Manistique Hockey Co-Op Off to Successful Debut

By John Vrancic
Special for

February 4, 2022

MANISTIQUE — There’s a new kid on the block in Upper Peninsula high school hockey this season.

The Manistique Emeralds, who launched a co-op program for the first time, already have made some noise while posting a 5-4-1 record through their first 10 games.

Manistique is fresh from a 2-1 triumph over Painesdale Jeffers on home ice Saturday.

Also included in the co-op venture are Newberry, Munising and Eben Junction Superior Central.

“It feels great to have a high school program here,” said Manistique junior forward Carter Miller. “This is a big change from house league hockey. The high school game is a lot faster. This has been a pretty big transition. We had to get in shape faster and start a little earlier.”

The victory ended a two-game losing streak for the Emeralds, who dropped a 6-5 overtime decision to Escanaba on Friday and absorbed a 2-1 loss to Kingsford at Iron Mountain Jan. 25.

“It was a very exciting game last night,” coach John Nutkins said after Saturday’s game. “We trailed by three goals twice and took them into overtime. I think that gave us a lot of momentum for the rest of the season. We outplayed Kingsford, but had trouble putting the puck in the net. The guys are pulling together. We have to keep working and improving. We feel we’re in a stretch where we can win some games.”

The Emeralds travel to the Copper Country this weekend to face Negaunee on Friday and Jeffers on Saturday at Michigan Tech.

“They (Negaunee) don’t have a lot of guys, but they take quick shots,” said sophomore goaltender Alex Noble. “We just have to put pressure on the puck.

Manistique hockey“(Defeating Jeffers) is a big W for us. I think this will give us momentum going into next weekend. We’ve been in a lot of close games. We didn’t give up against Esky. That was a real big game for us.”

Dakota Maki, a senior forward from Superior Central, put the Emeralds on the board first in a 6-1 road loss to Escanaba.

“That’s definitely not a game we want to remember,” said Nutkins. “Although, it was exciting to get the early goal. They have a great hockey program, but I don’t think that’s who we are. It’s always kind of a feeling out process. In the first game at Iron Mountain they (Kingsford) were flying. It was kind of a culture shock. I feel we’ve improved a lot from the beginning of the season.”

Manistique dropped a 1-0 decision to the Flivvers on Nov. 18, then tied with Jeffers 1-1 and beat the Hancock jayvees 2-0 at MTU at the start of December.

The Emeralds followed that with a 7-3 triumph over Kingsford in their home debut Dec. 16.

“That was definitely exciting,” said Gavin Nutkins, a sophomore forward from Newberry. “There were more than 300 people here. I’ve never experienced that before. The fans have supported us very well. I think we’ve done very well. We are just getting into game shape, and it’s starting to show.”

Noble stopped 26 shots in Saturday’s victory over Jeffers.

“This is a big step up,” he said. “We just have to work hard for it. This is a bit stronger competition and a faster game.”

Gavin Nutkins said he got interested in hockey at a very young age.

“I played baseball and football, but nothing compares with hockey,” he added. “It’s really hard with school. My dad’s the coach, which makes it a little easier. It’s about an hour’s drive both ways. We usually get home about 9:30 or 10 p.m., then I have to study for 2-3 hours, get about six hours of sleep and go to school. Sometimes you get a little tired.”

John Vrancic has covered high school sports in the Upper Peninsula since joining the Escanaba Daily Press staff in 1985. He is known most prominently across the peninsula for his extensive coverage of cross country and track & field that frequently appears in newspapers from the Wisconsin border to Lake Huron. He received the James Trethewey Award for Distinguished Service in 2015 from the Upper Peninsula Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.

PHOTOS (Top) Manistique attempts to maintain possession against Painesdale Jeffers. (Middle) The Emeralds defend in front of their goal against Escanaba last month. (Photos by Veronica Edwards.)

Gaylord's Looker Shows 'Different Type of Tough' in Return from Knee Tear

By Tom Spencer
Special for

February 3, 2023

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.

Looker, right, watches his football teammates from the sideline this fall. “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.

Looker tries to stuff the puck past Tawas’ goaltender.“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 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.)