Grand Haven had just dropped to the lowest level of competition in its league — Tier 3 in the O-K Conference — and as the Bucs’ rugged 6-foot-4 defenseman put it, “Grand Haven hockey was nothing.”
Following Wednesday evening’s contest at L.C. Walker Arena in Muskegon, that statement now couldn’t be any further from the truth.
Although the Bucs’ trophy case won’t reflect it, and the same painful feeling of being eliminated by their longtime nemesis from Mona Shores persists, the Grand
Haven hockey program has transformed itself in those four years from “nothing” to “something.”
And that something is a force to be reckoned with in the future.
Although the start of the Division 2 pre-regional final against the Sailors struck up memories of playoff failures from the past, the way the Bucs fought back from first a 2-0 first-period deficit, and later, a 4-1 hole in the third, spoke volumes.
The simple fact that Grand Haven had tradition-rich Shores in panic mode down the stretch is a scene that hasn’t happened often in the past decade on the Lakeshore.
That’s a testament not only to the determination of the Bucs’ 21-player roster, but also to the valuable big-game experience they’ve picked up this season.
That’s been part of the stepping stones for the Bucs’ program; they completed a tremendous unbeaten record in Tier 2 a year ago, allowing them to move up to Tier 1 and schedule tougher competition this season.
The Bucs faired pretty well against those new challengers, finishing 17-7-2, including a pair of highlight regular-season wins — first against those hated Sailors, and then over the defending Division 3 state champions, Grand Rapids Catholic Central. The Bucs finished in third place in their league.
“To say four years ago that we’d be competing with Mona Shores and beating Grand Rapids Catholic Central, I wouldn’t have believed it,” VerDuin said.
“It boils down to the hard work and dedication the players put in, with the coaches. Plus the school and support from the community made it happen. It’s been a great four years.”
The Bucs have been fortunate with the arrival of the Zelenka brothers — Doug and Tom — from travel hockey. Both possess an offensive skill set that sets them apart from the pack, but Grand Haven head coach Dan Gadbois is quick to point out they’re quality two-way players.
Doug, who like VerDuin was playing in his final game on Wednesday, has uncanny knack at putting the puck in the back of the net. It’s that simple. He did it twice more against the Sailors, including a gutsy score with just a minute left to play.
It was a chaotic mass of bodies in front of Sailors’ goalie Nate Rabbitt, but somehow, it was Zelenka who located the puck and fired calmly into the net, in a time when calmness wasn’t an option.
Doug Zelenka will depart, but if he doesn’t return to a travel club, Tom, a junior, will return, along with 13 other juniors and three sophomores.
“I have faith they’ll have a great team again next year,” VerDuin said.
But the question that remains revolves around consistency. Can Grand Haven become what Mona Shores already is — a contender year after year? Grand
Haven’s youth programs seem to be re-stocking talent pretty well. It starts with the Pee-Wees and Mighty Mites of the in-line hockey leagues at Mercury Park in the summer, where the fundamentals such as puck handling and passing are first developed.
If anything, there should be an added enthusiasm within the program because as the motto goes, “winning breeds success.” Don’t think for a minute that younger players coming through the ranks haven’t noticed the past two seasons and the large number of victories.
For that, you can tip your hat to VerDuin, Doug Zelenka, and a long cast of others who have got the ball rolling.
“Those guys have given their heart and soul to this program,” Gadbois said. “It’s there’s. They’re the ones who’ve made Grand Haven hockey.”