The Lawrence University Men's hockey team and others from around the NCHA hit the ice last Monday, as October 14 marked the first day NCAA Division III coaches can conduct official team practices.  Unlike most others, the Vikings FINISHED their two-plus-hour session at 7:50 AM CDT.

"It's like Christmas Eve," said Lawrence Head Coach Mike Szkodzinski about the night before the first day of practice.  This marks season 14 for Szkodzinski and the 6:00 A.M. start time for almost all practices has been a staple since he arrived in 2006.  "(The early practice time) has become part of our program and our guys have embraced it.  They get their school work done and rest during the day, and revamp for the next morning."

The morning routine for senior Jake Drinkard starts with an alarm at 4:50 A.M. and a Starbucks K-Cup (for sure) and light breakfast (sometimes) about 10-15 mins later.  After a short drive to the Appleton Ice Center, he's in the locker room around 5:30 A.M.  The streets on the way to the rink are dark, quiet and unoccupied; the stoplight at Ballard and Northland en route is unnecesary at this time of day.

"It's the best way to start your day," says Drinkard, a senior.  "I'll be sitting in class at 10 or 11 o'clock.  Other kids are showing up to class with messy hair, like they just rolled out of bed.  We've already got our work in for the day ... we do feel pretty accomplished when we get up and get after it."

Fellow senior Evan Ketner follows a similar routine to Drinkard.  On this morning, after a practice that included plenty of skills work, competition and conditioning, he will stop for breakfast, get a short break and then head to campus before the puck drops on a class at 11:00 A.M.  

"There's no better way to start your day than with hockey," says Ketner.  "In the real world, you have to get up and get stuff done.  Morning practice, I think it sets you up for later in life."

Part of having early practice is an early bed time.  Both Drinkard and Ketner were in their beds at their usual target time (between 9:00-10:00 P.M.), but as for actual sleeping?  That's tough to do the night before the first practice of the year.

"I was laying in bed by nine, but I don't think I fell asleep until midnight," said Drinkard.

Szkodzinski was no different than his players.  "I tried to get to bed early," he said.  "That didn't happen! (laughs).  Hopefully I won't crash during the day today."

Part of the excitement for the Vikings and every team holding their first practice is that it's day one of a new season with so much potential and hope.  The canvas is blank.  Coaches and players have plans on how it will fill in, but on the first day and really the first several weeks of the season, there's an underlying reality of the unknown. 
For coaches and captains, part of their job description is to react to twists and turns - the unexpected - of the season.

"The group dynamic is different every year," said Szkodzinski.  "One of the reasons I love coaching so much, you have something different and unique to work with every single year.  You always an idea of what you'd like to see happen, but, inevitably, it never works out that way.  You have to adjust and adapt."

Last season featured a lot of adjusting and adapting for Lawrence, which never really found itself over the course of the five month grind that is the NCHA.  The Vikings missed the playoffs for the second time in three years while finishing six points back of North Division number-4 seed Finlandia. 

"We've got to be better," said Szkodzinski.  "We've got to compete harder and return to our identity that we've established over time ... We need to reestablish ourselves as a team that is really hard to play against, and we need to outwork every team we play if we want to have a chance ...  There's a lot of things that need to be fixed when you finish last in the league."

Drinkard and Ketner are clearly on the same page as their coach.  Both cited grit and toughness immediately when asked about what needs to change this year.

"We need to be the team that (other teams) look at the schedule and say, 'We've got Lawrence, it's going to be a grind, a hard game,'" said Ketner.  "That's what we need to be."

There were positives to build on from last season.  Most of the players from last year's team are back, which helps with chemistry.  A three-game winning streak to start last December showed what the group is capable of - something they remember and hope to replicate on a consistent basis.  And Szkodzinski points to the compete level late last season, when the team showed signs of its gritty, old self - even when the Vikings had been eliminated from playoff contention. 

Drinkard and Ketner point to the senior class as a major factor this year.

"We've got 7 seniors this year," said Drinkard.  "All are experienced and have played up and down the lineup."

Complimenting those seniors are ten incoming players, all of whom are looking for ice time and hoping to contribute.

"I think there's a new energy with ten new faces in the locker room," said Szkodzinski, "and that also sparks more competition from guys who are returning."