Great Lakes Conference Preview

It's a youth movement In The U.P., as underclassmen look to make their mark

Craig Peterson

November 1, 2023

Escanaba hockey freshmen Nolan Bink and Graham Johnson stand side by side on the ice.
Photo from RRN Sports

Levi Wunder and Escanaba in 2015.

Alex Nordstrom and Hancock in 2016.

Brent and Dean Loukus with Calumet in ‘17 and ‘21.

Marquette making back-to-back-to-back-to-back trips to Plymouth.

Cam Markham and Houghton in 2023.

It seems like nearly every year going back for the past decade, Great Lakes Conference teams take turns representing the Upper Peninsula in the MHSAA State Tournament. And not just with nice players, but with elite junior, college and professional-level prospects who transcend high school hockey.

In past years, the top team — or teams — in the U.P. were easily discernible. ‘Houghton’s got a bunch of talent this year’ and ‘Oh, Marquette is so deep’ or ‘Calumet’s heavy hitters are back for their senior season.’ For the first time in recent memory, though, the GLC feels wide open. 

Houghton graduated its most important players from the Final Four team last season. Marquette lost seven key seniors as well. Calumet and Hancock have been down a bit in recent years while programs like Kingsford and Jeffers have improved. Plus, many of the players expected to play key roles for their respective schools are likely to be underclassmen. Can the Red Men maintain their success on the shoulders of a junior goaltender? Will Escanaba continue to climb with a pair of sophomore forwards leading the charge?

So many questions come up ahead of this season for the Great Lakes Conference. That uncertainty is what makes this particular league feel much more volatile than it has been as of late.  

Last Season’s Champion: Houghton

Cam Markham, Landon Stevens and Gaborik Carlson carved through the GLC last season for the Gremlins. Their 26 wins in ‘22-23 were the most in a single season in program history (I think?) and a run to the Final Four sent Houghton to Plymouth for the first time since 2019. Not only is that loaded trio of forwards gone, but Corey Markham also retired after spending 25 years as coach for the Gremlins. 

This fall is a blank slate for first-year coach Micah Stipech and returning players like Mikey Maillette. After playing behind ‘The Big 3’ for the last two seasons, Maillette will get a chance to really make his mark. Twenty-three points as a sophomore, 39 points as a junior and now, the Gremlins will look for him to really lead the way offensively as a senior. 

Houghton only graduated four seniors last spring, which is wildly low for any program in the state. However, all four played big roles on the team in getting them to Plymouth. So replacing them in the lineup and the locker room will still present a huge challenge for Stipech in Year 1.

Players To Watch: 

Mikey Maillette, Houghton Senior Forward

The first name out of everyone’s mouth when talking about players from the Upper Peninsula this season. Maillette could very well be the best player in the region and one of the best in the state. He may double his career point total, currently at 62 through two seasons.

Nash Riipi, Marquette Senior Forward

The Red Men are 24-1-1 all-time when Riipi records a point. Want to stop Marquette? Stop Riipi first. But good luck in doing so, because he finished second on the team in scoring with 33 points in 26 games while playing one of the toughest schedules in the state.

Nolan Bink, Escanaba Sophomore Forward

Finished the regular season on an 11-game point streak as a freshman. In fact, he led all skaters from the Class of 2026 in scoring with 19 goals and 35 points. Bink is a promising young prospect who could be the top player in the Great Lakes Conference as early as this winter.

Connor Raffaelli, Houghton Senior Defenseman

Made the switch from forward to defense last season. All he did was anchor a Gremlins blue line that had the second-best goal differential in the state. Oh, and contributed 30 points from the back end as well.  

Todd Kilpela, Hancock Sophomore Defenseman

He was the Bulldogs’ best D-man as a freshman. Kilpela does everything well; puck moving, skating, transitioning. He quarterbacked the team’s power play last season, which led to an 18-point rookie year and his ceiling will only rise as he continues to grow and develop.

Isiah Anderson, Kingsford Senior Goalie

Enters his senior season with 44 starts in three seasons. Anderson went 10-10-0 for the Flivvers as a junior, playing behind a young and developing team. Kingsford could return as many as 21 skaters from a season ago. With consistency in net, Anderson and company could put together a sneaky good ‘23-24 and surprise a lot of teams.

Petey’s Prediction: Escanaba

Houghton is still the team to beat in the Great Lakes Conference, even after graduating the top three players in the league a season ago. However, I can’t emphasize all the question marks in the conference and highlight every team’s losses only to turn around and select the incumbent to repeat as champs?! 

Escanaba is a bit of a contrarian pick, but allow me to build a case.

Coach Andy Johnson has spent the last two seasons building the program and getting it headed in the right direction. A 20-win season and a regional championship were two huge accomplishments in ‘22-23. However, there’s still a lot of ground to make up against conference opponents after being mercied twice by Houghton and once by Marquette. I believe the Eskymos continue to learn, develop and grow as a young team with important players in key roles. Goaltender Cully Hayes played every minute of action in 27 games as a freshman last season. Fellow classmates Nolan Bink and Graham Johnson will lead the charge offensively as well. Escanaba’s sophomore class has a bunch of promise and a surprising amount of experience under their belts already. 

They’re still a year or two away from being in the state championship conversation. But all the pieces are in place, as long as kids continue to develop and the program continues to progress. The next step in that process for Escanaba is to win a Great Lakes Conference championship, and I think it could happen as soon as this winter. 

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