Alexandria’s own Truett Olson and Jakob Stender were fresh off a Class A state runner-up finish in the boys state high school hockey tournament. However, that was the last game they would play in a Cardinals uniform.

Olson and Stender took a leap of faith and decided to join the budding Northstar Christan Academy hockey team for the remainder of their high school careers in the fall of 2018-19. The two would be the first local players on a team filled with talent from around the country.

“One of the biggest changes was the amount of ice time and coaching we get day in and day out,” Stender said. “We skate twice a day and are constantly with our coaches. I feel like that’s one of the things for me is I always have them on my back pushing me to be better.”

In the two seasons that Olson and Stender played for the NCA, the Knights won 91 games and earned a promotion to the National American Prep Hockey League Tier I Division. The move opened up the ability for players to sign tender agreements with National American Hockey League teams at the junior level.

Stender tenders

As year two came to a close, nine Knights signed agreements to play junior hockey next season. Brody Lucas (Minnesota Wilderness), Nate Albers (Chippewa Steel), Tyler Ryder (Chippewa Falls), Talon Sigurdson (Amarillo Bulls), Jens Richards (Austin Bruins), Ben Oakland (Austin Bruins), Ben Strinden (Minot Minotauros), Luke Anderson (Minnesota Wilderness) and Stender, who tendered with the Aberdeen Wings.

“We have two more players who turned down tenders to return next season,” NCA hockey director Rick Randazzo said. “We have a verbal tender for another player that we haven’t signed the paper with yet. We also have three kids who haven’t tendered that were selected to play on the top prospects team. That’s pretty much our whole team getting opportunities.”

When Stender decided that the 2017-18 state championship game would be his last for Alexandria, he was only a freshman. A senior teammate of his played his final game in a Cardinals’ jersey before heading to Aberdeen.

Defenseman Jack Powell has played 64 games for the Wings over the last two years before he moves on to Division I Bemidji State University. While there, he helped Stender realize that Aberdeen was a good fit for another Alexandria resident.

“It was a slow process,” Stender said. “I think I got my tender offer from them in January. I asked them if I could have some time to talk things over with coaches and family… I talked to (Powell) quite a bit, and he said that it’s a great place to be and that he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else for junior hockey. That’s when I knew Aberdeen was the place for me.”

Stender got a taste of what the NAHL will be like next season. He played two games for the Wings this year and came away with reassurance in his decision.

“It was fun. It was almost like Northstar where the guys all love each other and love playing there,” Stender said. “There wasn’t drama between anyone, and they all worked so hard. It was a great atmosphere. The coaches push you hard and get the best out of you. That’s what I was looking for in a team. Hopefully, I get to play there next year.”

Even though he has another year of NAPHL eligibility left, Stender plans to skip his senior season, attend Aberdeen’s training camp and earn a spot on the roster.

“That’s been the plan since last year,” Stender said. “I was planning on leaving my senior year, and it worked out. It’s going to be tough leaving Northstar, but I’m ready to go out into the world and show them what I’m made of.”

Stender started as a forward for the NCA before the coaching staff transitioned him to a defensive role.

“He became one of our top defensemen, which is pretty neat to see,” Assistant coach Tim Jackman said. “He’s super athletic and gifted. He’s got the tenacity to his game, and he continued to get better. He came in with a blue-collar work ethic and didn’t complain about the rigorous schedule at Northstar. We saw growth and maturity in the way he carries himself. He’s a gentleman off the ice but an absolute warrior on the ice.”

Alexandria's Truett Olson looks for the pass on the sidewall during the Northstar Christian Academy's 5-0 win over Team STX at the Northstar Sports Complex. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)
Alexandria's Truett Olson looks for the pass on the sidewall during the Northstar Christian Academy's 5-0 win over Team STX at the Northstar Sports Complex. (Jared Rubado / Echo Press)

Olson selected to top prospects team

Unlike Stender, Olson doesn’t have the ability to play another year at the NCA. However, he earned a spot in the NAPHL top prospects tournament.

The senior forward joined Chad Cousineau, Camdyn Barber, and Lucas as one of the four Knights who were scheduled to play during the Robertson Cup, the NAHL championship, in Blaine on May 10-14. Due to the COVID-19 virus, the NAHL canceled the showcase.

“It’s a chance for the best players available, and some who are already tendered, to play in front of junior hockey teams,” Randazzo said. “Those four guys were incredible, and we were hoping they would still have the game, but we are still hoping for the best for them.”

Taking the opportunity to play for the Knights two years ago wasn’t an easy one for Olson, but he believes it was the right one for him.

“It was something I had to think about for a long time,” Olson said. “I grew up playing with the guys in Alexandria and left for a first-year program. I really didn’t know what to expect. It took me a couple of months to figure out what I wanted to do. The coach kept calling me, and that made me think that he actually wanted me to play for them. At the end of the day, I just had to do what’s best for myself.”

Olson isn’t sure where he’s going to play hockey next year yet, but his coaches know what skillset he brings to the table.

“He’s a force around the net,” Jackman said. “It comes back to the way that he trains. He’s a hard-nosed kid. To see the transformation was special. The thing that I’m most proud of is how he’s transformed into a man. He speaks and plays with confidence. When he came in, it took him over 20 games to score his first goal. He didn’t have the confidence to play in the (NAHL) then, and I know he does now.”

Olson and Stender helped set the standard for success in the NCA. For Olson, he believes the legacy that he and his teammates left behind is what made the last two years special.

“It’s going to be hard to replace the guys that are leaving this year,” Olson said. “The first-year guys this year are going to have to be the leaders for the new guys coming in. It means a lot for us, the guys graduating, that we could lead these younger guys and have the success that we had. I can honestly say that I have no regrets about coming to Northstar.”