Bruins back on ice, ready for new season
Nolan Kirley has been an Austin Bruin for as long as the team has existed.
The defenseman helped the Bruins go from a team that missed out on the playoffs in its first season to being two wins away from a trip to the Robertson Cup — the North American Hockey League's championship tournament — last season.
Kirley and the rest of the Bruins reported to Riverside Arena on Monday for the first team meeting and dryland practice of the new season. The veterans, such as Kirley, a 6-foot, 195-pound defenseman from Hayward, Wis., are determined to go deeper into the postseason this year.
"We hope we can get to the Robertson Cup," the third-year Bruin said. "We have a good shot at getting there. We have a lot of good guys back from last year and some really talented young guys coming in."
Kirley, a physical defenseman who holds the team career record for penalty minutes (277), is the only player on this year's roster who was around two years ago, the Bruins' first in existence. Austin went 23-31-4 that season and finished fifth in the NAHL's Central Division.
The Bruins missed the postseason that year, but went 36-18-6 last season and finished third in the division. They knocked off Alexandria in a first-round playoff series before losing to Bismarck in the division finals.
Kirley said he is excited to be back in Austin and is looking forward to playing in front of a great crowd at the home opener on Sept. 29 against Coulee Region. The Bruins open their season on Sept. 12 against Amarillo at the NAHL Showcase at the Schwan Super Rink in Blaine.
"This is my home away from home," he said. "I'm pretty excited to be back and to get on the ice.
"It's my third year here, so (being a leader) is kind of expected of me. I just try to work hard, be an intense player."
The Bruins, under third-year coach Chris Tok, welcome back about a dozen players from last season's team. Among those returning players are the team's second- and third-leading scorers from last season, forwards Brandon Wahlin (13 goals, 27 assists, 40 points) and John Simonson (18-20—38).
"First and foremost, I'm glad to be back with the coaching staff here and some great teammates," Simonson said, "and the fans here are great. The way the whole town wraps itself around this team, it's great support."
Forward AJ Reid, who has committed to play Division I hockey for Army, is also back. He joined the Bruins in the middle of the season after being let go by the Fargo Force of the USHL. Reid became an instant point producer for Austin, posting 29 points in 26 regular-season games, and four points in eight playoff games.
More than half of the Bruins' roster will have at least one full season of NAHL experience, which Simonson said could be a big advantage.
"The second-year guys have been around the block in the league," said Simonson, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound forward from Grand Forks, N.D. "We know what to expect and need to help in the locker room. We need to keep guys motivated and let them know what to expect."
The Bruins' first on-ice practice is scheduled for this afternoon.