Spartan Searching For Answers
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.
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.
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
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
“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
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.”
AND HEARD IN THE CCHA
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.
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.
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.
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
up for the Gophers fulfilled a lifelong dream for Erickson. Still,
something didn’t feel right.
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
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.
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.”
he heard the coaches were interested in Erickson, McNamara became
a one-man public relations campaign.
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,’”
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.
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.”
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.
said, ‘I want to be counted on,’” McNamara said.
“And obviously, he is.”
Green vs. Michigan (home and home, Fri.-Sat.)
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.
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.
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 ESPN.com affiliate?
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.
AT THE BOTTOM OF THE BAG
• 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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