He has the formidable task of trying to restore the hockey program at Lake Superior State University to its glory years.
To be sure, Damon Whitten knew what he was getting into when he recently accepted the position to become the 10th head coach in the 48-year history of Laker hockey.
The little school that won Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association championships in 1988, 1992 and 1994 has been in major decline — on and off the ice in recent years.
The Lakers have posted only four winning records over the past 17 seasons and attendance has become less than half of what it was during the good old days of 3,000-plus fans per home game.
I had a chance to chat at length with Coach Whitten by phone the other day and the 37-year old former assistant with the Michigan State Spartans and Michigan Tech Huskies showed a casual, friendly, thoughtful side during our conversation.
“It’s a huge challenge and one that I take very seriously. I talked it over at length with my wife and she totally supported this as a career move for our family,” Whitten answered when asked about the decision to leave his Michigan Tech comfort zone for the pressure-cooker position at LSSU. “As the Laker hockey program has made a major commitment to us, so have we to them.”
A native Michigander who hails from the Metro Detroit suburb of Brighton, Whitten said he is prepared for the scrutiny that goes with the head-coaching position at LSSU — and the expectations and demands that go with the job.
“Laker hockey is a big part of Sault Ste. Marie with so much interest in the program from fans and supporters. I realize that the demands on my time, at the rink and away from it, out in the public eye, will be enormous. Again, it’s something that we are ready for. It’s something that my family is looking forward to being a part of.”
Whitten said he is anxious to connect with fans and sponsors and to build a relationship with the Sault Ste. Marie hockey community.
For example, Whitten said he wants to establish “a good, working relationship ” with the Soo Eagles of the Tier 2 junior North American Hockey League.
“I would like to see us help the Eagles attract players who could eventually play for us,” relayed Whitten. “The way I see it, the Lakers, the Eagles and the other teams in the Twin Soo area should all be part of the same hockey community.”
Ditto to area hockey players.
“We should always be scouting and looking in our own backyard for players who could be Lakers,” Whitten said emphatically.
As for who his assistant coaches will be for next season, Whitten noted that, “we want to see who is out there as a matter of due diligence. To me, the team comes first and we owe it to the program to try to get the best assistant coaches possible.”
Whitten said he has addressed the Lakers assistant coaching positions with the two men who held them the past several seasons, namely Tim Christian and Doug Laprade.
“Tim and Doug both understand there is a process to go through,” Whitten said evenly.
PHOTO: New Laker coach Damon Whitten. (Photo by Mark Krupiarz.)