Port Huron Unified Providing Opportunity
By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com
December 4, 2019
Growing up in Yale, Trevor Sugars never thought about playing high school hockey. He bounced around Sanilac, St. Clair and Lapeer counties finding house leagues to stay involved in the sport he loved, as Yale didn’t have a team.
But a year ago, thanks to an expansion of the Port Huron Unified cooperative team, a new option arose, and Sugars has taken full advantage.
“This is great for Yale because we get to come out and have a hockey team, and younger kids can get into the sport of hockey,” said Sugars, a junior defenseman. “They’re able to go further without having to pay all the money for AAA.”
Three players from Yale and six players from St. Clair join the 11 from Port Huron in donning the Big Reds jersey this season. It’s the fourth that Port Huron has collaborated with East China School District – St. Clair and Marine City – and the second it has collaborated with Yale. The collaboration has given players from those schools an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have, while saving the Port Huron program.
“I went to a coaching clinic before the season started, and we actually had a roundtable about unified hockey programs,” Port Huron coach Ben Pionk said. “It was kind of interesting, because we all had one common theme. Most of us were all there for survival. That’s why we’re unified. A lot of the teams were in the same boat. Some of the other unified programs, they have like seven schools and you’re getting two kids from each school just to make a team. Honestly, it was all for survival, and that was solely ours. It wasn’t to build a superpower team; it was to make sure we had a team we could even put on the ice.”
Pionk has been at Port Huron for two decades, most of which spent coaching a team solely from his school. But numbers began to dwindle not long ago, threatening the future of the program.
“I can’t remember what year it was, but we had tryouts and I had eight kids standing here,” Pionk said. “I went to our former athletic director and talked to him and said, ‘What do you want us to do here? You really can’t put a program on the ice.’ We actually started the season that way and then we picked up a few more; I think we ended up with 12 that year. We got through the year, and kind of the next year was the same way. You go back four or five years and people weren’t working a lot, so what are you going to do? Are you going to play hockey or pay your bills?”
Not only was it hard to be competitive with so few players, but Pionk was worried about the safety of his players, who were forced to take longer shifts. He said he knew there were players in St. Clair – a school that had a program through the 2012-13 season – so Port Huron became a unified team for the 2016-17 season.
It didn’t happen overnight, but the team has now nearly doubled in size.
“Even after the first year or so of being unified with St. Clair, we still weren’t getting really good numbers,” Pionk said. “We just found that a lot of the older kids down there had been with their teams, and at this point they were established where they were and didn’t want to leave to come play high school hockey. They would love to have played high school hockey but didn’t want to leave at that point. Through Port Huron Minor Hockey’s help, they knew there were a couple kids in Yale who had kind of aged out and weren’t going to have anywhere to play, so we kind of approached their school about it and next thing you know, we had Yale as well. Now, a few years into it everybody knows we’re unified and the kids are coming out. We have 17 skaters and three goalies this year.”
The six players from St. Clair this season make up the biggest group Port Huron Unified has brought in from another school besides Port Huron High. While they may have grown up expecting to one day be Saints, they’re grateful for the opportunity they now have.
“The high school experience is so much fun,” said Duncan McLeod, a junior defenseman from St. Clair. “It’s just fun to play for something – something big.”
While players from out of town are excited about a newer opportunity, those within the program are excited to see their team growing again.
“My freshman year, my sophomore year, we were really struggling on numbers,” Port Huron junior Kevin Schott said. “It was tough having to double shift a lot and pretty much play wherever Coach needed you to play. This year I was really excited to hear that we had a lot of kids coming from St. Clair and Yale – some better skating kids that I knew had played travel. So, I was really super excited to see that we were going to have a full and deep team this year.”
With all the new faces and multiple schools combining to create one team, not a lot of the players had played with one another prior to high school. That hasn’t been an issue, though.
“We all came together real quick, because we all know how to play hockey – we've all been playing hockey for at least four years,” Sugars said. “We all know our positions, got together and figured it out.”
