WELLS — There are plenty of underclassmen on Escanaba’s hockey team as it enters a new season.
Esky, which opens tonight at 7 in Houghton, has 10 sophomores and a freshman on its roster.
Among the returning sophomores is goaltender Cully Hayes.
“Cully played in every game last year, and I think he’ll be that much better this year,” coach Andy Johnson said. “That was probably the first time a freshman goalie started in all 28 games within our program.”
The Eskymos, who have 16 players, also return two seniors and three juniors from last season’s 20-8 team.
They are senior captain and forward Brett Labre and defenseman Isaiah Boyce and junior forward Cale Carter, defenseman or forward Alex Schwalbach and defenseman Davin Mattonen.
“Brett and Isaiah are four-year players,” Johnson said. “We’re looking for them to have a great season. It has been fun watching them for the last three years.
“This is going to be a season in which we’re going to rely on everyone. We have a ton of sophomores who have experience.”
Additional sophomores include forwards Graham Johnson, Owen Labonte, Carson Hughes, Anthony Potvin, Hunter Allen and Sam Spear and defensemen Nolan Bink and Ben Sands.
Joining them is freshman forward Brody Levesque.
“We’ll run 4-5 defensemen, depending on the night,” Johnson said. “We have three forward lines. We’re about the same as we were the last two years. We’ll depend on our top two lines quite a bit. Nolan played forward last year, but played defense his whole life. He’ll help us in our defensive zone. He’ll clear pucks for us.”
Johnson said he was happy with what he saw from the Eskymos in a pre-season scrimmage in Marquette.
“We had a good scrimmage up there,” he added. “We got some of the younger guys up to speed with high school hockey. This is a faster game than youth hockey. There’s a lot more intensity. We have a tough schedule. We have only eight home games, but it’s tough to get a high frame schedule without going on the road. It’s also a good way to get the team to bond.”
Johnson knows the opener will be a challenge and expects much of the same when Kingsford visits Tuesday.
“Houghton has one of the best teams in the state,” he said. “When we play Kingsford it doesn’t matter who has the better team. They’re always a battle for us. The boys get to know the players over there. They’re kind of friends off the ice. Those are the kinds of rivalries that are the most intense.”
A victory at Calumet was among the highlights for the Eskymos a year ago.
“That’s a tough place to play,” Johnson said. “We don’t win up there very often and Hancock is always strong. They reload every year. Marquette is in D-3 this year and will be a top 10 team. They tend to raise the level of competition and Manistique has a good group of seniors. They’ll be a tough team this year. They built a good high school hockey program over there. I think Jeffers will also be strong. They always have good coaching.”
Shawano, Wis., coached by Esky graduate Adam Gafner, will visit the Hannahville Ice & Turf Complex Feb. 2.
Nov. 17 — at Houghton; Nov. 21 — Kingsford; Nov. 24 — at Traverse City Central; Nov. 25 — at Traverse City West; Nov. 28 — at Marquette.
Dec. 1 — Painesdale Jeffers at L’Anse; Dec. 5 — Negaunee; Dec. 12 — at Ashwaubenon, Wis.; Dec. 15 — Hancock; Dec. 22 — Calumet.
Jan. 4 — at Kingsford (Iron Mountain); Jan. 9 — Manistique; Jan. 12-13 — Traverse City Showcase; Jan. 27-28 — Chelsea Showcase.
Feb. 1 — Painesdale Jeffers; Feb. 2 — Shawano, Wis.; Feb. 6 — at Manistique; Feb. 9 — DePere, Wis.; Feb. 16-17 — Sault Ste. Marie Showcase.