Better late than never for Baltus, Huskies

HOUGHTON – Coaching stability at Michigan Tech and instability at other universities have led two 2013-14 hockey recruits to change their initial choice of schools and come to Houghton instead.

Defenseman Cliff Watson, who was featured in a previous Daily Mining Gazette article, was originally on track to attend Ohio State until coach Mark Osiecki was fired. Forward Brent Baltus faced a similar situation as a November 2012 commit to Alaska-Anchorage, until coach Dave Shyiak was fired.

“It was kind of a weird situation with Anchorage, but I decided to open up my recruiting again, and Michigan Tech was really interested,” said Baltus, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound winger from Nanaimo, British Columbia. “I think it’s a great program with great coaches, and it was a pretty easy decision for me.

“With the coaching change up there and the uncertainty with the organization, I felt it was better for me to look at other opportunities, and luckily enough, I’m here.”

Tech assistant coach Billy Muckalt was actually recruiting a few other British Columbia Hockey League players at the time when Baltus’ situation came up with a coach.

“Billy knew the coach very well, and next thing you know, things just sort of fell in place there,” Tech head coach Mel Pearson said. “We talked to Anchorage about it, and it’s a tough situation, but the young man just wanted some clarity and certainty in where he’s going and what he was going to do. He made the decision without any pressure.”

He committed to Tech in April, and the first time he stepped foot in Houghton was the Saturday before Tech’s first-year orientation. It was a late addition for the Huskies, but in a sense, Baltus is used to doing things later than others.

The 20-year-old – his 21st birthday is the day after Tech’s opening Oct. 5 exhibition – has always been a skilled forward, but it was only a couple years ago when he grew big enough to seriously pursue college hockey.

“I was a little bit of a late bloomer. I didn’t really grow until I was like 18 years old,” Baltus said. ” I was a small player, but it ultimately kind of helped me progress as a player. Nothing came easy. That being said, after I grew, I stuck with it and things started going my way a little bit more.”

Growing up he played minor hockey mostly in Port Alberni before moving to Nanaimo to play in the BC Hockey Major Midget League where he tallied 51 points in 40 games as a 17-year-old for the North Island Silvertips. The next year he played for the Oceanside Generals in the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, where he registered 45 points in 38 games.

That success opened up an opportunity for him in the British Columbia Hockey League in 2010-11, but his small size posed a challenge at the higher level. He only registered one point in 10 games during the season split between the Alberni Valley Bulldogs and Nanaimo Clippers.

In 2011-12, though, he latched on with the Trail Smoke Eaters, where he scored 14 goals and assisted on 16 others in 60 games. Then he filled out his frame and exploded last season for 24 goals and 29 assists in 47 games, earning BCHL Most Valuable Player honors in the Interior Conference.

“Growing up usually with major juniors you kind of know (college could be a possibility), and they’re all over you, but that was never really in the cards for me,” Baltus said. “When I started playing Junior B and major midget, it was always a goal of mine, and then to have it come true as a 20-year-old was a good feeling.”

Baltus, who’s majoring in finance at least for now and rooming with other Tech freshmen Shane Hanna, Chris Leibinger and Mike Neville, joins a deep group of 17 Tech forwards. While his role is to be determined, the coaching staff wants him to be a solid two-way player using his offensive instincts.

“He’s as good of a scorer as he is a distributor, so he makes players around him better, which is good,” Pearson said. “He’s a first-class kid, and just a good hard-working honest player.”

“I just want to try and fit in and help the team any way I can,” Baltus said. “That’s the main goal here is to win, so whatever I can do to help the team win, and as long as I’m getting better every day, it’s going to be good.”

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of feature articles looking at Michigan Tech’s eight hockey freshmen. Remaining features will be written on defenseman Shane Hanna and goaltender Matt Wintjes.