The Rochester Grizzlies spent more than a year thinking every day about playing for a North American 3 Hockey League championship.
That moment came on April 19.
The Grizzlies were up to the task. For 20 minutes. Then injuries, fatigue and a talented North Iowa Bulls team took control of the Fraser Cup Final, pulling away to beat Rochester 5-1 at the St. Peters (Mo.) Rec Plex.
That loss has stuck with the Grizzlies for nearly half a year, 173 days to be exact.
This weekend, Rochester will get a chance to avenge that loss, but more importantly, the Grizzlies have an opportunity to improve to 7-0-0 this season, with a team filled largely with players who weren’t involved in that game in suburban St. Louis in April.
Rochester plays a home-and-home series with the Mason City Toros (the team was rebranded in the offseason as the North Iowa franchise transitioned to the Tier II North American Hockey League) tonight and Saturday. The teams are scheduled to faceoff in Mason City at 7:30 p.m. tonight, then meet at the Rochester Recreation Center at 7:05 p.m. Saturday.
“They’re always going to be good and ready to play,” Grizzlies third-year head coach Chris Ratzloff said of Mason City. “With a new coaching staff it might be a little different, but in they past they’ve always liked to be an offensive team and come out with guns blazing.
“We have to take care of the puck, be responsible defensively and focus on our game more than what they do.”
Forwards Cole Gibson and Justin Wright, and defensemen Jameson Folden and Mason Thingvold are the only current Grizzlies who played in the championship game last spring. Rochester goalie Zach Wiese was dressed that day, but didn’t play. Defenseman Blake Arneson also played that day, but he was called up this week to the Minot Minotauros of the North American Hockey League.
Even if they don’t say it often, their coach suspects this weekend’s series has a little added meaning for them.
“I think games like this always mean more,” the coach said. “It does for me and it does for (the players).”
The Toros are off to a 3-1-0 start to the season under first-year head coach Nick Bruneteau, an Omaha native who played at Shattuck St. Mary’s in Faribault before a four-year Division I college career at the University of Vermont.
Five current Toros were on the ice against the Grizzlies in the league title game in April: Forwards Sota Isogai, Jack Campion, Carter Newpower and Shota Kaneko, and defenseman Brendan Sloth. Newpower scored an empty-net goal with less than two minutes to play to seal the title-game victory against Rochester.
“Even from (my) first year, when we played them in a four-game (regular season) series and split with them,” Ratzloff said, “we’ve played exhibition games against them last year that were (intense). It’s a rivalry whether we’re in the same division, or it’s an exhibition game or the national championship game.”
After this weekend’s games, the Grizzlies and Toros are scheduled to meet just twice more during the regular season. They’ll play in Rochester on Friday, Dec. 10, at 7:05 p.m. and in Mason City on Sunday, Dec. 12, at 7 p.m.
“They’re right down the road from us,” Ratzloff said. “They’ve been the best team in the league for a long time and there’s always going to be a little something extra to it.
“Guys are going to be ready to play against them.”