Blizzard hockey: Alexandria's home opener is FridayAlexandria will take on Owatonna at 7:30 p.m. at the RCC
By: Eric Morken, Alexandria Echo Press
The Alexandria Blizzard will open its home schedule on Friday night with a lot of confidence in the players that will take the ice.
The Blizzard is fresh off winning a franchise record 30 games and a divisional playoff series last year. With six regular contributors returning from that team and a host of young talent, the organization has its sights set on bigger and better things this season.
“Absolutely,” head coach Doc DelCastillo said when asked if this team can compete for a Central Division title. “I think it’s a team that we’d be selling ourselves short if we don’t set our sights on a national championship. That’s what we want to accomplish. That’s our goal this year and to get that done, the division championship and the playoff championship are stepping stones to get to that national championship and win it.”
The returning talent on the roster has a lot to do with that that optimism. Nardo Nagtzaam, Steve Zierke and Alex Altenbernd are all back after finishing as three of the top four scorers on this team a year ago. Michael Pieper, Mike Krieg and Tyler Swanson bring a lot of experience back on defense, as well.
“They’re not just returning guys, these guys were major contributors to our team last year,” DelCastillo said. “I have three forwards who had over about 50 points last year, three defensemen who played quite a bit, so they are six players who were integral players on our team. That’s huge. You’re not just saying they’re returning players, you’re saying these are six guys that we leaned on last year and they’re ready for the next challenge.”
Those returning players give this team a lot of scoring punch. Nagtzaam was the sixth leading scorer in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) with 61 points between his time with the Blizzard and the Alaska Avalanche. The three returning forwards for Alexandria combined to account for 157 points between them.
Nagtzaam has gotten off to a torrid start this season. Through six games, he has 14 points on six goals and eight assists. He stood out in the NAHL Showcase Tournament from September 15-18 when he collected five goals and six assists to take home Player of the Week honors for the Central Division. Nagtzaam is one of the top scorers in the league, but he knows it will take more than just him for the Blizzard to get where it wants to go this season.
“I just try to do my best every day and do everything I can for this franchise,” he said. “If I keep doing this and work hard and be prepared for every game, I think we can go really far this year…but it’s not about one guy scoring goals. It’s about the whole team. I couldn’t do it without the guys around me. One game maybe I score, but like last game (a 3-1 win over Bismarck), Zierke had two goals. So whoever scores, it doesn’t matter. It’s about the team.”
It’s that team concept that DelCastillo said he looks for in players every time he recruits them to Alexandria. All of the players in the NAHL want to showcase their talent to college coaches and get Division I scholarship offers. That would make it easy for them to look out for themselves on the ice.
DelCastillo said he doesn’t bring a player to Alexandria unless he wants to win hockey games. The guys on this team understand that personal recognition doesn’t come without team success.
“It’s really important cause if your team’s not winning, you’re not going to get scouts to come watch the game,” Zierke said. “It is kind of individual in the long run, but during the season, it’s about the team. The better the team does, then the better you’re doing individually.”
So far, so good for the Blizzard. Alexandria has gotten off to a better start this season at 3-2-1 than last year when it finished second in the Central Division behind NAHL champion Bismarck.
DelCastillo feels he has the tools to work with again this year. A host of talented newcomers, including Alexandria’s Thomas Williams, gives this team a lot of athleticism on the ice.
“It’s hard to say right now,” DelCastillo said when asked how this group compares to last year’s team. “I think our overall skill and our depth are better than last year, but come second half of the season last year, we were a really, really good team. We won a lot of hockey games from Christmas on. The key to that is how hard they’re willing to work and how they’re going to come together as a team.”
Those are things that take time as newcomers get adjusted to the junior hockey level. DelCastillo believes the talent is there to improve on last year’s success. If that talent can come together, it could translate into a special season for the Blizzard.
“We like our team,” DelCastillo said. “We like the veteran leadership that came back, so their leadership is helping us. We really like our core of young players coming in. It will take them a while to get to the point where they’re consistently contributing, but I think with the veteran leadership to carry us right now and with the young players, when we really hit stride, we’re going to be a pretty good team.”