By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – It’s been a pretty amazing week for Muskegon Lumberjacks Coach Mike Hamilton.
On Sunday Hamilton’s week got even better, when the Lumberjacks announced that they had granted him a four-year contract extension that could keep him with the team through the 2004-05 season.
As soon as he coaches a game next season, he will become the longest tenured coach in team history.
And Hamilton has a real chance to continue to make team history over the next month, as the high-flying Lumberjacks, who have won 14 of their last 16 games, try to win their first ever USHL Clark Cup.
The Jacks, who have eight games remaining on their schedule, will host their last home series of the regular season this weekend on Thursday, Friday and Saturday against the Dubuque Fighting Saints at Mercy Health Arena.
After that Muskegon is on the road, and won’t have another home game until the playoffs.
“In this day and age, just having a job is important,” Hamilton said. “Our owners have been very generous with me. To have stability and four years of income until I figure out my last step is a huge relief.
“My first year I had a two-year contract, and they extended that one year, and it would have been expiring. We have been talking about it, and we were able to lock down a really nice extension.”
A four-year contract for a coach is not typical in the USHL, but the Lumberjacks have clearly been pleased with Hamilton’s performance, and wanted to keep him around for awhile.
“In most scenarios (in the league) a couple year deal is kind of the max,” Hamilton said. “We were talking about a three-year deal, but this is one of those scenarios where our president of hockey operations (Steve Lowe) is on a four-year deal, and he wanted us to be aligned. We’re in this together.”
Hamilton has done a lot of winning since he became the Lumberjacks’ coach in the 2018-19 season, replacing John LaFontaine, who was fired after two seasons on the job.
He had been a successful junior hockey coach in the Detroit area for years, and first became familiar with the Jacks in 2014 when his son, Trevor Hamilton, played for the team.
He served as the Lumberjacks’ video coach in the 2017-18 season, before getting the head coaching job the following season.
In his first year Muskegon won the USHL’s Eastern Conference championship with a 41-17-4 record in the regular season. The Jacks won a first-round playoff series over Dubuque, then lost in the conference finals to Chicago.
Last season the Jacks had a very young roster, and were struggling with a 21-23-5 record when the COVID virus forced the cancellation of the rest of the season.
This season, with many of those young players back for another season, the Jacks are roaring with a 30-13-3 record.
That leaves Hamilton with a career mark of 96-57-16 record, including playoff games. That kind of performance obviously pleases his bosses.
“I’ve known Mike a long time,” Lumberjacks co-owner Bob Kaiser said in a statement. “He’s won national and state championships, and has developed many NCAA division one and NHL players.
“We brought him here for that reason – to bring that same winning attitude and development here to Muskegon. This long-term contract shows our belief that he can bring a Clark Cup to Muskegon, and we have the utmost confidence in him.”
“He ensures we will achieve our goal – to make the Muskegon Lumberjacks the best junior hockey organization in the world.”
This could be the year that the Lumberjacks, who have been in the USHL since 2010, finally capture their first league championship.
They are currently in second place in the Eastern Conference with 63 points. They trail first-place Chicago by four points, and lead third-place Green Bay by eight points.
The top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conference make the playoffs, so that won’t be a problem for the Jacks. The top two teams in each conference will host their first-round playoff series, which will be short 2-of-3 affairs, with all games played in the host’s building.
That means remaining at least in second place is important for the Jacks, so they would host Green Bay in the first playoff round, rather than have to play in the Gamblers’ arena.
But winning the conference title, and perhaps winning the Anderson Cup (the USHL’s regular season points trophy) are not out of the question.
After the three home games this weekend against Dubuque, the Jacks will play two games in Youngstown (April 16-17) and one in Dubuque (April 22), then end the season with a two-game showdown in Chicago against the first-place Steel (April 23-24).
The Jacks have six games left against Dubuque and Youngstown, both sub-.500 teams that are in danger of missing the Clark Cup playoffs. If they do well, they could be in a position to go nose-to-nose for the conference title in Chicago on the final weekend.
As far as the playoffs go, Chicago and Green Bay are the two other top contenders in the Eastern Conference. The Jacks are 5-3 so far against Chicago this season, and finished 5-5 against Green Bay.
The Eastern Conference playoff champion will meet the Western Conference champion in the finals, with the winner taking the Clark Cup. Teams from the two conferences have not played each other this season due the COVID, so the favorite in that matchup would be anyone’s guess.
Could the Lumberjacks finally emerge on top? If they made the finals, it would be only the second time in team history. The first was in 2014-15, when they were swept in three games.
“That is 100 percent the hope,” Hamilton said about winning the Clark Cup. “Winning is something that this organization takes pride in, and it’s truly time for us to that that next step toward getting the big one done.
“We knew we had some pretty key pieces here this season. It was just a matter of getting everybody on the same page. We knew we had a lot of talent, we just needed to come together at the same time, and now we’re clicking along.”