Mike Cooper and Craig Patrick took a chance three years ago.
The owners of the Austin Bruins — a Tier II junior hockey team that plays in the North American Hockey League — decided to add another team to their portfolio when the Rochester Ice Hawks franchise was put up for sale.
Cooper and Patrick bought the Tier III junior hockey team in the spring of 2018, rebranded it as the Rochester Grizzlies, then realized two things: One, they had a lot of work to do in a short time to put a winning team on the ice. Two, they had a lot of work to do to let hockey fans, potential advertisers and business partners in Rochester know that they’re in this for the long haul.
“From operating the Bruins and trying to learn from other teams, other organizations,” Cooper said, “I’m a big believer in, you never have things completely figured out. It’s always a learning process.”
That learning curve accelerated quickly for the Grizzlies.
In just three seasons, they have gone from being a brand new franchise to playing in the North American 3 Hockey League national championship game, the Fraser Cup Final. Though they lost to rival North Iowa 5-1 in the title game on April 19, the Grizzlies have accomplished more in three seasons than many franchises have in a decade or more.
“It’s pretty amazing when you think about it,” said Mike Aikens, a 1989 John Marshall graduate, who was a Grizzlies assistant for the past three seasons and is now moving on to become a head coach of the NAHL expansion franchise in Anchorage, Alaska. “A lot of things have to fall into place. You have to have a little luck and do things right as far as creating an environment for guys to want to come play here.”
The Ice Hawks, who played in nine consecutive national tournaments in the 2000s and early 2010s, went 6-39-2 in their final season. So how did the Grizzlies roar in and turn things around instantly? How did they help junior hockey in Rochester do a 180?
Starting out strong
The first hire that Patrick and Cooper made upon taking ownership of their second junior hockey franchise might go down as the best hire they’ll make.
It set the tone for what the Grizzlies franchise has become in a very short time.
Before they named a head coach and before the Grizzlies signed their first player, Patrick and Cooper hired an assistant coach for their Tier III junior hockey team that plays in the North American 3 Hockey League.
They hired an assistant coach with experience that isn't often found in coaches at the NA3HL level, a guy who played Division I college hockey and played and coached at the highest level of junior hockey, in the United States Hockey League. To boot, Aikens is a Rochester native, who has a ton of local and national connections in the hockey world.
“Aikes has been unbelievable,” Cooper said. “He has a lot of people who respect his hockey knowledge and background. He’s been a huge part of our success and (hiring him) gave us validity within the community that we were trying to bring in the right people and do things the right way.”
The Ice Hawks — who were ultra successful for close to 15 years in the now-defunct Minnesota Junior Hockey League — had struggled on the ice and in terms of attendance after moving from the MnJHL to the NA3HL for their final three seasons. They had a winning percentage of just 18.4 percent over those seasons.
So when the Bruins’ ownership group took over three years ago, with close to a decade of experience in running a junior hockey team, the timing was right for Aikens to jump back into the coaching business. The former Rochester Mustangs and University of Denver standout defenseman had been out of coaching for five years after his time as head coach and GM of the USHL’s Omaha Lancers had come to an end in 2013, but he hadn't — and still hasn't — given up on the idea of becoming a coach at the Division I college level.
“Getting back into coaching junior hockey and the opportunity to get involved with a good ownership group I felt comfortable with,” Aikens said when asked about why he took the job with the Grizzlies. “I was looking forward to working with the coaching staff in Austin, and that relationship has been great over the years. It’s been fun to learn from them, get some new ideas.”
Laying the groundwork for future success
Two weeks after Aikens was officially announced as the Grizzlies’ assistant coach, then-30-year-old Casey Mignone was hired as the team’s head coach.
Mignone grew up in New Jersey, played Division III college hockey at Westfield State University in Massachusetts, then played four seasons of professional hockey on the east coast, teams ranging from Cape Cod to Pensacola, Fla. He had been an assistant coach at Division III Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., before coming to the Grizzlies.
Coming to Minnesota to start a brand new franchise was a challenge for Mignone, to say the least.
“Obviously I knew Minnesota has a rich hockey history,” Mignone said, “but I didn’t know many people here — I didn’t know anyone out here. I took a bit of a leap of faith and it turns out to have been a pretty good decision.”
To say Mignone was thrown into the fire is an understatement. The Grizzlies were months behind established NA3HL franchises in terms of constructing a roster for the 2018-19 season, as well as securing billet families for players and bringing sponsors on board for the season.
“It was challenging, but the new name helped, created a little bit of separation,” he said. “The Ice Hawks had a great run here. I wasn’t there at the end, but it obviously wasn’t the ending they wanted. People familiar with it (around Rochester) were a little standoffish toward us at first, but I kept telling people that ‘we’re new, here’s how we’ll do things.’
“You have to get some people, some players to buy in. Those are always the hardest recruiting battles, finding people to take that leap with you. A few guys really benefitted from that leap. Peyton Hart, Matt DeRosa, Joey Fodstad, Porter Haney, some of those guys who had other options at early stages and decided they’d come to Rochester.”
