December 9, 2004
Spartan Searching For Answers

By Mike Eidelbes

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When the U.S. hockey team faces Russia on Christmas night to open this year’s World Junior Championships, Michigan State sophomore defenseman A.J. Thelen will be at his parents’ home in Minnesota, wrapping up a holiday break. Envisioning such a scenario four months ago would have seemed ludicrous.

Prior to the season, Thelen was considered a shoo-in for the U.S. team. He scored 12 goals and 29 points for the Spartans as a freshman and earned second-team All-America recognition. In June, he was selected by his hometown team, the Minnesota Wild, with the 12th overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

The positive vibes that flowed last year have slowed to a trickle. Coming into this weekend’s series with Notre Dame, Thelen has no goals and seven points in 15 games, has a plus-minus rating of -4 (worst among MSU defensemen), is guilty of a number of ill-advised turnovers in his own end and leads the Spartans with 34 penalty minutes. Coach Rick Comley, citing bad penalties, scratched Thelen from the lineup for State’s win against Bowling Green last Saturday.

So the question, a popular one around East Lansing, is, what has happened? Thelen searches for an answer.

“During [my freshman] year, it was just me playing and not worrying about anything else,” said the 6-foot-3, 210-pound rearguard. “This year…I think the first half of the season I’ve been more worried about making mistakes and not screwing up instead of not going out and playing.”

Comley has a better idea reagarding the root of Thelen’s struggles.

“There was a very honest adjustment period from being the 12th player in the draft – from absolutely wanting to leave here and sign a pro contract – to realizing Minnesota wanted him to be here and coming back here,” the third-year MSU coach said.

With the NHL’s labor situation gloomy at the time, Thelen says he never expected to sign with the Wild, but he was well aware of the Wild’s proclivity of signing its first-round picks and bringing them into the system posthaste.

“The lockout was on my mind and I was expecting to come back to school, and I wanted to come back to school,” Thelen said. “If there wasn’t a lockout, I’d definitely be questioning what’s going on and what’s going to happen. The lockout pretty much made the decision for me.”

Thelen offers a couple hypotheses for his woes. First, he believes the whirlwind freshman season, which started in late September and wrapped up after the NHL Draft, left him mentally drained. Second, he thought he needed to justify Minnesota using its first-round pick on him.

“There’s definitely a little bit of that going on,” Thelen admitted. “You want to prove to everybody why you were picked in the first round, and it wasn’t just one season that did it for you.”

”If you pull out last year’s shift tape and compare it to this year’s shift tape – which I’ve done – there’s no difference,” Comley said. “When you look at him, you can’t say [to him] you obviously played a lot better last year than you have this year.”

That said, signs of a turnaround are present. Comley and Thelen agree that his last three games – against Bowling Green, and at Wisconsin and Minnesota in the College Hockey Showcase – have been his best this season, penalties notwithstanding. The relentless pursuit of perfection is fading, but the passion and work ethic for the game remain.

“The one thing about A.J. is that he loves to be on the ice,” Comley said. “He loves to practice. He loves to work hard. There’s never a drop-off in his enthusiasm for playing the game and working hard.”

With a two-week hiatus following the Notre Dame series, Thelen should have enthusiasm to spare when the Spartans return to action at the Great Lakes Invitational Dec. 29-30. Though he’s disappointed about not playing at World Juniors, he says he’ll savor the much-needed break.

“I need this time off right now,” Thelen said. “I’m looking forward to being with my family, relaxing and…having some ‘me’ time.”


Mighty Mike:
Following his team’s 5-3 win against visiting Ferris State last Friday, Western Michigan coach Jim Culhane was especially pleased to note that all of the Broncos’ goals were scored by rookies – two from Brian Bicek and one apiece from Michael Lesperance, Jeff Pierce and Mike Erickson.

Because he’s in his first season with the Broncos, Erickson is technically a newcomer, but it’s hardly appropriate to consider him a greenhorn. A highly touted recruit from the Minneapolis suburb of Eden Prairie who went to Minnesota directly from high school, Erickson played in a total of 25 games with the Gophers during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons.

“I’ve been through the whole deal of being a freshman,” said the 6-foot-3, 200-pound forward, who has a year of eligibility remaining following this season.

Erickson’s true freshman campaign with Minnesota started with promise but was cut short when he broke the talus bone, which connects the leg to the foot, nine games into his rookie year. After spending nearly five months on crutches and enduring a summer of painstaking rehabilitation, Erickson played in the team’s first 16 games in 2002-03.

Suiting up for the Gophers fulfilled a lifelong dream for Erickson. Still, something didn’t feel right.

“When it came down to it, Minnesota is really deep, there’s a lot of talent going through there and there wasn’t a spot for me,” Erickson said. “I talked to Coach [Don] Lucia, and we both kind of felt the USHL might be the best route for me.”

The following season, he shipped out for Des Moines. At first, he entertained the idea of going back to Minnesota, but asked to be released from his scholarship a few games into the Buccaneers’ slate. Shortly thereafter, he caught the eye of a WMU assistant. Erickson didn’t know much about the Broncos, but he knew defenseman Jim McNamara, a Michigan native who had transferred to the school after two years at St. Cloud State.

