By Bill Khan
Special to Second Half
PLYMOUTH — Livonia is one of the great hockey communities in Michigan, but had never been home to an MHSAA Finals champion.
Livonia Stevenson brought a championship to the birthplace of former NHL star Mike Modano, beating Hartland 5-4 in the Division 2 title game Saturday at Compuware Arena.
Prior to this weekend, Livonia's three hockey-playing schools had combined for only eight regional championships during the 39-year history of the MHSAA tournament and just one semifinal appearance (Stevenson in 1987). It doesn't help that the Livonia schools often encounter some of the state's perennial powerhouses early in the postseason. Stevenson has been eliminated 10 times by Detroit Catholic Central and five times by Trenton in regional play.
"I couldn't be happier for the Stevenson administration, the alumni and the whole Livonia community," fifth-year Stevenson coach David Mitchell said. "We're in the 43rd year of high school hockey in Livonia.
We're the 43rd team in Stevenson history. This is the first chance a Livonia school has had to play in a state final. To get it done, this is not just for Stevenson, but for all of Livonia high school hockey. We've had some great teams and some great kids go through our program. To do it is very special. Hopefully, the whole community can enjoy this."
To win its first championship, Stevenson denied Hartland the same opportunity. The Eagles had won 11 regional titles before this season, reaching the semifinals only twice until playing in their first final on Saturday.
Hartland coach Rick Gadwa praised captains Nick Pleshakov, Justin Bailey and Ned O'Boyle for laying the foundation for Hartland's first march to the championship game.
"These three guys changed Hartland hockey," Gadwa said. "It was their leadership on and off the ice. We put Hartland on the map. That's something that hopefully stays."
Junior Dominic Lutz was the star in Stevenson's historic season, scoring 42 goals with 32 assists in 31 games to easily lead the Spartans in scoring. It was fitting that the 6-foot, 185-pound forward scored the team's biggest goals in the championship game, popping in two in a 2:37 span of the second period to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 advantage. Stevenson never surrendered the lead.
"We've been preaching Team 43," Lutz said. "It's just great to see it all come together in the end. We've got it. It's unbelievable. We're like a family. This is the closest team I've ever played on."
Stevenson senior Travis Harvey, who scored two goals and had two assists in the semifinal on Friday, opened the scoring off a faceoff win at 4:55 of the first period. Hartland junior Austin Flores tied it off a
feed from Chris McRae at 6:26 of the first.
Despite being outplayed in the first period, Hartland found itself on top by a 2-1 count when McRae scored just 54 seconds into the second period.
The pace picked up considerably after that, as the teams combined for five goals during an 8:18 span. Stevenson took the lead for good on two goals by Lutz at 4:30 and 7:07 and Harvey's second goal of the game at
O'Boyle brought Hartland within 4-3 at the 9:56 mark, only to have Stevenson regain a two-goal advantage at 12:48 on a goal by Ray Chartier.
"We would rather not play that way," Mitchell said. "We'd rather play a little more defensive and shut things down. These guys, when they see opportunities, they tend to go. We saw a few opportunities and
took some. Give Hartland credit. We were starting to look for goals and they caught us and they turned around and buried some of their own. They played an outstanding game."
"It was just go, go, go," O'Boyle said. "It was incredible emotionally."
Hartland didn't take long to trim the lead once the puck dropped in the third period, making it a 5-4 game on a goal by McRae at the 14-second mark.
The Eagles had eight more shots on net the rest of the game, but couldn't get another puck past Stevenson goalie Connor Humitz. Hartland called timeout with 2:21 left and pulled goalie Nick Wineka in the final minute, but couldn't generate a shot in that time against an aggressive Stevenson forecheck.
"We just want to keep it deep in their zone as much as we can," Lutz said. "Just gain the red line, get it deep and forecheck. We didn't want anything in our zone. We wanted everything down there, just keep
all the pressure off Connor. It seemed like it worked out."
Stevenson finished with a 23-7-1 record, while Hartland ended 19-9-2.
PHOTOS: (Top) Livonia Stevenson players celebrate a goal during Saturday's Division 2 Final in front of their fan section at Compuware Arena. (Middle) Hartland goaltender Nick Wineka makes one of his 35 saves Saturday. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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.)