This year’s team has already enjoyed as much success as any of its unified predecessors. The Big Reds opened the season with a pair of wins, eclipsing last year’s win total (one).
“We’re trying to be at least .500 this year,” Sugars said. “I wanted to be the best Yale high school team, but we already did that.”
A flu bug hit the team right before Thanksgiving, which didn’t help during a busy week. But even sitting at 2-3, there’s optimism about the season and the future, as without a senior on the roster, there’s a possibility everyone could come back next year.
“It’s looking positive for the year,” McLeod said. “We have a good team going.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at email@example.com with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Port Huron Unified’s Noah Gunderson (19) is among Port Huron High School students who help make up the program again this winter. (Middle) Duncan McLeod, a St. Clair student, controls the puck. (Photos by Jeremiah May.)
Moggach Honored Nationally for 25 Years of 'Sticking In, Doing Good'
By Tim Robinson
Special for MHSAA.com
March 17, 2023
When Paul Moggach began his tenure as Brighton’s hockey coach, the program was at its nadir.
“When we got into high school hockey, it wasn't very good,” he said recently. “Our league wasn't very good. Our team wasn't very good. We started with character to try to build something different, you know, a different mousetrap.”
Over the next quarter of a century, Moggach and his assistants, primarily Rick Bourbonais (whom Moggach succeeded as coach) and current coach Kurt Kivisto helped lift the program into one of the most respected, and successful, in the state.
Moggach (pronounced MUG-uhth), along with former Detroit Catholic Central coach Gordon St. John, in February was named a co-recipient of the John Mariucci Award by the American Hockey Coaches Association.
They, along with Andy Weidenbach of Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood, are the only Michigan coaches to have received the award, named after the longtime hockey coach at Michigan Tech.
“He brought in people that he knew could do things he may have had limitations at,” said Kivisto, who played for Moggach at Brighton two decades ago and was an assistant for 10 years before taking over as head coach in 2020. “He did a good job surrounding himself with people he trusted and knew would be good for the program while he steered the ship in the direction he wanted. And he was very good at that.”
Moggach calls the honor “very humbling.
“I got into hockey because there was a need,” he added, “then I ended up with Rick at the high school for those years. When you look back at it, I grew a lot. I grew a lot personally and from a coaching perspective I grew. I had to change things, and so I think it's not so much the reward as at least a recognition that I stuck it out. My grandmother used to always tell me, ‘Stick in and do good.’ She would say that when I was on the way out the door. That was her message to me, and I think (the award) just emphasizes that I did, I did stick in.”
“You can’t be happier for a guy than for a guy like Paul,” said Bourbonais, who coached with Moggach at Brighton for a total of 30 years, the last 20 as an assistant. “He took a hockey team and made it into a hockey program that is a top-five contender every year. Guys come out of the program with championships, but they also come out with life lessons and some idea of what it takes to be a great citizen and a great student as well as what it takes to be a great athlete.”
At first, though, there were trials. The Bulldogs struggled in his first two seasons, and the program itself was in jeopardy for a short while after a bench-clearing brawl.
Once that crisis passed, Moggach and his staff, which for many years consisted of Bourbonais, Mike Brown and Jason Valente, worked to rebuild the Bulldogs from a team known for its physicality to one with a more wide-open passing style of play.
When hockey trends went to a more defensive style, where the defense sparked the offense, Moggach adapted.
During the first decade of his tenure, as the Bulldogs had more success and built their reputation, teams that had shunned scheduling them in the past began adding Brighton to their schedules.
He kept looking for ways to improve his team, both on and off the ice.
Brighton was the first team to schedule a game with those in the Keweenaw Peninsula, both for the keen competition, but also as a team-bonding exercise.
The bus rides, about 11 hours each way, helped players who in many cases didn’t know each other outside the rink to bond. So did activities outside of hockey including team dinners and curling, and the experience of being together as a team for four days.
