The Rochester Grizzlies have become a model franchise in the North American 3 Hockey League in just three seasons. They’ve also turned around the perception of junior hockey in Rochester in short order.
The Grizzlies have won 110 of 146 games in their first three seasons, as well as two NA3HL Central Division regular-season championships. They won the division postseason title for the first time this year and advanced to the Fraser Cup Final, the league’s championship game, where they fell 5-1 to the North Iowa Bulls.
We asked four Grizzlies players — three-year veterans Peyton Hart, Joey Fodstad and Matt DeRosa, and Rochester native Dylan Schneider, who played parts of two seasons with the team — why they think the franchise has become so good so quickly.
PB: Have you been able to take time to reflect on what the team accomplished this season?
Hart: Yeah, I think we can be really, really proud, especially in winning the regular season again and winning the first playoff series (in franchise history). … We set a high standard for future teams.
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PB: You went two months this season having to drive to La Crosse to practice and playing all of your games out-of-state, while arenas in Minnesota were shut down to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. What were those months like?
Fodstad: That we went (9-2-0 during that time), it’s a testament to how talented the guys are on this team and the work ethic we have to get things done. You can have 20 greta hockey players, but if they don’t want to work, it’s not going to be successful. We had the right combination of guys in the locker room and it worked out really well for us.
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PB: You grew up here, played youth hockey before going to Shattuck St. Mary’s for your high school years. As a Rochester native, is it nice to see the success the Grizzlies have had?
Schneider: It definitely helps with the younger group of guys coming up. They can watch good hockey without having to drive an hour and a half to the Cities or go somewhere else. Hopefully it can motivate them because it’s right here.
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PB: What made you want to come to Rochester to play for a brand new team?
DeRosa: It’s definitely special, in that sense, coming in as a rookie. You have nothing to lose. I remember coming to practice every day … I was ready to go. Getting to know all your teammates, there were no cliques from the previous season of guys who’d been here. That was something I’d never experienced before.
Hart: Coach Casey (Mignone) and coach (Mike) Aikens talked to me before that first year, they said ‘we’re rebranding the organization in Rochester.’ I didn’t know if I wanted to do that and I still had a year of high school left. But they kept talking to me and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll go tour there.’ I loved the facilities, the schools, everything. I just kind of fell in love with it.
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PB: The Grizzlies made the playoffs in their first season and pushed North Iowa to an elimination game. How did that help in the following years?
Fodstad: It showed that this franchise isn’t here to be pushed around, that a .500 season isn’t acceptable. It set the bar. … Setting the bar high is a good thing. There are a lot of good things happening here and I’m happy I got to be part of it.
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PB: Not many players spend three seasons with the same NA3HL team. What kept you coming back?
Hart: It was just … I’m really comfortable here. My second year I got cut from Janesville (NAHL) and was able to come back (to Rochester). I knew the systems, knew how the team was run, and was excited to jump back in. This year … I just had the mindset of ‘have fun and whatever happens, happens.’”
Schneider: Everyone here still has the drive to move up, to get to the NAHL. But it’s the leaders on the team -- Hart, DeRosa, Fodstad, Garrett Smith, Shane Soderwall. They all get on you in practice and they don’t stop. They keep coming. If you have a bad day they’ll go lighter on you, but if you have a good day and think you’re doing everything right, they will come down and let you know, push you even harder.
DeRosa: It’s not as simple as just loving to play the game. It’s the people here, the whole city of Rochester. I’ve been to other places and I didn’t feel the connection between the town and the team as much as I felt it here in Rochester. Coming here from Georgia, “Minnesota Nice” is the real thing. Everyone here … the fans have our backs. Good or bad, they’re here for us.