Blake Pietila’s pro hockey career started from the unlikeliest of places.
The New Jersey Devils forward hails from southeast Michigan, near Ann Arbor, but frequently spent time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula visiting family and relatives. As The Wall Street Journal’s Tal Pinchevsky writes, Pietila making his NHL debut in 2015-16 has drawn attention to how hockey crazy the quiet, scarcely populated country area has become.
Learning about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, you wouldn’t expect it to be a hockey hotbed. The collapse of the mining industry sent plenty of people moving elsewhere, though the logging trade still provides families with work and income. Connected to just 200 miles of Wisconsin and a bridge in Michigan, the area makes up 29 percent of Michigan’s land, but just three percent of its total population. Pietila described the U.P. as having a “slower” lifestyle, but it certainly has one thing going for it that’s conducive to hockey.
“They’ve got snow until May up there. The winters are long but the summers are nice for a couple of months,” Pietila said. “A little bit slower lifestyle. Less people. A little more isolated.”
— NHL (@NHL) March 27, 2016
That means a lot of frozen ponds in backyards throughout the region.
Despite living in a rather isolated area, Pietila’s family has made quite the name for themselves in the U.P. Pietila has had multiple cousins play at Michigan Tech, other minor league teams in the Michigan area, and the NHL.
“It’s a popular name up here,” said Mel Pearson, a former player and current head coach at Michigan Tech University, the Division I program at the epicenter of the U.P.’s hockey heritage. “They have a long history and strong ties to hockey, whether at Michigan Tech or the high school or senior men’s level.”
Pietila isn’t guaranteed an NHL roster spot as the 2016-17 season opens. But with seven games already under his belt, he’ll be a likely call-up at some point this coming season and has a chance to become a regular. Meanwhile, his journey will entertain and inspire those living in and familiar with the U.P. and probably create some Devils fans in Michigan.