Laker mission

May 1, 2014

Days off figure to be few and far between for the new coach of the Lake Superior State University Lakers.

To be sure, the task at hand is a big one for 37-year old Damon Whitten, the former Michigan State and Michigan Tech assistant who was recently named the 10th head coach in the 48-year history of Laker hockey.

Whitten, a native Michigander who hails from the Metro Detroit suburb of Brighton, is in the process of moving his family to Sault Ste. Marie.

Then, the work will really begin.

The Lakers fall from college hockey grace has been well-chronicled.

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.

The Lakers have had only four winning records over the past 17 seasons and during that span, head coaches Scott Borek, Frank Anzalone and Jim Roque have all been shown the door.

Attendance is less than half of what it used to be from the glory days of 3,000+ fans per home game.

So where does Whitten begin?

He has eight graduated seniors to replace in the lineup.

He has a Laker image to repair in the Michigan Soo and the Canadian Soo.

He has a mutually-beneficial relationship that needs to be built with the Soo Eagles of the Tier 2 junior, North American Hockey League.

Soo coach-general manager Bruno Bragagnolo — who had a frosty relationship with Roque, the recently-fired LSSU bench boss — has already reached out to Whitten about the Eagles and Lakers working together.

The Lakers showed interest over the course of the 2013-2014 season in Eagles defenceman Michael Caruso, a 1995 birth-year who is from the Canadian side of the St. Mary’s River.

Caruso is one of two or three Eagles who Bragagnolo wants to talk to Whitten about as potential Laker recruits.

Meanwhile, a blue-chip prospect from north of the International Bridge who Whitten surely plans on talking to soon is 1997 birth-year defenceman Owen Headrick.

Headrick is fresh from being named Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League rookie-of-the-year for 2013-2014 while skating for Soo Thunderbirds.

A smooth-as-silk, right-handed shooting defender who stands in at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Headrick was offered a future full-ride scholarship by Roque during the winter.

Headrick is also a highly-regarded draft pick of the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League.

Thus far, Headrick — who is from Garden River First Nation — has yet to decide between pursuing the NCAA or the OHL route.

If Headrick — who is a Grade 11 student with a year of high school remaining after this one — decides on the NCAA path, he would not play at that level until at least the 2015-2016 season.

How good is this kid?

Headrick is so good that even if he plays another season of Tier 2 junior in 2014-2015 — perhaps up a level in the NAHL with the Eagles — he is already regarded as a future National Hockey League prospect.

At any rate, back to Whitten and the job ahead at LSSU.

Besides the team he will ice for the 2014-2015 Western Collegiate Hockey Association season, there is the matter of who will be his assistant coaches.

Full-timer Tim Christian and part-timer Doug Laprade were Roque’s assistants this past season.

Christian was one of five men who interviewed for the job that went to Whitten, who may want to bring in his own right-hand man.

Laprade, on the other hand, is a former Laker player from the 1988 championship team who has considerable respect within the college game.

Decisions, decisions.

There is little rest ahead for Coach Whitten as he embarks on his mission to re-define and re-invent Laker hockey.

PHOTO: Busy days are ahead for new Laker coach Damon Whitten. (Photo by John Shibley.)

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