Ethan Noonan and Luke McKinch were the new guys last year.
The talented but young defensemen joined the Rochester Grizzlies as 17-year-olds, hoping to help the second-year North American 3 Hockey League franchise build on a successful first season.
They did that, helping the Grizzlies win 37 games and their first NA3HL Central Division championship. Their goal of reaching and winning the Fraser Cup -- the league’s championship series -- was taken out of their grasp in March when the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt to the league’s postseason.
“When you have a chance at winning it all -- and we had the team to do it last year…,” McKinch said. “I think we have the team to do it again this year. The boys are ready to go here and get into the season.”
Noonan and McKinch have been back on the Rochester Recreation Center ice for a week, and this time they’re no longer the new guys. In fact, though they’re both just 18 years old (McKinch turns 19 in three weeks), they are the only old guys among the Grizzlies’ defensive corps.
Rochester has approximately 30 players in fall camp, preparing for the start of the season on Oct. 2. Of the eight or nine defensemen on the roster right now, McKinch and Noonan are the only players with any junior hockey experience.
“We’re just trying to bring the boys close together, make sure we’re jelling and that we’re a tight group and communicating well so we get everything done and are ready for the season,” said Noonan, a Northbrook, Illinois, native who turned 18 a month after last season ended. “We want to start where we left off last year as the Central Division champs.”
The Grizzlies had a veteran group of blue-liners last season, led by Michael Heitkamp, Noel Parker, Rochester Lourdes graduate Logan Olson and Eden Prairie native Clayton Shultz.
Heitkamp (University of Wisconsin-Stout) and Parker (St. Olaf College) have advanced to play college hockey, while Olson and Shultz decided to move on to college and not play hockey.
That leaves Noonan and McKinch as guys who’ll need to step up both on the ice and as leaders off the ice. Though they were the young guys in the group last season, they both saw as much ice time as the veterans.
Noonan played in 44 of Rochester’s 47 games, scoring four goals and adding 13 assists. He was also among the team leaders in plus/minus rating (plus-36) and, at just 5-feet-6, penalty minutes per game (1.20).
McKinch played in 43 games, had two goals and 15 points, and a plus-29 rating during what was his senior year of high school. He had excelled at Sheboygan (Wis.) High the previous three seasons, recording 36 goals and 72 points in 76 career games.
“Those veteran guys are huge for us right now,” Grizzlies coach Chris Ratzloff said. “With so many new guys, I told all (the veterans) the same thing: Take a couple of the new guys under your wing and teach them how we do things around here, so when we’re doing drills we don’t have to keep explaining things. And make sure you’re asking guys if they have questions, help them out with our systems.
“Obviously we want to move guys on every year, but having guys back is really important to keep the culture the way it is and to keep building on what we started and what (former head coach) Casey Mignone started here.”
McKinch and Noonan are embracing that leadership role.
“It’s a huge adjustment for the guys coming from high school to junior hockey,” Noonan said. “The best thing we can do is just help them learn. We’re here as resources for them. It’s the same position we were in last year, when the older guys were teaching us.
“Now it’s our turn to take the reins and do our job.”