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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)
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 email@example.com 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.)