This is the second in a five-part series about the 1981-82 Alpena High hockey team. Thursday's story:The road to the finals
Alpena head coach Tony Byers had every reason to believe the Wildcats might repeat as hockey state champions in 1981-82.
The Wildcats returned a solid core of nine players that included the one-two offensive punch of Blaise Ilsley and Tony Byers, Jr, who together had totaled 107 goals in the 1980-81 season. That core remains the only group of Alpena hockey players to make appearances in back-to-back championship games.
Along with the returning group was a new collection of 12 players, including six seniors who were getting their first taste of varsity hockey.
Despite losing a very talented group of players to graduation, the new players eventually found their roles in Alpena's lineup and often came up with big contributions, giving the Wildcats every reason to feel confident as they began their quest not only to defend their title but to win another one.
"We knew we had a good team from the previous year and what guys were still on the team, so I think we expected to do really well," Joel Rapin said. "I don't know if we expected to win the state championship, but we had our hopes high."
The ultimate leader
At the center of Alpena's returning core was Ilsley, the Wildcats' senior center, often called Chin by his teammates for the way his chin would always hang underneath his short facemask.
At 6-foot tall, Ilsley was undoubtedly Alpena's jack-of-all-trades. Describing himself as a grinder, Ilsley wasn't afraid to get physical with an opponent and by game's end he had a smile on his face as his uniform was soaked full of blood and he needed stitches.
His ability as an offensive player saw him record a 48-60-108 stat line in his senior season and set up countless goals for Byers Jr,., in their two years as mainstays on Alpena's first line.
After coming into his own as a junior, Ilsley was the unquestioned leader of team after the graduation of Tim Byers. Known for his neverending work ethic, Ilsley was the embodiment of the Wildcats' drive and determination on the ice. In the 1981-82 season, Ilsley scored in 25 of Alpena's games and never stopped dedicating himself to playing the best he could whether it was dishing out a big hit, making a smart defensive play or lighting the lamp
"Ilsley was the quintessential two-way player. He was back every time. It just seemed like he never got tired," Tom Heise said. "He could've been on the ice the whole time."
Ilsley sent letters to a handful of hockey schools, but opted for a baseball career when he received a scholarship to Indiana State and went on to briefly pitch for the Chicago Cubs. Nonetheless, Ilsley's mark on the Alpena hockey program still remains today. He recorded 250 career points in three years with the Wildcats and was inducted into the Alpena Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.
"What can't you say about Blaise Ilsley? It didn't matter what sport he played, he was a tremendous athlete," Al Kuchnicki said. "I was so happy to be able to share the ice with him. He was just a tremendous hockey player."
Joining Ilsley as a veteran on the first line that season was Byers, Jr., who had tallied a nation-leading 61 goals the previous year as a sophomore.
The chemistry between Ilsley and Byers paid huge dividends for the Wildcats again in the 1981-82 season. Byers hit the 50-goal mark for the second straight year and the duo's feel for where one another was on the ice was a wonder to behold for teammates and a frustration to opposing goaltenders.
Pete Doubek, Alpena's current head coach, likened the Byers-Ilsley pairing to Tampa Bay Lightning stars Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis.
"With Blaise and Tony, you had the biggest body out there with probably the hardest shot on the ice. Blaise would go to the dirty areas, Tony would shoot the puck and it was a magical combination if you can have guys like that," Doubek said. "You look at something like that and there's not too many high school kids that are going to stop a combo like that."
While Byers and Ilsley put up impressive numbers, it became equally as important for everyone on the roster to contribute. Coach Byers believed against the best teams, it was essentially the second and third lines that made the difference because the first line was cancelled out by the talent of the opposition's top line.
Fortunately for Byers and the Wildcats, many players rose to the occasion.
Hampered by injury as a junior, Tim Moran emerged as a go-to player on offense in his senior year, netting 18 goals among 47 points while also seeing time as a defenseman.
