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Big day for Wildcats: Northern Michigan University releases hockey schedule with team returning to CCHA this fall

Northern Michigan University defenseman Mike Van Unen, left, tries to corral the puck as Bowling Green State’s Max Johnson closes in during the second period on Feb. 20 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Shannon Stieg)

“Having that home ice advantage again is

something that I know we’re looking forward to.” — Grant Potulny, NMU head hockey coach,

on the expectation that fans will again be allowed in the stands this fall

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MARQUETTE — A new era began for the Northern Michigan University hockey team in late March when the Wildcats ended their final season in the WCHA, joining six other league teams to re-form the CCHA for this fall.

Now the team and its fans can see what that inaugural season back in its original league will look like with the release of NMU’s schedule.

The CCHA was resurrected after being extinct since 2013. Even though the league hadn’t existed since then, things will be quite familiar to the seven Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio schools that made the jump.

The MacNaughton Cup WCHA championship trophy is also making the move, as is the Mason Cup, which the ‘Cats competed for the last time they were in the CCHA.

On Thursday, things finally felt real for Northern with the release of the schedule to the public.

Head coach Grant Potulny enjoyed the occasion.

“With what’s happening next year, with one, coming off the back of the pandemic, there’s a lot of hope that we’re going to have fans back in the building,” he said. “So that obviously is on the horizon with some of the advances we’ve made in the vaccine and getting to a number that the science is safe.

“So I think that’s the first thing that excites all players in college hockey and all the athletes because it was a different year. I think if you looked at a lot of teams’ records, they were probably, a lot of people, as good on the road as they were at home. So having that home ice advantage again is something that I know we’re looking forward to.

“And then with the beginning of the CCHA and some of the exciting things that have happened with the eight schools involved in it and the branding of the websites, having Don Lucia as our commissioner, I think there’s just a lot of excitement that goes into that also. It feels like such a new beginning.”

This is also a new beginning for Potulny as he spent his college playing career in the WCHA and his coaching career with Minnesota in the Big Ten, and he says it’s a cool thing that he can be part of the CCHA’s return.

“It is fun,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole life in the WCHA and the Big Ten, and really, very few years in the Big Ten. I think I was part of the Big Ten for four years as part of the beginning of that conference and the excitement surrounding it.

“Having a chance to be able to be part of such a storied league is an experience I’m looking forward to.”

The Wildcats open the season Oct. 8-9 at home against conference newcomer St. Thomas, which is located in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Tommies made the big leap from NCAA Division III to Division I for this year and Potulny said they pose an interesting challenge.

“I think it’ll be fun to be part of their first CCHA game and our (first) CCHA game, a chance to welcome a new member into the league,” he said. “You don’t know anything about them. You know that they’ve got a very accomplished coach (Rico Blasi), you have to think there’ll be some transfers and they’ll have a good lineup.

“But it’ll be exciting for our players to play a team that they’ve never had a chance to play or even seen on video, or their jerseys, or a common opponent, or any of those things. So that’s going to be a fun experience to start the year.”

NMU stays home for the next two weekends. Games on Oct. 15 and 17 should also be interesting with the Wildcats hosting the U.S. Under-18 development team first after playing that squad in the Detroit suburb of Plymouth in 2019.

On the 17th, Notre Dame comes to town for a single game to return the favor after Northern played the Fighting Irish in a game back in 2018. This will be the first time the Irish have come to Marquette since both teams were in the CCHA in 2012.

“Notre Dame starts what’s going to be a very exciting nonconference schedule with some premier programs, Boston University, Minnesota-Duluth and Colgate,” Potulny said. “I think playing teams from many different leagues is important. If you have success, that helps you at the end of the year and some teams that our program has historically had rivalries with, whether it’s Notre Dame in the CCHA, the national championship anniversary with Boston University, and Minnesota-Duluth being a close travel partner.

“And Colgate’s a program that I don’t know that we’ve played very often here, so we’re looking forward to all of those nonconference games.”

After that, the Wildcats enter CCHA play, hosting Bemidji State Oct. 22-23 before going to Minnesota State-Mankato the 29th-30th. Then the schedule gets really fun as Boston U. plays in Marquette Nov. 5-6.

The ‘Cats had planned to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their 1991 national championship win over the Terriers last fall during the actually anniversary season, but COVID-19 messed with things and forced the series to be rescheduled. So now the celebration moves to this fall and members from that title-winning squad will be in attendance along with a brief ceremony before puck drop.

“It’s going to be actually in the same year, the anniversary will kind of fall on that, so that’ll be fun,” Potulny said. “We’re hoping to have as many players from that team that we can in attendance and we’ll have a couple fun things planned for that weekend.

“So that’s going to be, for me, one of the highlights of the season. Now, it’s going to be a tall task because they’re a great program, but having a chance to have Boston University in Marquette, I don’t think they’ve ever come here before. So being part of that is going to be fun also.”

Northern goes back to conference play for the next three weeks, starting with a home-and-home series with Michigan Tech Nov. 12-13. That’ll be followed by a road series with Ferris State Nov. 19-20 and a home weekend with Bowling Green State Nov. 26-27.

The Wildcats play another nonconference series by hosting Minnesota-Duluth Dec. 3-4, the first time UMD has been in Marquette since 2016.

After a road series at Lake Superior State Dec. 10-11, it’s back to nonconference play for the last time as Colgate arrives in Marquette Jan. 7-8.

After that, it’s a home series with Mankato Jan. 14-15, a home-and-home set with Tech Jan. 21-22 and a home series against Lake State Jan. 28-29.

NMU starts February with two road series, one at Bemidji the 4th and 5th, and the other at Bowling Green the 18th and 19th.

The ‘Cats close out the regular season at home against Ferris Feb. 25-26.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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