PORTAGE — Although his hockey team skidded to the worst start during his 30-year coaching career, JD Kalleward and his Portage Northern Huskies still have that positive vibe going.
“We don’t want to keep losing,” senior co-captain Jack Budnick said last week after the team opened 0-7. “We want to turn it around as soon as we can.
“We’ve had a lot of close games where it’s just come down to a couple mistakes, and we’re working on them in practice.”
Portage Northern closed the 2015 portion of this season's schedule with its first win, 4-2 over Manistee on Friday, to move to 1-8 heading into the new year. And Kalleward is one reason the players are staying positive and focused, said senior co-captain Austin Killman.
“He’s been very vehement about hockey,” Killman said. “If he sees anybody slacking in practice, he’ll get them going.
“He’s been around the game for so long that he knows a lot about hockey and what systems will work in different situations. I have a lot of faith in his style.”
Kalleward said he honed his coaching style while working as an assistant to Art Missias, who passed away from cancer in 2010.
A netminder, Kalleward graduated from Northern in 1980. During his high school years, he helped coach goalies for his uncle, John Kalleward, Sr., and Missias with their squirt and peewee house teams.
It didn’t take long for JD to catch the coaching bug.
When Missias took over the head coaching job at Portage Northern 30 years ago, he tapped JD Kalleward to be his assistant. Thirteen years ago when Missias retired, Kalleward took his mentor’s place.
One of the lessons learned from Missias is helping Kalleward deal with his team’s record so far this year: “You may have a down game, but it’s just one game.
“You’ve got to move on, learn from your mistakes and take the positives from it. Try and hope in the next game you do better.”
After losing nine seniors to graduation from a team that went 18-9-0 overall, 8-2 in the Southwest Michigan High School Hockey League last season, Kalleward knew this would be a rebuilding season. But he didn’t expect such a challenging start, including 0-2 in the league.
“Six of our (first) seven games have been on the road against very good programs including Traverse City, Forest Hills, East Kentwood, so we’ve had some pretty stiff competition,” Kalleward said.
Besides Budnick and Killman, the Huskies have just two other seniors: forward Scott Verduzco and goalie Tim Fitzgerald.
Scoring other successes
Although the Huskies have struggled early on the ice, Kalleward is most proud of their academic performance.
In his 13 years as head coach, his team has earned academic all-state every season.
“The last two years we were the top academic team out of 160 hockey teams in Michigan,” he said. “Two years ago, our team’s (grade-point average) was 3.94. Last year, it was 3.96
‘We have a number of kids who are academically gifted. Of the nine who graduated last year, we had just one beneath a 3.0; the other eight were above 3.5.”
Last season, Joe Mancina, with a 4.65 GPA, became the Huskies’ third top state scholar athlete in the last six years, as measured by grade-point average.
One main reason Kalleward stresses academics is, “quite frankly, there aren’t too many who are going to sign NHL contracts,” he said. “We know that life after high school means doing well.
“Every Thursday we meet with the players after practice to talk about where they are at school, their grades. We offer tutoring with those who are struggling.”
Over the last 30 years, Kalleward has seen several changes to both the game and the players.
“Relative to talent, you used to have a lot more kids going the route of playing high school,” he said. “Now they have so many options for players depending on what they want to do with their hockey careers.”
He also said players don’t seem as independent as they were in past years.
“What we find is sometimes it’s hard for kids to make their own decisions or make good decisions on their own,” he said. “As a coach, besides the X’s and O’s, we try to help them with that.”
As an assistant coach, Kalleward took note of what worked especially well and wrote a manual of expectations for coaches, parents and players that he distributes every season.
“We have an agreement signed by both parents and players saying they’ve read and understood the 16 points of emphasis, everything in the agreement: ice time, player behavior on the ice, behavior off the ice, academics, and so on,” he said.
Among team requirements are wearing khakis, a shirt and tie when going to games, “The same apparel they’d wear for a job interview,” he said.
“We eat together quite a bit and have rules on behavior. There’s probably a good three pages of rules.”
Killman said it’s up to the captains to help turn the team around.
“You have to get your guys motivated for games, and if they’re getting down on themselves, try to get them back up,” he said. “If they’re coming to practice slacking, you’ve got to push them.
“(Being captain) gives me more responsibility and I love responsibility.”
Budnick said Killman is one spark on the team.
“Out on the ice before we go to opening faceoff, we gather around the net and we talk about the key aspects that we want to work on in the game,” Budnick said. “Austin is always taking the responsibility and says exactly what we need to do.
“Austin is definitely the hardest worker on the team, and that’s a great leadership quality from my perspective. It pushes everybody else.”
Kalleward’s three assistants include two Portage Northern alums. Steve Stanley, who works with the forwards, graduated in 1983, and Ken Rogers, who works with the defense, in 1975.
Tom Askey, who played pro hockey, including with the NHL Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 1997-98 and the then-United Hockey League Kalamazoo Wings in 2006-07, works with the goalies.
In 1975, the Huskies made it to the Tier II MHSAA Final before losing to Lansing Catholic Central. They made at least the Semifinals four times under Missias.
In spite of this year’s start, the future looks promising for the Huskies with four juniors, 10 sophomores and two freshmen mixing with the senior leaders.
Juniors are forwards Spencer Brown, Andrew Fitzgerald, Jesse Liebert and defenseman Calvin Voss.
Sophomores are forwards Grant Ernst, Mason Seiferlein, Tyler Simon; blueliners Griffin McLoed, Roarke Ross, Leon Fieber, Dakota Meadmore; two-way players Will Todd, Caleb Martin and goalie Zach Bossch.
The freshmen are forwards Zonjic Singleton-Julian and Connor Sorge.
Northern picks back up this season’s schedule Jan. 2 against Okemos.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She continues to freelance for MLive.com covering mainly Kalamazoo Wings hockey and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Coach JD Kalleward has spent 30 seasons behind the Portage Northern bench. (Middle) Joe Mancina, center, was last season's top state academic athlete with a 4.65 GPA. He is joined by, from left, all-state team selection Mitchell Kalleward, former NHL player Mike Knuble, Northern all-stater Matty Seiferlien and Coach JD Kalleward. (Below) The Huskies' locker room door. (Head shots) From left: JD Kalleward, Jack Budnick and Austin Killman. (Top two photos courtesy of JD Kalleward; bottom photo and head shots by Pam Shebest.)
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.)