It's awesome to see the support of the whole community," Fenton said. "Not just the school, but you see people from all over the country supporting us, alumni coming together and supporting us in our run to achieve this goal, the one goal everyone has to get this state championship."
PHOTOS: (Top) Hancock players begin to celebrate during Saturday’s Division 3 championship victory. (Middle) Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Andrew Holland (5) works to keep control of the puck in front of a Hancock pursuer. (Click for more from Andrew Knapik.)
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.)