By Steve Kornacki
DEARBORN, Mich. – Chris Haltinner has built something special at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.
His men's hockey team is coming off regular season and tournament championships in the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Association in 2019-20, and seeking a sixth-consecutive ACHA National Tournament berth.
The Wolverines, who finished second in the national tournament in 2018-19, didn't take to the ice last season along with the rest of the WHAC. So, there are challenges to rebuilding and fine-tuning the 2021-22 team after the COVID-19 break. However, Haltinner likes this squad's potential headed into Friday night's (Sept. 24) season opener with Grand Valley State at the UM-Dearborn Ice Arena at 7 p.m.
"We've been a successful team and my coaching staff has done a wonderful job," said Haltinner. "Our players have done a tremendous job of working extremely hard year after year. And now it's come to us where winning is kind of expected in a sense. I'm expecting big things, and every year we're trying to compete for a national championship and win the conference championships.
"Our players are coming here to win, and we've got a good run going. Our last team had some injuries and really pulled together to make it a successful season. We won the WHAC and went to nationals, and hats off to our players and coaching staff and everyone – our athletic trainers to our team managers – everyone did a phenomenal job to make that a possibility and a reality."
ACHA All-Athletic first team goalie Thomas Proudlock, ACHA second team forward Nic LaBurn and ACHA honorable mention defenseman Kyle Schnettler have graduated since that season two years ago. However, Haltinner said some talented players are waiting in the wings.
"I feel we have a really good team this year," said Haltinner. "We look great in practice right now. The tempo's up. Guys are really working hard. But the first game's going to be knockin' the rust off for a lot of guys, right? A game is a lot different than a practice.
"But I can tell you that I'm excited for it. Our players are excited, and they're ready to play against another jersey and get ready for games. We want to get a packed house for this game and give our players – especially our newcomers – a first-class experience for their first home game of college hockey. And for our returners, mostly seniors, this is their last homecoming game. So, we really want to make it special."
Four goalies are vying to replace Proudlock, who was 23-6 with a 2.07 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
Freshman Tanner Beals (Farmington) and sophomores Kayden Pickles (Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada), Eric Polzin (Livonia Stevenson) and Brenden Gutekunst (Gibraltar Carlson) have all impressed Haltinner with their work between the pipes in practice.
"All four of them have looked really, really good," said Haltinner. "Tommy was a huge piece of our success here, and is off playing professionally now. It's probably the first time in eight or nine years that we've had the door wide open for goaltending."
LaBurn, who had 29 goals, 29 assists and 58 points in 34 games, also must be replaced.
"I think the guys you're going to see up there involved in goals and point-scoring are Billy Brock and Brendan West," said Haltinner, "and there are going to be a lot of guys putting up some points this year. Anthony Davis and some Canadian kids who did unbelievable in junior (leagues) and some other freshmen are going to score as well."
Captain Adam Groat is one of the strongest defensemen returning on a young blue line group.
"We've got a pretty young blue line," said Haltinner. "But we've got Groat and this freshman, Josh Makarchuk, who is looking to be one of our better defensemen along with freshman Blake Petterle."
Haltinner named forwards Mathieu LaForest, Brock and West alternate captains.
Several freshmen such as Gavin Lawrie, Dylan Defosse, Colin West, Chance Matthews and Johnny Elias are emerging.
"The very cool thing this year is that we have a very deep depth chart," said Haltinner. "And we have a very, very good team. If you watch our practices, you see we can put anyone anywhere and they're all going to excel.
"You're really only as good as your weakest guy, and we don't have any weak guys. They're all good hockey players. We're blessed in that aspect. They are really, really talented athletes, and that's why we're excited to see what this team can do."
His point of emphasis is clear.
"We want to be clicking on all cylinders come March," said Haltinner, referring to the ACHA national tournament in St. Louis. "I think we're going to have a lot of success this year if we can keep doing what we're doing right now, and keep building off of things."