MIHL Showcase Top Stories
Headlines, hot takes and information coming out of Michigan high school hockey’s biggest event of the season
February 5, 2024
If you’ve been reading, listening or watching, you know how strongly I feel about the MIHL Showcase. I was in attendance to catch some of the 42 games taking place at Kennedy Recreation Center in Trenton. In total, 24 of those contests were decided by two goals or fewer, with an average margin of victory of just 2.30 goals per game. The MIHL Showcase is quite possibly the most competitive event, and this year’s slate certainly upheld its reputation.
After watching a lot of hockey, taking a ton of notes, talking with coaches, staff, players, parents and more, I’ve got a couple things that really jumped out to me from the weekend that was. Let’s take a look at this weekend’s headlines:
DCC Hockey Is Never Losing Again…Ever
I’ll admit, compared to previous Detroit Catholic Central teams, I initially thought this year’s ‘23-24 squad was at the very least susceptible. They were undoubtedly the No. 1 team in the state, as I’ve had the Shamrocks ranked at the top all season long. My initial reactions were that CC was deep up front and returned a ton of contributors offensively. But I just thought that given their inexperience in net and some youth on the back end, that this year’s team had vulnerabilities. Their weak points coincided with opposing teams like Brighton, Hartland, Houghton, Clarkston and Byron Center who all enjoyed the strengths of returning high-level scoring threats, experience and depth. So at the beginning of the season, it appeared the high school hockey stars may have aligned just right for Goliath to at least lose a game. Nope.
They rolled past Brighton and Hartland in consecutive games back in December. Denied Clarkston’s attempt earlier last month. And, on consecutive games at the MIHL Showcase, they defeated the last two unbeaten teams in the state, handing both Houghton and Byron Center their first losses of the season, in very convincing fashion.
At this point, I’m not only convinced CC will win out the rest of the season — and claim its fifth consecutive Division-I state championship in the process — but it may never suffer defeat at the hands of an in-state school again. Certainly not at the hands of a public school either. And, if they ever do lose, or fail to win a state title, I’d expect Al Michaels to be doing play-by-play, screaming “Do you believe in miracles?!”
It was Kyle Gaffney and Brendan Miles in ‘19-20; both are playing Division-I college hockey at present day. Then the goaltending tandem of Bobby Masters and Nick Galda posted a combined sub-1.00 goals against the following season. They ran it back in ‘21-22, even more impressive this time, shutting out six consecutive opponents in the regular season and allowing just two goals against in the entire postseason. Then last season, Landon West quietly had one of the most impressive senior years we’ve ever seen, while the Shamrocks astonishingly allowed just 22 goals against in a 30-game season. Currently, it’s the Jackson Walsh show and 13 of his teammates who also have double-digit point totals. Next year, it’ll be sophomore Brooks Rogowski’s turn to be the flag bearer (if he’s not already carrying it, leading the team with 36 points). The year after that, it’ll be another top forward or stud defenseman or brick wall goalie, or a combination of two, or even all three.
Haters will say ‘it’s easy when you can recruit’ and ‘anyone with that much talent can win.’ Maybe they’re right to a degree. But we’re still talking about high school kids with egos, and emotions, and buying into a culture, and creating structure, and playing with purpose. You’re nuts if you think CC is somehow absolved of all the problems every other hockey program experiences throughout the course of a season; they’ve just been able to do it without breaking stride. And that’s where my biggest takeaway comes in.
Gaffney. Miles. Galda. Masters. West. Walsh. Rogowski. What’s been the constant in all the success despite this much turnover? Coach Brandon Kaleniecki. He took the job in 2015, and immediately won a state championship the following March. He’s gone on to win four more and be a finalist for a fifth, making the championship game in seven of the eight tournaments in his tenure thus far. In all likelihood, his squad will make it an eighth appearance and a seventh championship under his leadership.
Kaleniecki and his core staff of Scott Lock, Mike Downing, Mike Oakleaf and Tom Nugent, deserve a ton of credit for maintaining this behemoth. I think in the coaching circles, they’re seen as such, too. But the opposing fans in the stands, parents, players, etc., can be quick to dismiss or downplay CC’s dominance. You don’t have to like it, but damn do you gotta respect it.
