There's a certain pride that Jay Dutcher feels every time he takes the ice for the Alpena High School hockey team.
"Honestly, I've said it from day one that it's a dream to play Wildcat hockey," Dutcher said. "Being around the rink when I was younger, getting broken sticks from the guys or pucks, it was like a celebrity moment and I wanted to be one of those guys."
Dutcher isn't alone in his feelings of pride. Since the program's inception in the 1973-74 season, playing for Alpena has been a goal for scores of young hockey players. Over 40 years, the program has established quite a legacy and there are plenty of reasons why putting on the Alpena uniform is special.
It's about being a rite of passage for many families, where names like Stibitz, Ilsley, Hamp, Skiba and others have long been associated with the Wildcats and brothers and cousins have played together; where sons have followed in their fathers' footsteps by donning the Green and White.
It's about a hockey team being celebrated for its work ethic and being considered an extension of a blue-collar town. Alpena hasn't always been the most talented team on the ice, but more often than not, the Wildcats have been the more determined team and more than ready to play physical hockey for a full three periods.
It's about a team that's won state championships with grit and heart and determination and became one of the state's premier hockey program's in the 80s and 90s despite not having year-round ice; a place where high-caliber players like Tony Byers Jr., Blaise Ilsley, Jeremy Sims, John Hoos, Brian Stibitz and countless others made Alpena a team to be reckoned with.
It's about the players embracing an underdog mentality when downstate teams saw the Wildcats as a bunch of farmers or Alpena as just being a little town from way up north.
It's about long playoff battles against foes like Marquette, back when Alpena and Marquette ruled the northern part of the state and making a long playoff run meant getting past one another.
(For the record, Alpena is 7-10 all-time in the playoffs against the Redmen).
It's about the fans. For years, Wildcat fans packed the rink at Mich-e-ke-wis Sports Park, and later, Northern Lights Arena, to the gills and when Alpena made the playoffs, the fans support on the road became legendary. When the Wildcats made the state finals for the first time in 1981, nearly 2,000 Alpena fans showed up to the IMA in Flint to cheer on their team and the large pro-Alpena crowds continued in later years.
"When you've got a good team, absolutely. Alpena will back any winner. The farther you go, the more backing you get," former Alpena assistant coach Tom Sommerfeld said.
For nearly 40 seasons, it was about Jerry LaFave announcing and keeping score and making players feel they had reached the big time when he announced their name and number over the P.A. system.
It's about players achieving great things on the ice for the Wildcats and then furthering their careers in junior hockey or college hockey.
It's about the players competing with the best teams in the state and doing the A-L-P-E-N-A chant after victories.
It's been 20 years since the Wildcats hoisted a state championship trophy, but there have been plenty of exciting moments for the program in recent years:
In 2007, the Wildcats made the Final Four in the state tournament, the furthest an Alpena team has advanced since then.
In 2011 Emily Duncan made history by becoming the first female Alpena varsity player to score a goal and went to play college hockey at Adrian.
In January, the Wildcats held the first-ever Pink Game at Northern Lights Arena in support of breast cancer awareness.
Earlier this year, Zach Nash scored a game-winning goal in double-overtime against Cadillac to clinch a spot in the regional finals.
I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a hockey fan and covering hockey in Alpena is a thrill. Having researched the 1981 championship team and the 1982 state runner-up team quite extensively in the past few years, it's easy to see that Alpena is a town that lives for hockey and has a proud hockey tradition. It's a program that knows the value of hard work and was built from the ground up with a strong emphasis on the youth hockey program.
"No.1, we're a hard-working team. Hockey has a lot of value in Alpena," Alpena coach Pete Doubek said. "The program from the ground up is solid and there are lots of good coaches right now at the youth level."
That's what made the idea of doing a tab to look back on 40 years of Wildcat hockey, which is inserted into today's paper. There are a lot of good stories to tell and while we couldn't tell every single one or talk to every single person that's had a hand in shaping the program, hopefully it provides a good snapshot of some of the high points and history of a program with a rich tradition.
Thank you to all the players and coaches who shared their stories with The News, thank for to the athletics department at Alpena High for letting me peruse through old hockey files and thank you to the folks at Northern Lights Arena, who were kind enough to make some of the photos on display available for use in the tab
With season No. 40 set to get under way on Friday in the Huron Shores Challenge, Alpena's history of success is not lost on the current group of Wildcats.
"I really like playing for our school and the community; putting some pride in that Wildcat," Cade MacArthur said. "(Because of the history), I have more pride in it. It makes me want to get back there (to a championship)."