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Hockey: Blizzard ready for Showcase challenges

For the sixth consecutive season, the North American Hockey League will begin its year by putting its players on a stage where scouts from every level of college and professional hockey can get an up-close look at the type of talent that makes the NAHL one of the premier junior A hockey leagues in the nation.

This year, a number of those eyes will be focusing in on Alexandria, a team that used last year's NAHL Showcase to start 1-3 and the better part of the season's first month to bury itself in obscurity, only to turn in one of the more memorable second half runs in league history that didn't end until the Robertson Cup finals.

Now, a year later, the Blizzard has a different purpose when it comes to the NAHL Showcase, which begins September 17 and runs through September 20 at the Schwan's Super Rink in Blaine, and it's one that centers on trying to live up to the standard the team set in last year's dramatic turn-around.

"We have potential to be a great team," said goaltender Ryan Leets. "The Showcase will be a test to measure where we are at and where we need to be."

They should have a good idea. Alexandria opens by playing Alaska at 6:30 p.m. September 17, and then Wichita Falls at 7 p.m. September 18.

But after that, the Blizzard face the United State National Developmental Team at 8 p.m. September 19 before turning around to play two-time defending Robertson Cup champion St. Louis at 12:15 p.m. the following day.

"They are all big games," said head coach/general manager Brad Willner. "When the showcase schedule came out I received a few phone calls from players who are very excited about the challenge.  They know if they play well they will earn opportunities past the NAHL."

That, in essence, is the Showcase's backbone. Seasons aren't defined by what happens there - Alexandria proved that last year - but for the players, there is no better opportunity to get noticed all year long.

The scouts pick which games they want to watch, and with the year Alexandria had last winter coupled with the profile of some of their opponents, it's obvious the Blizzard have turned into a must-see for college coaches.

"I think schools realize now that we have a great organization and are definitely contenders after last season's run," said forward Jerry Freismuth. "Since we are playing very good teams it will give our team a chance to play in front of a lot of scouts, so we are excited for the showcase to start up."

More significantly, the four-game stint is also an opportunity for the Blizzard coaching staff to see who is ready to go, though the challenge of keeping the players' minds off the watchful eyes in the stands and on the task at hand is of equal importance.

"Since all the Division-I and Division-III colleges are there, players sometimes try to play too individual and I stress the importance that if the team does well all the players will look great for the colleges," Willner said. "They all need to buy into that philosophy to have success."