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Fire and Ice: Junior hockey has been one enjoyable ride for Austin defenseman Looft

After a year of playing junior hockey in northern Saskatchewan, Mankato native Nate Looft is back close to home, serving as a team captain and a leader on defense for the Austin Bruins.

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Nate Looft
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AUSTIN — Nate Looft and his teammates would smile or chuckle a little bit when they’d hear the sirens of the fire trucks that were headed their way.

They knew they were about to explain a misunderstanding.

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“We didn’t have much to do after practice,” Looft said, “so we’d go out in the woods and build a fort, have bonfires — we might have had the fire department called on us a few times; they thought there was a forest fire.”

That was life last hockey season, in northern Saskatchewan, for the 2020 Mankato West High School graduate. When practice and off-ice workouts are done by 1 p.m. most days, it leaves a lot of time to fill.

Instead of finding trouble, Looft and his teammates with the La Ronge Ice Wolves — the northernmost team in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League — would take advantage of the miles and miles of lakes and forests that were densely populated with trees, on the doorstep of Lac La Ronge Provincial Park.

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Sometimes it meant chopping and hauling fallen logs to build a fort. Other times, on particularly cold days when the Canadian wind blew from the north, it meant building fires that were small enough to be safe, but big enough to alert local authorities.

“Everything. I loved everything about it up there,” said Looft, now in his first season as an assistant captain for the Austin Bruins of the North American Hockey League. “I had a fantastic billet family. They are salt of the earth people; had three great kids and they made the experience great for me.

“The coaches, the (teammates) were great. We were kind of in a secluded little town. There’s not much to do up there other than hang out with the guys. We’d find stuff to do. By no means am I the handyman who built the fort, but I’d like to think I did my share of the gathering and played my role.”

That’s exactly what the Bruins are expecting from Looft, a 5-feet-11, 200-pound defenseman, this season — to play his role — and the role he plays is a big reason why he’s been named one of the team’s four captains.

“With Nate, we know exactly what we’re getting from him,” Austin head coach Steve Howard said. “He’s a big body, he’s going to throw his body around and hit people, and he’s not afraid of anybody.”

To take it a step further, Looft is a guy that every team needs, the quintessential fourth-line tough that every team needs.

“The coaches here have made it pretty clear,” Looft said. “They want me to be a good person and a leader, on and off the ice. Being an older guy — I might have the most junior hockey games played on the team — they want me to show the young guys the ropes.

“On the ice, it’s also very clear — block shots, be physical, stand up for teammates, kill penalties. I’m totally fine with that. There are a lot of hockey teams out there that need those players. If that’s what it takes to get to the next level, then that’s what it takes. I have no issue with that.”

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Looft — whose brother Kyle played for the Bruins in the 2016-17 season and is now a senior captain at Division I Bemidji State University — is a key piece of the puzzlie this season for a Bruins team that is off to a 4-0 start after going undefeated at the season-opening NAHL Showcase last week in Blaine. True to form, Looft had one point in those four games, and 17 total penalty minutes.

His mental and physical toughness have developed over years of loving to play the game. A point-per-game player in high school, he has been more than willing to trade some of those points for penalty minutes. He started his junior hockey career with the Tier III New Ulm Steel in 2020-21, when he had 15 points and 64 penalty minutes in 31 games. At La Ronge last season, Looft had 25 points and 124 penalty minutes in 45 games.

Now he's a junior hockey veteran and a leader for Austin, which plays at St. Cloud today, then plays its first home game of the regular season at 7:05 p.m. Saturday against NAHL Central Division rival St. Cloud.

“You have to be willing to work, no matter what level you’re at,” he said. “Look at me. I started out in the (North American 3 Hockey League), bumped up to the SJ(HL) last year and now I’m here, in Austin.

“It’s not always just ‘oh man, I’m going to get done with high school then go play in the USHL or North American league immediately. It doesn’t just happen like that. You have to be willing to work for it.”

Jason Feldman is the sports editor of the Post Bulletin. In addition to managing the four-person sports staff at the PB, Jason covers high school football, golf and high school and junior hockey. Readers can reach Jason at 507-281-7430 or jfeldman@postbulletin.com.
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