Other teams took notice, and team bonding trips, including those far shorter than the 550 miles from Brighton to Houghton, are commonplace.
Soon after, he introduced a skating coach and stricter team nutrition to the program.
“It’s not something that we had done when I was in high school," said Kivisto, who graduated in 2003. “It was something that some of the families and players weren’t overly excited about, but he knew it was good for the team and he was always looking ahead and finding ways to give his team an advantage.”
Brighton grew to dominate its league, and winning gave Moggach the authority to introduce concepts new to players and families who grew up in travel hockey.
“I'm sure we weren't pleasing everybody,” he said, “But we thought we would do with character and live the kind of model that we would hope that the players would follow, that their families would follow. And as we did that it changed and we got in front of some things with our league, and had a good run in our league.”
Brighton won its first Division 1 championship in 2006. That was followed by back-to-back Division 1 titles in 2012 and 2013, and then 2017 and 2018, a stretch that saw the Bulldogs reach the Finals in six out of seven seasons.
“Some of that is when you learn how to win, you win, even sometimes when you shouldn't,” he said. “I'm not saying that you know when we got to the Finals that we didn't deserve to win. We had a good recipe there that got us those five wins, but once we got it rolling, that momentum kept us going sometimes then maybe it shouldn't have.”
As the program’s success and reputation grew, players who had been in travel hockey started opting to play for the Bulldogs.
“There are some kids on (this year’s Brighton) team who came from Triple A who are tired of that commitment, because of the travel, the time, the money,” he said. “And they found that high school hockey is different. I mean just look at the crowds. They don't get that kind of a reward for the work that they put in.
“I think it's developed to that point now for us and we get players like that and it's made a difference, I think, and not just for our team but for all of high school hockey, " Moggach continued. “The coaches association has done a great job in promoting now and so it is a great destination for so many good reasons for kids to spend that time and grow up with their friends who are in their neighborhoods and in their community.”
Moggach is still a fixture at Brighton games, still in close touch with Kivisto when not driving to see his grandsons play or his stepson, Damon Whitten, who coaches at Lake Superior State.
His impact will be felt in Brighton hockey for years to come.
“He left no stone unturned to try and be the best he thought we could be,” Brighton athletic director John Thompson said. “He’s one of those people who was genuinely invested in young people, and he always, always put the program first. He was a good manager of young men and developed some pretty good coaches, too.”
Moggach finished with a record of 467-172-43. St. John, who won six state titles at Catholic Central and another at Cranbrook, had a record of 229-29-18 in 10 seasons at Catholic Central.
“I was excited for (Moggach) when I heard the news,” Kivisto said, “seeing him put at a level of the guys who have won the award and the contributions they made to high school hockey. It’s neat to see him recognized at that level.”
Both men will receive their awards sometime this spring.
“I can be recognized,” Moggach said, “and I think kids are and their families are always looking for that. But I think before you do that you have to build the program, the program has to be something that's respectful and respected and competitive, and I think we accomplished that.”
Gordon St. John led Detroit Catholic Central and Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood to a combined eight Finals championships over 16 seasons, the last seven with the Shamrocks including five straight in Class A or Division 1 from 1999-2003.
DCC’s Class A championship in 1994 was the first of now 17 Finals titles, which rank second-most in MHSAA history. He built a 222-29-18 record (.859 winning percentage) over 10 seasons leading the Shamrocks through 2003-04, the last two seasons as co-head coach before then staying with the program as an assistant and helping the team to another Division 1 championship in 2005.
St. John’s championship at Cranbrook came in 1988 in Class B-C-D.
PHOTOS (Top) Retired Brighton hockey coach Paul Moggach, far right, stands alongside his players as they await to receive their medals after winning the 2018 Division 1 championship (Middle) Moggach stands with his former assistant and current Brighton head coach Kurt Kivisto. (Middle photo by Tim Robinson; St. John photo courtesy of the American Hockey Coaches Association.)