With all due respect to the great cities of Ishpeming, Escanaba and Hubbell, Sault Ste. Marie just might be the most happening place on Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Situated on the shores of the St. Mary's River, Sault Ste. Marie (pop. 17,000), affectionately and phonetically known as the Soo, is the home of the Soo Locks, which, unless frozen, allow huge freighters to pass between Lake Huron and Lake Superior. The locks attract 750,000 tourists every summer, and if you believe the billboards on Interstate 75, they are A MARITIME ADVENTURE! According to at least one local, though, the locks are "boring as all hell." If you really want action, just drop a hockey puck. Sault Ste. Marie is also the home of Lake Superior State University, a perennial Division I hockey powerhouse and the nation's No. 1-ranked team as of Feb. 11.
It seems a little odd that this remote outpost, with only 3,200 students, has lured so much hockey talent. The campus isn't the attraction, that's for sure. The place was once Fort Brady, an army base established in the 1890s essentially to protect the waterway. Lake Superior State, as it is now known, was originally a two-year branch of Michigan College of Mining and Technology. In 1966 it became a four-year school. The Lakers won NAIA hockey titles in 1972 and 74, moved to NCAA Division I in 1976, and three years ago won their first national championship.
So how does Lake State do it? The Lakers have built their program by blending a few blue-chip players with a lot of hardworking castoffs and unknowns. The current team is the result of creative recruiting and some dogged player development.
"I'd never heard of the place before," says senior center Jim Dowd, the team's best player and a leading candidate for this year's Hobey Baker Award, hockey's version of the Heisman Trophy. Certainly Dowd's first visit to the school must have given him reason to think twice about spending four years in the Soo. A blinding snowstorm struck while Dowd was heading for the town, and it left him stranded for 10 hours at Detroit's Metro Airport. "I ate about 10 hot dogs waiting for the next plane," he recalls. "But when I finally did get up here and got a look at the hockey program, I signed. I don't remember ever seeing the campus."
We should mention that Dowd's pig-out was the only wining and dining he received as a senior coming out of Brick Township ( N.J.) High School. Although the playmaking center had set national schoolboy scoring records, Lake State was the only Division I school that called him for a visit. Seems that not many recruiters take New Jersey hockey seriously.
Apparently not too many were interested in goaltender Darrin Madeley, either. In 1988-89, Madeley was playing for a terrible Richmond Hill club in the Central Ontario Junior Hockey League, and his goals-against average was an ugly 5.30. "But he was facing 60 shots a night," says first-year Laker coach Jeff Jackson, who recruited virtually every member of his current team during his four years as an assistant coach. "It wasn't like he was letting in five bad goals a game." So Jackson took a chance on Madeley, and the goalie responded by leading the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA), one of four Division I leagues, in both goals-against average (2.42) and save percentage (.915) last season.
It was a typical Laker coup, according to Jackson. Three years ago he had brought in goalie Bruce Hoffort under similar circumstances, and Hoffort had gone on to become an All-America. "We've made our mark by nabbing unknown players off junior teams that aren't very good," Jackson says.
The Lakers try to bring in freshmen who have played one or two years at the junior level, such as the Central Ontario, Saskatchewan or North American leagues. Madeley, a sophomore academically, is 23 years old. "We like kids who move away from home at 17 to play in a place like Melville, Saskatchewan," says assistant coach Jim Roque. "They're tougher. They know how to take care of themselves." All of Lake State's seven freshmen this year are over 20.
The Lakers are bigger and stronger than your typical college team, and through the years they have been known for a very physical style of play, especially under former coach Frank Anzalone. Anzalone took the reins at Lake State in 1982 and turned the fledgling Division I program into an NCAA champion in 1987-88. Despite his success, the fiery Anzalone was constantly at odds with the school's athletic department.
That power struggle ended last May when athletic director Jim Fallis failed to renew Anzalone's contract. There was some backlash in the Soo—after all, Anzalone was 191-108-22 at Lake State—but the team's fast start this year eased the tension. Moreover, Jackson is popular with both the players and the community.