A week ago the Rochester Grizzlies returned to Rochester without the trophy they’ve been chasing for two years.
But the best season in team history won’t be defined by a 5-1 loss to the North Iowa Bulls in the North American 3 Hockey League’s championship game, the Fraser Cup.
The unusual season will be defined by a franchise-record 41 wins, two months spent practicing and playing on the road amid the pandemic, as well as a historic postseason run that ended in suburban St. Louis as one of the last two teams standing in the 31-team league.
“We can be really really proud of what we’ve accomplished, especially in winning the division again in the regular season, and winning the first playoff series,” Grizzlies captain Peyton Hart said. “We had that unfinished business that lingered for us from last year. We set a franchise winning streak that will be tough to break; it’s a high standard. … It’s been a pretty successful year, I’d say, for us.”
The “unfinished business” the Grizzlies had waiting for them when they reported to training camp in late August of last year, was chasing down some trophies and banners. The NA3HL playoffs were canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic — the Grizzlies were on a bus to Peoria, Ill., for a first-round series when they were told to turn around, that their season was over — just weeks after Rochester had clinched its first-ever regular-season division championship.
This season, despite not playing a home game at the Rochester Recreation Center from Nov. 15 until Jan. 15 due to arenas around the state being shut down to prevent the spread of COVID, the Grizzlies plowed over their Central Division rivals to win a second consecutive regular-season division championship. That paid off in the postseason, as Rochester used home-ice advantage to defeat the Oregon (Wis.) Tradesmen in a Central Division semifinals series, then to rally to beat rival Peoria in the Central Division Finals.
“That’s what we’ll remember most,” Grizzlies veteran forward Joey Fodstad said. “We’ll remember all the good times we had this year, our road trips, spending two months on the road, not playing a home game for months, and the bonds we made.”
The Grizzlies finished 34-5-1 in the regular season and 41-7-1 overall, in just their third season as a team. They advanced to the Fraser Cup tournament for the first time, winning one-goal games against the Texas Brahmas and Oklahoma City Blazers in pool play. Rochester then blew out the Sheridan (Wyo.) Hawks — a team that lost just once in 40 regular-season games — 7-1 to reach the Fraser Cup Final.
North Iowa was too much for the Grizzlies in the final, but Rochester’s veterans have built a strong foundation for teams in future years. Hart, Fodstad and forward Matt DeRosa were all with the team for its first three years and have set franchise scoring records that will be difficult to top.
DeRosa leaves as the Grizzlies’ all-time leader in goals (76) and tied with Hart for the lead in points (140). Hart departs as the team’s leader in career games played (142), assists (83), and tied in points. Fodstad is second in goals (67) and assists (68), and third in points (135) and games played (134).
“It’s still raw, still haunting,” DeRosa said of the title-game loss, “but after the game we all got into the locker room, sat there, emotional, crying, Ratty’s giving his speech and he was getting teary-eyed, Aikes was getting teary-eyed. It all kind of hit us, that it was a special year and we did a lot of amazing things for the program that in my rookie year I never would’ve thought we’d do back in my rookie year. “
The Grizzlies will also say goodbye to a handful of veterans, including veteran forwards Dylan Schneider, Hunter Wilmes and Cody Reagle, and goalie Shane Soderwall, who was the top netminder in the entire NA3HL throughout the season, finishing with a 26-3-1 record, a 1.35 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage. Soderwall signed a tender to play for the new Anchorage, Alaska-based NAHL franchise, which will be coached by Rochester native Mike Aikens, who was a Grizzlies’ assistant coach the past three seasons.
Though the Grizzlies will have a different look in 2021-22, there will be new banners hanging in the Rec Center to commemorate this team’s accomplishments.
“Through all the things we’ve gone through and all the adversity we’ve had to face — that’s a word that keeps coming up, adversity — I feel like it’s a testament to this team, what we were able to do,” Fodstad said. “I’m very proud of every single player on this team, no matter what role they played or how many games they played in.”