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Kaunisto helps fellow defensemen focus on steady improvement

Steven Kaunisto

Nov. 24, 2007

By LINDA BOUVET, Sports Information Director

During an extremely challenging first-half hockey schedule, Lake Superior State has held firm to the theory that it will prepare the same way each week no matter the upcoming opponent. Regardless of whether the other team is ranked No. 1 in the nation or struggling to get on a winning track, the Lakers' focus is to get better every week.

That mindset has served sophomore defenseman Steven Kaunisto well. By focusing on becoming a better player at every level, he has exceeded his own expectations. Kaunisto is a Sault Ste. Marie native who grew up watching the Lakers, but he never considered the idea of wearing a jersey with the anchor until his high school coach, Chris Gordon, told him that he had the potential to play in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

"I didn't think that far ahead," Kaunisto said. "I didn't think about playing college hockey until I was in high school when my high school coach told me he could see me playing in the CCHA. When that happened, my focus switched."

Gordon, who coached the Sault High Blue Devils at that time, was a former University of Michigan goaltender who had a good understanding of what it takes to compete in the CCHA. Kaunisto went on to play for the Soo Indians Junior A hockey team and helped lead them to a third-place finish in the 2004-05 nationals. After the Indians folded, he spent the 2005-06 season with the Cedar Rapids Roughriders of the United States Hockey League and was named the team's defenseman of the year.

As a rookie with the Lakers last season, he picked up seven of his eight points in league play, which ranked third on the team among defensemen.

"Every guy, as soon as I got here, made it easy for me," Kaunisto said. "They wanted you to learn and wanted you to get better every game. The atmosphere in practice is really good. A couple times I've been on teams where teammates don't always get along. Both this year and last year we have grouped together well. We hang out on and off the ice."

Kaunisto, sophomore Simon Gysbers and juniors Marty Gurnoe and Steve Oleksy, and senior Justin Gutwald are LSSU's returning defensemen. With the loss of former captain Barnabas Birkeland to graduation and points leader Derek A. Smith to the pros, they have taken on leadership responsibilities in 2007-08.

"Probably Barnabas helped me the most last year," Kaunisto said. "He was the one I followed on the ice. He was not the most flashy person, but very solid positionally. That's what I'm looking to do this year -- just play my position - but be in the right position at the right time and help the team."

Kaunisto has been paired this season with freshmen Dillin Stonehouse and Ben Kitzmiller.

"The freshmen have stepped up well," Kaunisto said. "They are all playing on the power play, PK and things like that. Coach trusts them to be in every situation...In games they are starting to get better, move the puck and their feet better, and help out our forwards. Having young guys playing in the types of games we are playing right now will help the team out later on."

Kaunisto described Gysbers and freshman Matt Cowie as the "most-offensive defensemen," while he considers Oleksy and himself to be defensive defensemen.

"Steve blocks a lot of shots, and that helps our team out a lot," Kaunisto said. "I try to not let anyone around me. If I can, I get the blocked shot or use the stick to knock the puck away from the other team."

This weekend, Kaunisto will be going up against his cousin, Ray Kaunisto, a sophomore forward on Northern Michigan's hockey team. Ray Kaunisto scored the game-winner for the Wildcats during last Saturday's 3-2 victory over Bowling Green.

"We wanted to play on the same team, but he winds up at Lake Superior and I wind up at Northern," Ray Kaunisto said. "We always have inside jokes with each other, but we talk like it's no big deal. It's just another game, and don't really notice playing against each other."

They couldn't help but notice during last year's first meeting between LSSU and NMU. They couldn't help but smile when they lined up across from each other during a face-off.

The Kaunisto cousins joined senior-dominated teams when they were freshmen and have dramatically increased their roles as sophomores.

"I knew Steven would step up and play," Ray Kaunisto said. "He's solid and doesn't make many mistakes."

Steven Kaunisto remembers heading outside the Norris Center after Laker victories and watching the team ring the bell. These days he gets a kick out of seeing how excited kids get when they ask him for an autograph and want to meet him. He's proud of being a U.P. player on a U.P. team.

"U.P. teams can stand out too," he said. "It's secluded, but (LSSU, NMU and Michigan Tech) can still bring the kids in. Not everyone wants to come here. But some, as soon as they get here, know that this is the school they want to be at. All (three schools) can be powerhouses in whatever league we play in as long as we show up to play every game."

Lake Superior State Men's Ice Hockey
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