Heinonen from familiar bloodline

HOUGHTON – The Pietila family tree just keeps producing Michigan Tech hockey players.

Chad and Aaron Pietila graduated, but joining Chad’s brother and Huskies junior forward Blake Pietila (Aaron was their cousin) will be two more of Blake’s cousins: freshmen Reid Sturos, who was featured in Saturday’s Daily Mining Gazette, and Tyler Heinonen.

But it takes more than just convenient lineage to crack the Tech lineup.

“To me family connections don’t make a difference, we’re just trying to find the best players,” Tech coach Mel Pearson said.

Fortunately for Tech, in many cases people from the Pietila family tree are the best players. Heinonen’s on-ice accomplishments, even dating back to high school, bear that out.

The 6-foot, 185-pound forward, who has been playing hockey as long as he can remember on his family’s backyard rink, led the entire state of Minnesota in high school scoring during his senior year (2010-11), tallying 83 points for Delano High School.

“It was exciting. We had a real solid line that year as a top line, a couple good players playing alongside me and it just rolled all season long,” Heinonen said.

“Maybe the conference he came out of wasn’t as tough as some of the other ones, but that’s some pretty lofty praise when you can lead a state like Minnesota in scoring,” Pearson said. “He knows what to do with the puck.”

Because of his family ties, including parents who are both from the Copper Country and a father who graduated from Tech, Heinonen was on Tech’s radar even before Pearson became Tech’s coach in 2011. But, it didn’t take long for Pearson to be sold on Heinonen after seeing him at a Muskegon Lumberjacks camp in the summer of 2011.

“He had a real good camp,” Pearson said. ” Offensively, he has good instincts around the net. Some people shoot to shoot, he shoots to score. Every time he shoots the puck, he’s trying to score goals. Not everyone is like that. He’s a bulldog around the net, he’s going to do whatever he can to get that puck in the goal.”

Heinonen obviously had the scoring touch coming out of high school, but Tech still wanted him to refine his game for a couple years in juniors, and he did just that. Playing for the Lumberjacks in the United States Hockey League in 2011-12, he registered 33 points (21 goals, 12 assists) in 50 games, but he also had 58 penalty minutes and a minus-12 plus-minus rating.

“Juniors was a huge step coming from a small school, coming up and all of a sudden you’re not going to be the points leader just by showing up every day,” said Heinonen, who received interest from other schools but always wanted to come to Tech. “It was an eye opener, and I had to work through a lot of things, but it made me a lot better player.”

He then registered 31 points (15 goals, 16 assists) in 41 games for the Lumberjacks in 2012-13 (with 40 PIM, minus-one rating) before being traded to the Chicago Steel at the trade deadline. In 24 games for Chicago, he scored eight goals and had nine assists, to go along with 16 PIMs and a plus-five rating.

“It was tough (getting traded), but it ended up being a good thing for me,” Heinonen said. “I got a lot of opportunities in Chicago that I didn’t have in Muskegon, and it worked out well.”

He got to play on the penalty kill and at center, left wing and right wing, giving him a level of versatility that Pearson said will benefit Tech’s deep group of forwards.

“I think we can look at him on the wing or at center,” Pearson said.

“I like his nose for the net, but he has played two years in the USHL, so he’s really improved his defensive responsibility, because they demand that in that league as coaches. He’s done a good job there, so he’s going to be a good-two way player.”

Heinonen, who starts his engineering management classes today, is excited by Tech’s forward depth and the direction of the hockey program.

“When kids are battling through the week in practice, that’s going to make everyone better. Whether I play or not, or whether someone else plays or not, it’s making the team better,” he said. ” All summer I was chomping at the bit to get up here and get going.”

Sept. 16 is go-time for the Huskies in terms of organized skill development activities. The first game of the 2013-14 season in the new-look Western Collegiate Hockey Association, is an Oct. 5 exhibition against Laurentian.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of feature articles looking at Tech’s eight freshmen hockey players. Search on mininggazette.com for previous articles on forwards Sturos and Mike Neville, and defensemen Chris Leibinger and Cliff Watson. Future articles will be written on forward Brent Baltus, defenseman Shane Hanna and goaltender Matt Wintjes.