Juniors Doubek and Dave Beatty, who along with Byers, Jr., had been called up as sophomores, formed a formidable combination of their own on the second line, pairing with a number of players to form a finesse-type line that relied more on passing rather than strength.
Rapin, who was a senior, played on defense and also at a wing position on the first two lines.
If Ilsley and Byers were the offensive juggernauts, Al Kuchnicki was the Wildcats' defensive superstar.
At 6-1, 210 pounds, Kuchnicki was an imposing figure on the ice, but also had a deft scoring touch, coming in third in total points that season with 60 and tallying at least one goal in four of Alpena's six playoff games.
"Alan, if you looked at Paul Coffey, he was a young Paul Coffey," Beatty said. "He had a 30-inch waist, which means he's all upper body; just a house of a guy."
Al's older brother, Carl, held his own for the Wildcats on the blue line as well, displaying a formidable shot and a knack for playing physical hockey when the situation called for it.
In goal, Heise easily filled the shoes of Steve Beland who had quarterbacked Alpena to the state title in 1981. Heise not only filled Beland's shoes, he left his own mark, posting a school-record five shutouts that season, the last of which came in a playoff game against Traverse City.
The new guys
When he started playing hockey at age seven, Tim Bauer's goal was to play for Alpena High.
In his senior year of high school he finally made it.
"It was a pretty big deal," Bauer said. "The hockey team was always highly regarded in the community and to play with the guys I grew up with was exciting. That was the final team you wanted to make. It was the pinnacle of hockey in Alpena."
Bauer was one of six seniors who got his first taste of high school hockey that year. That group of Bauer, Matt Gagnon, John Gulden, Ken Woelk, Tom Hartman and Brad Cook may have been newcomers, but they gave the Wildcats depth in several areas and added their own talents to Alpena's lineup.
"That's one thing about Coach Byers; he was not afraid to bring a senior because he knew what the senior could add to that mix," Heise said.
To that end, Byers' system even allowed those who were better known for their abilities in other sports to have an impact for Alpena on the ice. Enter Cook, better known to teammates as Rage in the Cage.
The defensive MVP of Alpena's football team that fall, Cook went on to play football at Ferris State. But it was his size that was most beneficial to the hockey team.
Standing well over 6-foot and weighing more than 240 pounds, Cook was an imposing figure on the ice. When the national anthem played before games, Cook would stand in the middle of the lineup so that opponents could get a good look at the massive winger who was often called upon to dish out big hits.
"It was our way of intimidating the next team we'd play," Beatty said. "Everybody would just be in awe of this guy, so we called him 'Rage in the Cage,' because if somebody got hit hard, we'd unleash Cook."
With Heise leading the way in between the pipes, Woelk and sophomore Jerry Smigelski were reliable backups. It certainly didn't hurt that all three of them got to hone their skills against the likes of Ilsley, Byers, Jr. and the Kuchnickis every day in practice.
Gagnon was also paired with Doubek and Beatty at times and became known for his stickhandling and speed, which worked well in conjunction with the talents of Doubek and Beatty.
Hartman, Gulden and junior Greg Bensinger gave Alpena three more talented wingers while Bauer, along with juniors Chuck Valley and David Jones, and sophomore Scott Oliver, added depth on the blue line.
David Stibitz was the third sophomore who joined Alpena that season and was often paired with Doubek and Beatty. The trio developed a chemistry that would only grow in the next season and still exists today. In the 1983 season, the line became known as the Red Machine and, like Byers and Ilsley, they simply knew where to find each other on the ice.
"We played in an alumni game a few years ago and people were just like, 'how do you know where he's going to be' and you just do, you can't explain it. It was instinct," Doubek said. "It wasn't something we thought about, but the three of us just knew what each of us was going to do. We each had a different skill set."
While there was no question Alpena was a talented team, the Wildcats would soon find out that defending their title wasn't going to be easy.