Blizzard hockey: Crouse ready for new era in Tier III
Alexandria native Jeff Crouse had options after the Alexandria Blizzard made the decision to move its Tier II team to Brookings: Move to South Dakota or stay in Alexandria to help establish the Tier III team that will be coming to town for its inaugural season this September.
In the end, Crouse's personal ties to the area and the Blizzard's belief that he was the best man to get this team up and running led to him being named the new head coach for Alexandria's Tier III team.
Crouse started his coaching career by leading the Bantam A team in Alexandria years ago. In the years since, he has been an assistant for the Jefferson High School team and the original Minnesota Blizzard. His experience in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) extends to three years as an assistant with the North Iowa Outlaws and one year as the head coach before serving as the assistant to Doc DelCastillo with the Blizzard for the past three seasons.
Crouse is already in the process of putting together a team that will take the ice at the Runestone Community Center this fall. I sat down with him last Thursday to discuss how that's going, along with a number of other things about the move to Tier III in Alexandria.
Q: First of all, how excited were you to get this opportunity to be the head coach and get this team up and running?
A: I'm really excited. There were more positive things for me to stay in Alexandria. I decided to stay here and get the 3HL team up and running. I'm very excited. I've gotten great feedback from players around the area, around the state, around the country, so I'm just very excited to be a head coach again, especially in Alexandria.
Q: How will your experience in the NAHL help you in getting this team ready for its inaugural season?
A: That was one of the main reasons that they wanted to keep me here was to get this 3HL team running. I've been in the league for 10 years, so I know how everything works. I know the players and the recruiting. I've done all that for North Iowa and Alexandria, so as far as that goes, we're not going to miss a beat as far as getting players here.
Q: What do you want fans to know about the team that's coming to Alexandria?
A: The big thing is there are still some people here who think we're leaving. I've been going around town and there's people who say, 'Oh, you're going to Brookings?' No, we're bringing a team here...There's also some people who are saying the level of hockey isn't going to be as good. It is a step down, but I plan on having a very good team. There's going to be players playing on my team that should be playing in the Tier II league.
Q: Where are you in the process of putting together a roster?
A: I've already signed a couple tenders. We get tenders just like the Tier II team does. I've signed a couple players already. Our draft is June 5 for the 3HL...We're also going to be directly affiliated with the Brookings Blizzard team. Their tryout camps are going to be in Alexandria here, so I'm going to be able to get a look at the players from there, and I'm going to have a camp here myself, so the recruiting process has already started.
Q: How much of a challenge is it going to be putting together this first roster on an expansion team?
A:It's going to be a little tougher, especially because the 3HL is pay to play, where as Tier II is not pay to play. You have to make sure you know who you're recruiting and know who you're watching. The kids have to be willing to pay, but there's kids out there who are willing to do that.
The biggest thing is we had a good reputation here with the Alexandria Blizzard, the Tier II team. Kids know that I've been coaching in the league for 10 years. They know we did well here with the Blizzard...There are some challenges, but like I said, with our reputation and people knowing who I am, the feedback has been great so far as kids wanting to come here and play.
Q: What are the chances of some Alexandria kids, some kids with local ties, playing on this team next year?
A:We had six of the Cardinal players up at Duluth at our camp a couple weeks ago. One, obviously Garrett Skinner, is looking to make Brookings. I've kind of already committed to him that if he wants to play here in Alexandria that he can if he doesn't make a Tier II team.
I can't actively recruit and take the high school kids from town here [who still play for the Cardinals]. They have to stay in high school, but they can play before the season and after the season with me. I've already talked to a couple, three, four kids about that.
Q:What kind of success do you expect in your first season?
A: I'm expecting right away as an organization, we're going to win right away. That's going to be the plan, and also our main goal is to move kids on. Our goal is to get kids to the Tier II level and even the Tier I level in the [United States Hockey League]. We need to develop players. We want to win and win championships, but we're here to develop players and move players on to the next level.
Q: You watch a team like Minot struggle so badly in its expansion season in the NAHL. What makes you so confident that you'll be able to win right away with this team?
A:The big thing is I've been in the North American League for 10 years now, and the Tier III guys like Granite City and North Iowa, all these guys come to my tryout camps to get my players. Basically what you're doing is going to try to get these players who are right on the bubble to making the Tier II league, to have them playing in Tier III.
I've been coaching for a while now. I know how to develop. I know how to play, so I'm not too worried about the on-ice stuff. I'm more worried about getting good players and the right players here.
Q: Have you gotten a sense that the fans who supported the Tier II team are willing to come out and support this change to a Tier III level of play?
A: I think they will, once they see the level of play, Like I said, I watched Granite City and North Iowa play. Yeah, you don't have your star players, your [former Blizzard 90-point scorer] Nardo Nagtzaam. You're not going to have those kinds of guys, but you're going to have our guys who are hungry and want to play hockey and want to get to that next level. Once people come out and watch, they're going to realize it's good hockey and they're going to want to come back.
Eric Morken Eric Morken started as a sports reporter for the Echo Press on July 9, 2007. He is a graduate of Augustana College in Sioux Falls where he majored in journalism and minored in history and communications. In his spare time, Morken enjoys hunting and fishing or just being in the outdoors. He is also an avid Minnesota sports fan. Follow Sports Reporter Eric Morken on Twitter at @echo_sports. Read Eric's sports blog, More with Morken at Areavoices.