“I met Jim when he was at St. Cloud…because Colin Peters, one of my best friends from high school was playing there,” Erickson said. “I went up there to visit a couple times.”

When he heard the coaches were interested in Erickson, McNamara became a one-man public relations campaign.

“He came here not knowing much about it and I said, ‘Hey, this is the place to play. This is a good fit for guys like us,’” McNamara said.

Erickson has made McNamara look omniscient. He’s tied for third on the team in scoring with 13 points and ranks second in goals (seven) and power play goals (four). With his size, strength and reach, he’s better suited for the style of play common to the NHL-sized ice sheet as opposed to the speed game favored on the Olympic-sized rinks that are the norm in the WCHA.

“With Mike coming in and having been part of a national championship team, we knew what we were getting,” Culhane said. “He is an impact player for us, and his presence in the locker room is something we appreciate.”

The Broncos’ play has improved lately – after starting the season 1-3-0, they’ve posted a 7-4-1 mark in their last 12 games. Erickson has played a big part in the recent success which, based on a pre-season discussion between he and McNamara, was the primary goal.

“He said, ‘I want to be counted on,’” McNamara said. “And obviously, he is.”

Great Weekend Getaway
120x60 - Brand Red

Bowling Green vs. Michigan (home and home, Fri.-Sat.)
IOutside of this home-and-home series that starts in Ann Arbor, there’s little on the CCHA slate this weekend that provides some sizzle and given the recent history between the teams, this two-game set barely qualifies – with an 8-1-1 mark in the last 10 contests against the Falcons, the Wolverines are to BGSU what any moderately skilled fighting unit is to the French military.

This is a different bunch of Falcons, however. They’ve yet to lose consecutive games this season and with Jordan Sigalet in goal, anything is possible. BGSU sports information director Kris Kamann tells us Sigalet has made 40 or more saves in 17 of his 80 career starts. He’s 5-7-5 in those 17 outings, but 5-1-2 in its last eight. Unless Red Berenson sends the five Wolverines taking part in the World Junior Championships to Grand Forks early, Sigalet will likely see 40-plus shots twice this weekend.

Stick Salute

ESPN announced this week that its latest venture – a network devoted solely to college sports – will launch this March. ESPNU, as the channel will be called, plans to debut with a week’s worth of college basketball games, but hockey will be a big part of the menu as well. More national exposure for NCAA pucks, as has been mentioned numerous times, is a good thing. Hey, did you know INCH is an affiliate?

Bench Minor

Notre Dame should be ashamed of the way it handled the dismissal of football coach Tyrone Willing-ham. When director of athletics Kevin White said that “from Sunday through Friday, our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way”, he really meant that winning football games leads to happy boosters, and happy boosters give generously to the University. The school should be barred from using the term ‘student-athlete’ in the future, because White’s comments would indicate the latter half of that title is all that matters at Notre Dame.


Who out there doesn’t like coaching milestones? With his team’s win against Western Michigan Saturday, Ferris State coach Bob Daniels chalked up career victory no. 200. Incidentally, the Broncos were the opponent when Daniels became the winningest coach in Bulldogs hockey history on March 4, 2000.

Michigan’s shellacking of Notre Dame in Ann Arbor Friday was the 543rd of Red Berenson’s career, which allowed him to move past Army’s Jack Riley and into sole possession of ninth place on the NCAA’s all-time wins list. Michigan Tech coach John MacInnes is in eighth place with 555 victories.

• In case you were wondering – and judging from the way my mind works you probably weren’t – Ferris State freshman defenseman Adam Welch is the nephew of former Michigan State standout Russ Welch. Why does any of this matter? Because Russ Welch, who scored 190 points in 142 games for the Spartans between 1976-80, was a college teammate of FSU coach Bob Daniels.

Herb Washington was a four-time track and field All-American at Michigan State, was taken by the Baltimore Colts in the 1973 NFL Draft and is best known as the ‘designated runner’ for Charles Finley’s 1974 world champion Oakland A’s. Now you can add another title to Washington’s resume – owner of a professional hockey team.

Washington, who owns and operates 21 McDonald’s franchises, announced last month he was bringing a Central Hockey League team to Youngstown, Ohio, next season. The team, which doesn’t have a name, will play in a new 5,500-seat arena scheduled to open in the fall.

• Think Lake Superior State would like to usurp Ernie Banks' motto and play two on Fridays? The Lakers have TGIF’ed their way to a 4-1-1 record on the last day of the work week. On Saturdays, LSSU is a wobbly 1-6-0. Frank Anzalone is probably peeved his team plays a Thursday-Saturday series at Nebraska-Omaha this week.

• Last week, it was reported in this space that the Bemidji State-Lake Superior State series was a rematch of the 1974 NAIA championship game won by the Lakers. Bemidji resident Moose Richards points out that the two-game set was also a rematch of the 1968, 1969 and 1970 NAIA title matches, all of which were won by Bob Peters’ Beavers. Thanks for the insight, Moose. I wonder if he knows Andre Dupont?

A variety of sources were utilized in the compilation of this report

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