In 2019, the fourth-seeded Alexandria Blizzard upset the Granite City Lumberjacks to win its first NA3HL playoff series. A year later, they were excited to get that same opportunity against North Iowa until the COVID-19 virus ended the postseason before it started. Now, the Blizzard is anxious to get back on the ice with a veteran group.
"We're hungrier than ever," third-year forward Dallas Duckson said. "We ended the season last year with a 10-game unbeaten streak. We were hot going into the playoffs, and it felt like people were worried about playing us. Hopefully, we can keep that same mentality coming in. I know there's a lot of vets this year that will be just as hungry."
Alexandria finished last season on an 8-0-2-0 run out of the West Division. After starting the season slow, the Blizzard found its stride at the right time of the year.
"I think it's important to note that last year was one of the youngest teams I've ever had," head coach Jeff Crouse said. "By the end of the year, I had 21 kids that could come back and play. Many of them are playing this year again, and I think their experience will help us build chemistry early. Having a line back like Cole Jacobs, Austin McNeil and Nolan Westra is big for us. They were playing so well at the end of last year."
While Couse welcomed back many impact players on last year's team, the presence of two guys, in particular, will be missed. Goaltender Ville Hyttinen and forward Michal Trejbal are stuck overseas during the pandemic.
"Those guys obviously played big parts for us last year," Crouse said. "Ville is playing professionally in Finland, and Michal is playing pro hockey in the Czech Republic. We'll miss them for sure, but we have some guys that came down from the (NAHL) that will fill in nicely for us."
The makeup of the Blizzard is a lot of guys who have been-there-done-that. Duckson doesn't think it's going to be hard finding leadership in the locker room.
"There's a lot of veteran players that have been a part of this core for a long time," Duckson said. "The rookies have a lot of leaders on this team, and I think that will play a big role in our success this year having that leadership on the front and back ends and in net for us."
One forward that isn't new to junior hockey's pace will be playing his first full season this winter. Caleb Strong spent the last four years on the Alexandria Cardinal's top line while playing for the Blizzard in between seasons. In 19 games, he had 10 goals and 20 assists last year and will look to make a similar impact in a more prominent role.
"He tendered with the Minnesota Wilderness, but there's a huge trickle-down effect right now in junior hockey," Crouse said. "There are teams at all levels that had to fold this year, and no players are going up to Canada because of COVID-19. There's just a lot of players getting caught in that trickle-down effect, and Caleb is one of them. But the flip side is that Caleb wants to play hockey. He's a very good hockey player and kind of a hometown hero. We're glad to have him."
With more junior hockey kids staying in the states for the 2020-21 season, the competition the Blizzard will face is bound to be even better. Not to mention, the West Division is down to five teams after the Breezy Point North Stars folded over the summer.
"It's just going to make our division better, and our division is already good as it is," Crouse said. "Everybody is picking up players. I actually have too many players right now, which is a good problem to have...I think our depth is so good right now that it's hard to tell the difference from the top and the bottom."
As a third-year player, even Duckson feels the pressure to perform in practice.
"Nothing is given to us just because we've been around here for two or three years," Duckson said. "We're all out here, whether it's a rookie or a vet, trying to earn a spot."
Another familiar face for Alexandria fans will be in goal. Bailey Rosch was predominantly a backup last year but is now competing for the starting spot in his second season with the Blizzard.
"Bailey has been incredible in practice so far, and is looking like the guy we signed him to be at the beginning of last year," Crouse said. "I also traded for Joey Greilich, a goalie that played in Milwaukee last year. I like having competition in net because I think it's only going to make them better."
The veterans on this team are ready to lead the newcomers looking to add depth.
"I think they fit in really well so far," Duckson said. "The first couple of weeks in my rookie year was a big adjustment on and off the ice. We always want to show them the ropes and challenge them in practice because it's going to make our team better."
Alexandria travels to North Iowa on Friday for its season opener before going to New Ulm on Saturday. It's a chance for the returning guys to prove they had what it took to knock off the top seed from a year earlier.
"It's been eight months since I've played a competitive hockey game," Duckson said. "I'm ready to get out there. It's not the same playing in a scrimmage against your teammates. I just want that good, intense hockey that I'm used to playing with these guys."