Hartland Hockey’s “Finnish Five”
Growing up in Michigan and experiencing the great Detroit Red Wings run of the 90s and 2000s, we were all familiar with the story of the Russian Five. Fedorov, Konstantinov, Fetisov, Larionov and Kozlov. Michigan’s Fab Five was another notable quintet in the state, as Webber, Rose, Howard, King and Jackson led the Wolverines to back-to-back Final Fours.
Well, Michigan high school hockey fans, I’d like to introduce you to the state’s next fistful. The Finnish Five.
Ian Kastamo lined up for the opening draw against the Bay Reps with Drew L’Esperance and Jake Pietila on either side. Eli Sturos and Todd Halonen squared up along the blue line behind them. Together, all five represented their Finland roots that run deep in Livingston County. It’s probably not the first time five high school hockey players with Finnish heritage took the ice, like it was for the Russian Five back in 1995. However, I did find it to be a very compelling storyline, given that it was quite the topic of discussion amongst the people sitting around me at the game.
Michigan is the second-most populous state in the country for people of Finnish descent. Seven of the top 10 counties in the country in terms of population percentage are in the upper peninsula alone. So it struck me as quite the unique storyline over the weekend, especially considering that the Finnish Five accounted for four of Hartland’s seven goals at the MIHL Showcase.
Pietila, a sophomore, scored a pair of goals in the 4-2 win over the Bay Reps on Friday. One of them came on the power play off a beautiful centering feed from Kastamo on the half wall. Sturos would open the scoring in the Eagles’ 3-2 win over De La Salle the next day. His goal came on the Finnish Five’s first shift of the game, just 1:44 into the opening period. Kastamo — who had set up each of the previous three goals scored by the Finnish Five — scored the deciding goal in a shootout, as Hartland came away with its second win of the weekend.
Together, they combine for almost half of Hartland’s offense this season. Kastamo, Pietila and L’Esperance are one, two and three on the team in points, and all five are underclassmen. So the Finnish Five is making a huge impact on Michigan high school hockey, and may be here to stay for some time too.
Five Standout Goalies from the MIHL Showcase
There were a lot of talented goalies in the building over the weekend. It was really good to see so many in action, sometimes simultaneously, for me as an evaluator to be able to compare, contrast and assess in real-time. There were two goalies in particular I wanted to get eyes on that I teased last week, and they did not disappoint. There were also a couple that jumped out to me for having big performances, and we’ll get into them as well.
Cam LaBadie was one player in particular I was curious about the most. I had seen Sault Ste. Marie a couple times on film, but that doesn’t always tell the full story. On top of that, I rarely if ever saw LaBadie under duress or scrambling to make saves. So I was hoping that matchups with Flint Powers and Riverview Gabriel Richard might put the pressure on him and force LaBadie into some desperation-save type moments. However, I didn’t really see that. He was constantly in position, inhaling initial shots, eliminating rebounds and second chance opportunities. To be honest, it was almost boring because LaBadie made everything look so easy and so simple.
‘Boring’ is actually a really good thing in this instance. If you’re great on the initial shot, you don’t have to be desperate on a second opportunity or scramble to make an out-of-position save. LaBadie was consistently in the right place at the right time that you almost take for granted how great he’s playing in net. A 25-save shutout of a very offensively talented Flint Powers team, and then a 1-0 loss to Gabriel Richard the following day. What more can you ask of your goaltender? He’s got a 1.38 goals-against average, a .943 save percentage, and has held Marquette, De La Salle and GRCC — in addition to both MIHL Showcase opponents — to two goals or fewer.
In the net opposite LaBadie on Friday was senior Blake Zloto. While Zloto doesn’t quite have the measurables that his counterpart does, the Chargers goaltender battled his ass off to give his team a chance in that one.
