The Section 8A boys hockey field is traditionally one of the best Minnesota boys high school hockey has to offer, and Detroit Lakes feels like it's being overlooked.
After a 9-8 season, the Lakers return a solid senior class with a chip on their shoulders. Last year, Detroit Lakes ended its season winning three of its last four games, including a 4-1 road win against highly-ranked Alexandria. However, the Lakers' were forced to call it quits before the postseason due to a plethora of positive COVID-19 cases.
"In that Alexandria game, we just got over that hump," Lakers head coach Ben Noah said. "We started to believe. Then we go down and play (St. Cloud Cathedral) and outplayed them but lost 4-2. We were just feeling really good about ourselves and had a ton of momentum. Covid shut our season down right before playoffs. We were going to get the sixth seed and play (Thief River Falls). We felt really good about that matchup, but we didn't get a chance."
One of the most challenging parts about the way last season ended was the lack of closure.
"I didn't even get a chance to have that conversation," Noah said on letting his team know the season was cut short. "We had so many kids out because Covid spread so quickly around our team, including myself. As soon as we all found out we had it, we were in quarantine for 14 days. We just literally shut down. There was no team meeting, no conversation–nothing. We addressed it at the team banquet a month later."
After a long offseason, the Lakers are back with something to prove. While traditional powers such as East Grand Forks, Warroad and Thief River Falls are getting state-wide recognition, the Lakers hope to fly under the radar with an experienced group.
"When our season got shut down last year, we were finally getting in a groove and playing our best hockey," Noah said. "We didn't get to showcase that. Because of that, we're really getting overlooked by these preseason rankings. Nobody is giving us a chance right now. You can see it in our older guys. They have a little chip on their shoulder to prove everybody wrong. We're a veteran team, and I like our chances against anybody."
Detroit Lakes' depth shows in its top three forward lines. Led by senior alternate captains Beau Boehne and Spencer Bergman, the Lakers are looking for their scoring to carry the load early on.
"Our top three lines, which will move around until we find the right chemistry, are really the biggest strength of this team," Noah said. "We have 10 forwards that can play. Our job is to find the best nine in three combinations. We are going to be able to score goals at a higher pace than we're used to."
Boehne missed time last year due to an injury but is excited to play in front of a packed house for the first time in nearly two years. The Lakers kick off their season at home on Saturday, Nov. 27 against Fergus Falls before hosting East Grand Forks the following Tuesday.
"It's going to be super fun this year being able to have fans," Boehne said. "Not even just at home, but away too. Last year, we had one game that was kind of normal in Alex. We didn't get to have a lot of our fans go because of Covid, but the atmosphere was crazy. It's going to be even crazier in our barn."
The Lakers have some growing up to do defensively. Aside from captains Rian Solberg and Jacob Thomas, Detroit Lakes is tasked with replacing two top-four defensemen from last season, including Aiden Kennedy, who is out for the year after an injury during the Perham football season.
"The challenge is going to be can we defend as well as we have in the past," Noah said. "We pulled a freshman off the bantam team. Tommy Suckert is big, strong, fast and loves hockey. He's a very raw talent. We know we were going to be patient with him because he's going to be thrown right into the fire. We want him to make mistakes because that's the best way to learn. We're looking for him, after 10-12 games, to start playing like a sophomore or a junior."
Senior Eli Denardo will also be thrown to the wolves with limited varsity experience.
"He's a senior that hasn't had any varsity time," Noah said of Denardo. "We're looking for some big contributions out of him. Again, we're going to be patient because he hasn't been given many opportunities. Now he's got them, and we're excited for him."
Solberg and Thomas are going to have to pick up the slack early on until the rest of the defensive corps gets up to speed.
"Rian Solberg and Jacob Thomas are going to be asked to log the most minutes on the ice out of any other players," Noah said. "They're going to be asked to be encouraging and to not get frustrated while understanding that there's a certain level of growth that needs to happen. They're mature, and they're the perfect kids for it."
Changing the culture
Noah is heading into his third season as head coach and is starting to see his vision implemented in this boys hockey program.
The Lakers haven't been to state since 1996 and have been an afterthought in most of those seasons since. Part of changing the culture is earning respect. To do that, Detroit Lakes will have to consistently play with something to prove until there's nothing left in question.
"If we were a team sitting in the top ten, and were favored to win the section, I would tell them not to look at any of that stuff," Noah said. "Now that we're seeing some teams that we believe we're better than that are ahead of us, I want these kids to see that. I want these kids to know there are people that wouldn't even put them in the top five in Section 8. Any little extra edge we can get we want."
Boehne believes change in the program only goes so far on the ice. It's what this team does away from the rink that shows true character.
"I think listening to our coaches and working hard every day in practice is the first step," Boehne said. "We want to outwork everyone. We want to be good people in this program on and off the ice. I think treating people with respect and doing the little things to go along with the hard work is what's going to make this culture strong."
For now, Detroit Lakes' success isn't measured in wins and losses. Noah hopes each year can be a step in the right direction of a larger goal.
"I tell the kids this all the time, but nobody likes winning more than I do," Noah said. "That really isn't how we gauge our success. If we attach ourselves to results, we're always going to be disappointed if things don't go our way. When we came in as a staff, and we sat down and talked about the culture rebuild and where we wanted to get to, we knew it was going to be a long journey. It could be five years. It could be 10 years. But I tell these kids every year that whether or not you are the team that takes us to a state tournament, you're going to have a part in it when it does happen. It takes every kid every year to help make this thing grow. Eventually, we'll get the right group in here when the culture and environment is the right way."