Trojan Hockey News
Big North hockey lead on the line
West, Central collide tonight at Howe Arena
BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY -- A little bit of an Upper Peninsula tussle is coming to Howe Arena tonight.
The Traverse City Central-Traverse City West rivalry extends even into the Copper Country.
When Jeremy Rintala left the TC Central coaching staff to take the lead job at West in early August, it created an interesting dynamic.
Rintala, a Houghton native, will face off with former boss Chris Givens, who grew up in nearby Hancock, for the second time this year. In the first meeting, Givens came out ahead 2-1 in the meeting of state-ranked squads.
This time around, the clash will determine who gets sole possession of first place in the Big North Conference, as well as the locale of the Jeff McCullough Memorial Challenge Cup for the next 12 months.
"This is a Houghton-Hancock battle as much as it's a West-Central battle," Givens joked. "Rints is a Gremlin; I've got to hold that against him."
Houghton and Hancock are separated only by the Portage Canal in the Keweenaw Peninsula, with the city centers a mere 1.1 miles apart.
Such proximity has built a powerful rivalry over the years between the Bulldogs and Gremlins, much like Central-West in Traverse City.
"It's a very similar rivalry," Givens said. "They are right in each others' backyard. Those Houghton-Hancock games are the kind where you beat each other up for a couple hours and then shake hands afterwards."
That's part of the reason Givens hired Rintala as an assistant coach just over two years ago, even though he never met him face-to-face beforehand.
After several phone conversations and a glowing recommendation from Givens' younger brother, Tim, who was a college roommate of Rintala's while the two were at Northern Michigan University, Rintala joined Givens and assistant coach Scott Harvey on the TC Central bench for two years.
"My brother spoke very highly of him" said Givens, who has guided the Trojans for the last 13 years. "And when Tim told me (Jeremy) and his wife Kelly were coming here, it all came together.
"Being from the Copper Country, I was willing to take my brother's word; they're pretty good people up there. It worked out really well."
Rintala came to Traverse City when his wife landed a teaching position at West. Rintala, who played in the North American Hockey League for two years for Jackson Hole, was an assistant coach at Freeland and was thrust into the head coaching spot there when Gregg Killmer was killed in a car accident on I-75 during the season.
"It was weird when I first met Chris because I only knew his brother," Rintala said. "They've very similar -- they talk the same.
"Chris is a class act. I learned a lot about how to coach high school hockey. I try to use that with my own twist.
"It's a weird situation. Now I know how the kids here feel, playing together for years and then being on different sides."
Rintala coached at Central last year when West took the Jeff McCullough Memorial Challenge Cup from Central for just the second time in the 10-year history of the trophy. Now he wants to keep it.
That will necessitate a Titans win or a tie.
The Cup -- in honor of TC Central player Jeff McCullough, who died of cancer just before his senior season in 1996 -- goes to the winner of the second Big North meeting of the year between the two rivals.
"It's an honor because he was such a great player," said West forward P.J. Dienes. "It reminds us that this could be our last game."
McCullough's No. 14 jersey is retired at Central.
"Jeff was a Trojan and not a Titan," said Central defenseman Luke Stricker. "It's more of a pride thing to have it on our side."
West comes into the game on a three-game win streak, but also after an 11-day mini vacation, having last played Jan. 19 in a win over No. 8-ranked Alpena.
"I'm not a huge fan of having layoffs like that, but it gave us some time to get healthy," said Rintala. "But in that time, Central has had (four) tough games to prepare, so it could go either way."
TC West sophomore Mitch Snider will make his return to the ice after suffering a serious wrist injury Jan. 5 that required surgery and forced him to miss the first matchup with Central. Rintala said Snider could be eased back into the lineup, and will likely play at least a few shifts tonight.
"When people see him on the bench, everybody gets excited because he's one of our better players," West blueliner David Hanrahan said of Snider. "He's a leader for us. Everybody looks up to him."
Despite missing seven games, Snider is West's fourth-leading scorer, tied with Dienes. The Titans will also be without goaltender Spencer Sonneveldt, who hasn't played since suffering a knee injury Nov. 30 against Sault Ste. Marie.
"It's a big rivalry between us and it's one of the biggest Big North games," Hanrahan said. "Whoever wins the game has the advantage and controls the Big North."
With four games left in conference action, the winner of today's battle will have a big skate up in the BNC race.
Both teams enter tonight with a 5-1 record in the Big North Conference. Alpena is the next closest team at 3-3 in league play.
On the Central side, the Trojans are worried about West's habit of scoring just as many goals short-handed as on the power play.
"We need to watch out for anybody trying to sneak by us," Stricker said.
The teams have relied on opposite ends of the ice in their success.
The Trojans (11-4-1) are allowing just 2.3 goals per game, while West surrenders 2.8. But West counters with a high-octane offense that pumps out 3.8 lit lamps per contest, compared to Central's 3.0.
"We need to outwork them, beat them to the puck," said Central forward Chris Archambo, one of only seven seniors between the two teams. "If was pretty even most of the last game, but we got a couple of breaks. We outplayed them a little bit, but it wasn't significant."
The Titans' forwards, meanwhile, are concerned with Central's effective shot-blocking capability.
"Last game they blocked I don't know how many shots," Dienes said. "We've got to get more through."
The likely goaltending matchup pits West's Nate Wilson (5-2-0, 2.10 goals against average) against Central's Hunter Kelly (6-4-1, 1.98).
The game is surely set to be one of the most raucous spots in Traverse City today. With Central's always-feisty student section and West's drum corps, Howe Arena will be thumping, a sound Archambo said the teams can hear all the way from the locker rooms.
"The atmosphere is way different from other games," Hanrahan said. "Most other teams don't bring a huge crowd on the road with them. If it's the only game some people go to, it's Central-West.
"It's not one of the games where you hate them, but you really want to win it. After the game, we'll still all shake hands."
The areas two top prep hockey teams face off tonight. A breakdown:
Central / West
Record: 11-5-1 / 12-5-0
Big North: 5-1 / 5-1
State Rank: No. 7 / No. 7
Goals: 51 / 65
Goals Against: 39 / 48
All-time series: 15-8-2, Central
Last year: West won both games, 8-2 and 3-2.
Central is in Division 2, West in Division 1.