Zloto wasn’t a guy I had in mind for top goaltenders as this season has gone on, but after seeing him in action against Sault Ste. Marie, I’m in on him now. The ice was tilted at times, due to the Soo’s aggressive and effective forecheck. They generated 30 shots in the game, sometimes in bunches, and the ‘05 prospect absolutely battled to keep his team within reach. He turned away not one, but two breakaway attempts down the stretch and made a fantastic pad save sliding to his right to negate a one-time shot attempt. Powers’ schedule hasn’t been the toughest this season and Zloto’s numbers are good, not great, but I was really encouraged after seeing his performance on Friday.
I mentioned Paul Baker earlier in the season but hadn’t seen much, only heard rumblings. The MIHL Showcase provided a stage to witness his abilities first-hand. While his White Lake Lakeland team lost at the hands of Forest Hills Central, I was still encouraged by his performance. I actually think his style is similar to that of LaBadie, who I mentioned earlier. Baker doesn’t make too many saves that leave you speechless but he’s rarely in a position where he has to.
The ‘06 prospect is well over 6-feet and very athletic, and I don’t think he really gives up ‘bad’ goals. No bleeders, no squeakers under the arm, no shots he didn’t see. If you beat Baker, it’s got to be a good shot. One goal against, Baker got tangled up with a screener in front as he tracked a low-to-high play. If you want to call that a ‘bad goal’ I guess, but could have just as easily been whistled for goalie interference.
Gabriel Richard’s Ryan Rainey and Gavin Szalkowski of De La Salle had nice weekends I gotta point out too. I’d been pretty quiet on the four-year senior, and the Pioneers in general, this season. But after making 29 saves in a 2-1 win over FHC and following it up with a 1-0 shutout of Sault Ste. Marie, I think we all have to give Rainey a lot of credit. Knowing the weapons FHC possesses, as well as the offensive attack the Soo provides, for the 5-foot-10 net minder to make 50-of-51 saves on the biggest stage of the season speaks volumes.
Szalkowski, a junior, could really be separating himself among other goaltenders in the Class of 2025 as well. De La Salle has had a really strong season under first-year coach Chad LaRose, and Szalkowski has been a huge part of that. He’s got a 1.78 goals-against average and .932 save percentage, coming off of a win against Ohio’s No. 1-ranked St. Ignatius on Friday and 3-2 shootout loss to Hartland. Szalkowski’s having a really good season, picking up a lot of steam and I’m definitely starting to take note.
The Importance of Team Michigan Tryouts
I had a discussion with a pretty high-level player who I think, at the very least, should be in consideration for Team Michigan at the end of March. During our conversation, I was stunned to learn he didn’t even know what it was! And that’s just not okay. So, if you don’t know, now you know…
Each year at the end of the season, the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA) fields two teams of Michigan high school hockey players. One consists of all seniors (Class of 2024) while the other is completely made up of juniors (Class of 2025). Those two teams compete at the CCM National Invitational Tournament (NIT) in Plymouth, Minnesota, on April 25 – 28th. It is a six-team tournament consisting of two Michigan teams, as well as high school all-star teams from the states of Minnesota, Colorado, North Dakota and Wisconsin respectively. This four-day event is heavily scouted by junior, college and professional teams. Hundreds of Michigan high school hockey alumni from previous years have signed NAHL tenders and gone on to play Division-I college hockey. MacKenzie MacEachern, Nick Blankenburg, Cooper Black, Logan Neaton, Dean Loukus, and dozens more. If you are a high school hockey player with aspirations of moving on to the NAHL or USHL or another top-level junior league, it runs through Team Michigan first.
Team Michigan tryouts take place at the end of the season. This year, there are three satellite tryouts the week after the State Finals in Gaylord (March 11th), Grand Rapids (March 12th) and Livonia (March 13th). From there, top players advance to the second phase of tryouts called the Team Michigan Festival in Chelsea. The festival is a three-day event that has become heavily scouted in its own right. Out of that weekend, the top 20 seniors and top 20 juniors will be selected to participate in a one-week training camp before heading on to Minnesota for the CCM NIT.
If you want to play on, if you want to be considered a top prospect, it starts here. So register, try out, throw your hat in the ring, and see how you stack up against the best players in the state.
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