The 2020-21 junior hockey season has been a bit like a slot machine for the Rochester Grizzlies and Austin Bruins so far.
The lever gets pulled several times a week recently -- sometimes several times a day -- and it’s anyone’s guess as to where it will land -- good news, bad news, or uncertainty.
As of late Thursday night, the Grizzlies, the Bruins and all Minnesota teams in the North American Hockey League and North American 3 Hockey League were in the final category. They’re not certain what the coming weeks will look like, if the teams will be able to play or if they’ll be sent home for the holidays.
The new restrictions implemented by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Wednesday, designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, include shutting down all youth and high school sports for four weeks, from midnight Friday through at least Dec. 18.
Hockey arenas are also on the list of facilities to be shut down, though college and pro hockey teams in the state will be allowed to continue to practice and play. The Grizzlies had already moved their practices to Dodge County Ice Arena in Kasson this week after facilities in Rochester, including all hockey rinks, were closed by the city at the start of this week.
Multiple league sources indicated to the Post Bulletin Thursday that the league was in talks with the state, to determine which category junior hockey falls under, the youth/high school category or the college/pro category. Hockey is the only sport with that gray area, a level of play that bridges a gap between high school and college hockey.
There are currently 17 junior hockey teams in the state.
The Bruins, St. Cloud Norsemen, Minnesota Magicians and Minnesota Wilderness play in the Tier II NAHL. Two Alaska-based teams -- Kenai River and Fairbanks -- are playing their home games in Minnesota, at least for the first half of the season. Kenai River is based in Breezy Point, while Fairbanks is playing its home games in Marshall.
The NA3HL is home to five Minnesota teams: Rochester, Granite City, New Ulm, Alexandria and Willmar.
There are also six Minnesota teams in the United States Premier Hockey League, including the Rochester Vipers and the Steele County Blades.
COLDEST OF THE COLD
A question made the rounds on social media this week among hockey players and fans: What’s the coldest rink you’ve ever been in?
It was a quick, easy answer for Rochester Grizzlies assistant coach Mike Aikens, a Rochester John Marshall grad who played for the USHL’s Rochester Mustangs before playing at the University of Denver. Aikens has also coached at every level of junior hockey.
“The coldest rink I’ve ever been in was Mason City’s old rink, where North Iowa, the USHL team, was,” Aikens said. “It was a tin shed and in those days everybody wore suit coats and jackets on the bench, but when you went to that rink it was … survival mode at that point, winter jackets and hats.”
LESSONS FROM FIRST LOSS
The Grizzlies suffered their first loss of the season on Saturday, a 2-1 setback against Peoria at the Rochester Recreation Center. That snapped Rochester’s season-opening nine-game winning streak. Dating back to last season, Rochester had won 15 consecutive games.
The Grizzlies outshot Peoria 37-18 in the game, but were stifled by former Rochester Century goalie Cole Walter. In his second season with the Mustangs, Walter made 36 saves in Saturday’s game and improved to 4-2-0 this season and 14-12-0 in his two seasons in Peoria.
“He was good,” Grizzlies coach Chris Ratzloff said. “He was good and they blocked 30-some shots, too. We outplayed them, it was just one of those days … they played very well. They’re a good team and they were very disciplined. They did what they had to do to beat us.”
The Grizzlies (9-1-0) also struggled on the power play -- which had been a strength so far this season -- going 0-for-5 against Peoria on Saturday.
“For one, we have to create different opportunities instead of just shoving it right down the slot all the time,” Ratzloff said. “We have to figure out a way to e better on the rush and gain the zone with control of the puck instead of having to dump it and go get it all the time.
“(Peoria) played exactly the way they needed to to beat us, but then it’s up to us to figure out how to counter that.”
Walter played at Century from 2014-17, compiling a 24-21-3 record with a 2.26 goals-against average, an .891 save percentage and seven shutouts. This season with Peoria he is 4-2-0, with a 2.30 GAA and .923 save pct. He was named the NA3HL Central Division Star of the Week on Nov. 10, and was named honorable mention Star of the Week this past week for his performance against the Grizzlies.
BRUINS READY TO ADAPT, ADJUST
The Austin Bruins were one of the last two teams in the NAHL to get their season started when they opened last Friday at home against the Janesville (Wis.) Jets.
The Bruins rallied in the third period for a 4-3 victory that night, and head coach Steve Howard reminded his team after the game to enjoy every game this season, as they don’t know if their next game will be played on time, or at all.
“I told the guys, we’re going to be playing a pro schedule, it won’t be just Fridays and Saturdays,” Howard said. “We could play any night of the week. There will be more games that get cancelled, but as long as we can get some games under our belts now, and if we have to miss some later on, then we’ll get those rescheduled as soon as we can.”
The Bruins (1-0-1 overall) will already face that need to adapt and adjust. As scheduled, they’ll host the Minnesota Wilderness at 7:05 p.m. Friday night in Austin. But the scheduled game Saturday against the Wilderness in Cloquet has been rescheduled, due to uncertainty around whether junior hockey teams in Minnesota can play, in the wake of the governor’s announcement this week that all youth and high school sports -- as well as all hockey rinks -- must shut down.
The Bruins will now play three games in three days, as they’ll head to Janesville for a two-game series Saturday and Sunday. That series will take the place of the Bruins’ scheduled two-game series at Janesville March 26 and March 27. Both teams will now have those dates open to reschedule other games, if needed.
ICE CHIPS …
• Former Grizzlies forward Max Erstad was named the NA3HL Central Divison Star of the Week on Tuesday. Erstad had two goals and two assists over the weekend and now has five goals and eight points this season.
• The Grizzlies have added Dodge County (high school) defenseman Charlie Blaisdell to the roster. Blaisdell will be a senior captain for the Wildcats this winter. He has played in two games for the Grizzlies so far.
• Rochester traded goalie Zach Foster to New Ulm. The Warroad native had made the most of limited playing time with the Grizzlies this season, going 2-0-0 with a 1.00 GAA and .950 save pct. Foster’s playing time would have been limited this season, though, with incumbent Shane Soderwall entrenched as the No. 1 goalie, and Owatonna’s Zach Wiese also battling for ice time. The Grizzlies have 35 players on a roster deep with talent, and the coaching staff is attempting to help some players find a situation where they can earn more ice time.
“When it comes to roster moves, we haven’t taken one guy and said ‘we’re trading you here,” Aikens said. “It’s a conversation where we’re trying to find good fits for guys. Every guy (that we’ve moved) so far has chosen where they’ve wanted to go.”
• First-year Grizzlies assistant coach Austin Balko has been a welcome addition to the team’s staff, Ratzloff said. Balko, who played at St. Mary’s University in Winona from 2010-14, has worked closely with the Grizzlies forwards, but is the learning all aspects of the job from Ratzloff and Aikens.
“This is where I think he’s been really valuable, right here,” Ratzloff said after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s still on the ice with the guys working on little things after practice or before practice.”