Mignone guided that inaugural Grizzlies team to a 32-17-1 record and a NA3HL West Division playoff berth. Three months after that season ended, he was hired as an assistant coach with St. Cloud’s NAHL team.
Haney recently completed his first season of college hockey at Gustavus Adolphus. Hart, DeRosa and Fodstad wrapped up their three-year Grizzlies careers last month. Hart (Wisconsin-Stout) and Fodstad (Concordia College, Moorhead) have committed to play college hockey next season, and DeRosa is mulling a handful of offers.
“The whole dynamic of what Rochester is, the coaching staff, the facilities, the locker room, knowing they were a first-year team and seeing they were going to be pretty good, it felt like a good spot for me,” said Fodstad, who is in the top three in franchise history in goals, assists, points and games played. “It was gut instinct. I thought ‘well, why not give it a shot here.’ Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d play three years here, but I couldn’t be happier had I taken any other road. It’s been a great three years.”
Taking the next steps
Mignone, Aikens and the players on the 2018-19 Grizzlies team set a bar: 32 victories in 50 games and a playoff appearance in the franchise’s first season.
Toward the end of that season, Mignone had convinced Chris Ratzloff — a former high school and junior hockey teammate of Aikens’ — to join the Grizzlies staff as a scout and part-time on-ice coach. Ratzloff had been an assistant coach in the John Marshall boys program, then in the Lourdes’ girls program for nearly a decade. He’d also helped Doug Zmolek run the Southeastern Minnesota Elite program in the offseason, where he worked with many of the top high school and youth players in the area.
When Mignone was hired in St. Cloud, he pushed hard for Patrick and Cooper to hire Ratzloff to take his place with the Grizzlies.
“He’s a good coach and might be the nicest person on the planet,” Patrick said of Ratzloff, who is 78-15-3 in two seasons as the Grizzlies head coach. “He’s a good Xs and Os coach, he cares about the players and they know it.
“He can recognize talent and has developed a bunch of young players, even through all of the COVID issues this year, who will likely play in a lot of games for us next year.”
Ratzloff’s first season as head coach was as successful as this past season.
The Grizzlies went 37-8-2 in 2019-20, with Ratzloff and Aikens guiding them to their first-ever NA3HL Central Division championship. But the season ended abruptly, on the eve of the playoffs, due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you’re building a team, it’s like building a house,” Aikens said. “You can’t have 20 plumbers and expect to build a great house. You have to have plumbers and carpet layers and roofers.
“Building a hockey team is the same. You have to have goal-scorers, playmakers, grinders, guys who are good team players. We’ve had that great mix, especially the last two years. We really felt we could’ve won it all last year before we got shut down.”
The success the Grizzlies have had in such a short time has been noticeable on the recruiting trail, too. While Ratzloff and Aikens still leave no stone unturned while scouting, players are now reaching out to them, wanting to play in Rochester. And the coaches now have a proven on-ice product to pitch to recruits, as part of a quality all-around experience.
"Rochester is a beautiful community," said Patrick, who founded the Austin Bruins franchise 11 years ago. "It's a great city, the Rec Center is a great place to play, they have a great locker room, things that are appealing for the kids. We have wonderful billet families and coaches. You have all that and the link to the Bruins, it's a really strong link, moving players back and forth between the two teams. It's a real positive in players wanting to come here."
Not satisfied yet
The signs were there, even at the start of the Grizzlies' inaugural season, when they lost the first game in franchise history 10-0 at league power Granite City. Rochester rebounded a week later, winning its first-ever home game 10-1 against the Evansville Jr. Thunderbolts. That victory started a 10-game winning streak for the Grizzlies, who went on to finish that season 32-17-1 overall, quite an accomplishment for a brand new team playing in arguably the most competitive division in the NA3HL at the time.
"I think it was pretty clear," Mignone said of the path the Grizzlies were headed down. "We had a really good season playing in that tough division with Granite City and North Iowa, and really pushing North Iowa to the brink in the playoffs — they just won it all again; they're as good as it gets.
"We knew the foundation we'd built, the guys we had coming back for the next season and some guys we'd identified for the future. Those guys knew what the expectations were and the way we were going to do things. That was one of the hardest parts, setting the standard. Once the players know it and take ownership of it ... when you have good players, good kids, they have the ability to carry it on."
Two regular-season division titles in three years, a postseason division championship, a .775 all-time winning percentage and 36.7 wins per season. Those are all nice bullet points for the Grizzlies franchise, but they’re not enough to satisfy the team’s owners, coaches or players.
Getting to the playoffs was the bar set by the inaugural Grizzlies team. The 2020-21 Grizzlies raised that bar significantly. They not only expect to be the best team in their division, but to annually be one of the best in the league.
“I think people recognize we do things the right way as players, a team and a coaching staff,” Ratzloff said. “From the first day of practice, the one thing we always say is ‘we’re a Tier II team, they just don’t let us play in that league.’
“The players know we have their best interests in mind. We have fun, but we’re here to develop hockey players and young men, and move them on.”