Hockey: Alexandria Blizzard win NA3HL West Division finals for the first time ever
The Blizzard made history on Saturday as with their 3-2 over the Granite City Lumberjacks, they won the NA3HL West Division Finals for the first time and are set to make their first appearance in the Fraser Cup Championship Tournament from March 22-26, 2023, in Missouri.
ALEXANDRIA - 11 years ago, the Alexandria Blizzard NAHL team (Tier II) relocated to Brookings, South Dakota, to become the Brookings Blizzard and then later became the St. Cloud Norsemen.
When that team left Alexandria, there was still interest in keeping a Tier III junior hockey team in town, so the new Alexandria Blizzard team was established by owners Chris and Mantri Canavati (who also own the St. Cloud Norsemen), at the NA3HL level, starting in the 2012-13 season.
And for 10 seasons, Alexandria was one of the top teams in the West Division but didn't push through to the Fraser Cup Championship Tournament thanks to teams like the Granite City Lumberjacks winning the west division finals.
But with a 4-2 win on Friday and a 3-2 win at home on Saturday at the Runestone Community Center, the Blizzard swept the Lumberjacks (series is best two out of three) and captured its first-ever West Division title and is headed to the Fraser Cup Championship Tournament in Missouri.
"It's been quite the transition," Alexandria Blizzard head coach Jeff Crouse said. "It's tough to get out of this division with teams like Granite City and Mason City. They've had their runs, and we've been right there at times. It's super tough, but this is super rewarding. It's been quite a process. It's been a lot of fun, and obviously, super happy to finally get that."
Granite City and Mason City have combined to win six out of the last 10 Fraser Cup Championships, most recently with Mason City (then called the North Iowa Bulls) winning it in 2021.
Jeff Crouse has been the head coach of the Blizzard since the start of the organization's reboot in 2012, and he was an assistant coach for the old Blizzard team for three seasons before they relocated.
He, assistant coach Jon Crouse and the rest of the Blizzard staff worked through some ups and downs to get to this division finals win.
"There's been a lot of rocky times, and we've lost a lot of tough games," Jon Crouse said. "We've lost some tough series. But that's all in the past now. It's all worth it because we got a nice team here. They wanted it bad, and they got it. They deserve every bit of it."
"We were young last year, we had a lot of carryovers, and I knew we had a good squad from the get-go," Jeff Crouse said. "We preached, 'let's contend to win the division in the regular season.' That was a goal, and we came close. We were right there for a while. The big thing was we made some key acquisitions at the trade deadline and added some pieces to the puzzle. Then, I think everybody said, 'we got a really good team here, and we can do this.' So it was perseverance for the guys returning last year, coming into this year, and then adding some key pieces."
In Saturday's game, Alexandria struck first with a forward Matt McIntyre goal seven and a half minutes into the first period.
It didn't take the Blizzard long to get heated up in the second period as forward Joe Gronholz scored two minutes into the period, and forward Ryan Hadland scored three minutes later to put the Blizzard up 3-0.
"We were on a mission to get pucks deep," Hadland said. "It was electric in the building, and that energy helped our motor."
The Lumberjacks scored once at the end of the second period and once late in the third period, but the Blizzard made the plays needed to seal to win.
"It was unbelievable," Hadland said about the team's series-clinching win. "We've been saying since the first game this year that we want out here and win the division. It was the 'quest for the west,' and we got it done."
"Honestly, I just kind of blacked out a bit," Gronholz said when asked about the feeling he had once the team won the division finals. "I don't remember much, to be honest, but it's a great feeling."
Gronholz is a former standout for the Alexandria boys high school hockey team and grew up going to Blizzard games.
"I've been watching the Blizzard my entire life," Gronholz said. "They've been around for a while, and I went to a lot of games growing up."
Alexandria had a 33-31 shot on goal advantage. Konrad Kausch earned the win in net for Alexandria and made 29 saves.
Most players on the Blizzard roster have only been on the team for one or two seasons.
But there are a few players, defender Wyatt Johnson and forwards Sean Kenny and Cole Klingbeil.
"In the last two years haven't been that great as far as our standards go, so it's nice that those guys got to battle through and see the success here at the end of their careers," Jon Crouse said.
Before this postseason, the last time Alexandria made the division finals was in 2019, when they were swept by the North Iowa Bulls.
The furthest that the old Alexandria Blizzard team made it in the postseason was to the 2008 Robertson Cup Round Robin, where they were eliminated after going 0-3 in that championship tournament.
Alexandria came into the 2023 playoffs as the No. 2 seed and defeated the No. 3 seed Mason City, 2-1, in a best-of-three series in the division semifinals.
Granite City, who is co-head coached by DJ Vold and former Alexandria Blizzard head coach (2005-09) Brad Willner, was the top seed in the West Division playoffs with a 39-6-2 record, while Alexandria had a 32-13-3 regular season record.
The other four division champions in the Fraser Cup Championship Tournament are the Oregon Tradesmen (Central Division), Helena Bighorns (Frontier Division), Northeast Generals (East Division), and the Texas Brahmas (South Division).
Granite City has made the tournament as a wild card team.
The Fraser Cup Championship Tournament runs from Wednesday, March 22, 2023, to Sunday, March 26, 2023, in St. Peters, Missouri, and starts with a two-game round-robin format (two pools of three teams) followed by a semifinal round and a championship game.
Alexandria is in pool A with Texas and Granite City.
Alexandria plays Texas at 4 p.m. in the St. Peters Rec-Plex on Wednesday. Alexandria beat Texas 7-2 at the NA3HL Showcase on Dec. 18, 2023.
"We just want to play our game; that's the big thing," Jeff Crouse said. "Obviously, we know Granite City well and have a win over Texas, but they've added some pieces. Every game is going to be hard-fought, and I like our depth, and I like where we're at with everything. We're going to go down there and play Blizzard hockey, and at the end of the day, our overall goal is to win the Fraser Cup."
Alexandria then plays Granite City on Thursday at 4 p.m.
The top two teams from each pool make the semifinal round, where they'll face a team from the other pool (#1 in Pool A vs. #2 in Pool B, #1 Pool B vs. #2 Pool A).
The No. 1 team from Pool A plays the No. 2 team from Pool B on Saturday at 4 p.m., while the No. 2 team from Pool A plays the No. 1 team from Pool A at 7 p.m.
The Fraser Cup Championship Game is set for Sunday at 3 p.m.
Alexandria has outscored its opponents 20-11 in the playoffs so far. Gronholz, Kenny, and forward Hayden DeMars are tied for the lead in player points on the team in the playoffs with six. Kenny has five goals and one assist, while Gronholz has three goals and three assists, and DeMars has one goal and five assists.