Off-ice assist puts Michigan Tech’s Tyler Heinonen on humanitarian award watchlist

FRIDAY ON ASN: Lake Superior State at Michigan Tech, 8 p.m. ET (click logo for local listings)

Last off-season Tyler Heinonen put his game aside to help a group of youngsters with theirs.

The Michigan Tech forward drew up the program and, along with a few teammates, provided instruction to more than 150 kids in levels ranging from mites (under 7) to bantams (under 15).

Total Skills & Power Skating, held at the Huskies’ home rink, MacInnes Student Ice Arena, as well as an adjacent recreation facility for off-ice training, proved to be a big hit during four-week sessions in June and August. So much so that Heinonen, a junior, was named by the Hockey Humanitarian Award Foundation as one of its 18 nominees for 2016.

“I was the one that was approached with the idea and I went from there, but we all coached and did various things,” he said. “I think it went really well and the kids had a ton of fun, which is the most important part. They learned some things from us and were able to get on the ice and play hockey.”

Heinonen designed a program that was dedicated to power skating on the ice and stick handling and shooting off the ice.

“It was a lot of fun for us to be involved and I think it would be something we would be interested in doing again,” said the 22-year-old from Delano, Minn. “For now I am concentrating on school and the rest of the season.”

Heinonen has missed a few games after getting banged up in practice a couple of weeks ago. He may be back in action this weekend for the 15th-ranked Huskies, who are 14-7-5 overall and 11-6-3 in the WCHA. Tech hosts conference foe Lake Superior State (9-15-4, 6-8-4) Friday on ASN.

A familiar face will be behind the LSSU bench. Damon Whitten is in his second year as Lakers coach after serving as an assistant at Michigan Tech for four seasons, including Heinonen’s freshman campaign.

“A lot of guys really respected him and he has done a good job with that program,” he said. “They play really well defensively and they can shut you down. We just need to be our ‘A’ game and see where it lies at the end.”

Heinonen, who was named the WCHA player of the month for November, has brought his A-game far more often than not this season. He has 11 goals, seven assists and is a plus-seven in 21 games. At one point, from Nov. 14 against Bowling Green to December 5 versus Alaska-Anchorage, he lit the lamp in seven consecutive games.

It is that type of production he knew he was capable of. When Heinonen was not teaching youths he spent the off-season striving to get stronger and faster and he feels that he has lived up to self-imposed expectations.

“I think I have improved my game,” said Heinonen, who following last season was named the Huskies’ most improved player after scoring 14 goals, good for fourth on the team. “I wanted to come into this season as a more complete player, play the right way and when I get my chances hopefully put the puck in the net. But you can always do better. No matter how many goals you score there are still a few more out there and I would like to get those back.”

One thing Heinonen would never give back was the experience of playing two seasons in the United States Hockey League. As many players do, he left high school and went the junior route before going to college. He played most of those two years with Muskegon before finishing his time in the league with Chicago.

“Two years is a long time at that age and I think it teaches you a lot about life and hockey,” he said. “It is your first time on your own. Instead of going to college you play hockey. It is a higher level of hockey and faster paced than high school. It was a big step for me hockey wise and in life. I think the league does a great job of getting players ready for college.”

Heinonen feels the Huskies are ready to shine brightest down the stretch drive and in the conference tournament.

“We had some tough weekends at the beginning (of the season) and we had some things to learn as a team,” he said. “I think now we are stronger than ever and on our way to having a special season.”

Above: Tyler Heinonen is hoping to return to the ice for Friday’s game against Lake Superior after missing time with injuries. (Courtesy Devin Miller/Michigan Tech Athletics)
Tom Layberger

Tom Layberger

Tom Layberger is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa.