Robertson Cup-bound Anchorage hockey team has southeastern Minnesota feel to it
Rochester native Mike Aikens has guided the Anchorage Wolverines to the North American Hockey League's Robertson Cup, the league's final four tournament, in the franchise's first year of existence. He's done it with some names familiar to southeastern Minnesota hockey fans: Albert Lea's Campbell Cichosz, a Minnesota State commit, and former Rochester Grizzlies Collin Pederson (an Owatonna native) and Shane Soderwall.
A year ago, Campbell Cichosz wasn’t sure where his hockey career was headed.
He had just helped the North Iowa Bulls win a North American 3 Hockey League championship and he was working — on and off the ice — to find a home in the North American Hockey League for the 2021-22 season.
Cichosz says “luck” intervened, but his skill and ability as a hockey player had a lot to do with the next step he was able to take — landing with the first-year NAHL franchise in Anchorage, coached by Rochester native and former Rochester Grizzlies assistant coach Mike Aikens.
“I think last year, in the NA3HL, it was a good development spot for me,” said Cichosz, an Albert Lea native. “I had shoulder surgery my senior year of high school, but coach (Todd) Sanden gave me a spot in North Iowa to come in and play. It was nice to know I had a place to go where I was going to be able to play.
“This year, I kind of got lucky. I was skating with ‘Aiks’ in the summer and (Anchorage) had its tryout camp coming up. He said ‘hey, show up if you want to, we need some older guys.’”
Cichosz not only showed up, he earned his spot on the Wolverines roster and has been in their top-four defensemen all season. His standout play on both ends of the ice landed him a Division I college offer at Minnesota State University, Mankato — the team that spent much of the 2021-22 season being ranked No. 1 in the country — which he accepted in mid-December.
But before Cichosz becomes a Maverick, he and his Wolverines teammates — including former Rochester Grizzlies players Collin Pederson (an Owatonna native) and Shane Soderwall — have a couple more boxes they hope to check.
The Wolverines (39-20-8) open play in the NAHL’s championship tournament, the Robertson Cup, at 4:30 p.m. today. They’ll face the St. Cloud Norsemen (47-19-3) in Game 1 of a best-of-3 national semifinal series at Fogarty Arena in Blaine.
The New Jersey Titans (47-19-3) and New Mexico Ice Wolves (44-21-5) meet in the other semifinal series. Game 2 of each of those series is set for Saturday, with the if-necessary Game 3s on Sunday.
The winners of those semifinal series will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the national championship game.
“We owe our success to our systems,” said Pederson, an Owatonna native. “We’ve trusted the process and trusted what our coaches have put in front of us. We’ve been playing our game, the way we’ve practiced all season.”
Cichosz, who will head to Minnesota State in the fall, has six goals and 28 assists in 59 total games this season. He leads the team in penalty minutes (117) and is fifth in power-play points (12). That’s a big jump from a year ago, when he was rarely put on the ice during power plays.
“Sometimes it feels a bit surreal, honestly,” Cichosz said of making the jump from the NA3HL to the NAHL to, in the fall, Division I hockey. “I owe it all to my coaching staff and teammates. They push me to be better every day.
“A lot of it is, ‘Aiks’ is a great defensive hockey mind. He knows what it takes to get here. It’s a lot due to him and our coaching staff. They’ve helped me gain a lot of confidence.”
Cichosz said he has enjoyed having Aikens as a coach, and having Pederson and Soderwall (who is 12-13-1 with an .891 save percentage this season, while sharing the net with Raythan Robbins) as teammates. Last year, Cichosz and North Iowa beat Aikens, Pederson, Soderwall and the Grizzlies in the NA3HL championship game.
“Campbell is awesome, a big leader for us,” Pederson said. “He’s not afraid to use his voice. He keeps guys in the game.”
Pederson’s role has changed, too. He averaged nearly a point per game for the Grizzlies last season. This year, he has embraced the idea of not getting scored upon, of playing sound defense first.
“I’m kind of expected to be the responsible guy, to not get scored on, to get the puck out and play the right way,” said Pederson, who has 17 points in 63 games. “It’s actually led to a lot of offense. I’ve always kind of been on the more responsible side, but I just want to do everything right and make plays when I can, keep it simple.”
All four of Anchorage’s southeastern Minnesota connections said it has been helpful to them this spring to know what it’s like to go on a deep playoff run.
“We harp on just keeping pucks 200 feet from our net, forcing the other defensemen to make plays under pressure. That’s a hard thing to do,” Cichosz said. “We play heavy, we play the body a lot and we’ve been super opportunistic. When we get our chances, they’ve been going in for us. Hopefully that keeps rolling.”
3 Grizzlies in Top Prospects Tournament
Three Rochester Grizzlies will play on the NA3HL team at the NAHL 18U Top Prospects Tournament this weekend at Fogarty Arena in Blaine, in conjunction with the Robertson Cup.
Forwards Layten Liffrig and Adam Johnson, and defenseman Logan Schwartzhoff, will play in the six-team 18U event that is designed to give some talented players another opportunity to play in front of college and junior hockey scouts.
Each of the six teams will play in four games — three in round-robin play, followed by championship and consolation games.
Liffrig, a forward and former Mankato East standout, had 19 goals and 44 points in 32 games for the Grizzlies this season, helping them win the NA3HL championship, the Fraser Cup, for the first time.
Johnson, a forward from Mahtomedi, scored 17 goals and had 51 points in 40 games with the Grizzlies in 2021-22. He was called up to the NAHL twice during the season — once by the Minnesota Magicians and again by the Minot (N.D.) Minotauros.
Schwarthoff, a hard-to-play-against 6-foot-3, 215-pound defenseman from Woodbury, was a reliable blue-liner for the Grizzlies. He played in 47 games, recorded two goals and five points, and a plus-19 plus/minus rating.