Hockey: Strong thankful for his chance to play for the Blizzard during pandemic
Caleb Strong has played in some of Alexandria's biggest hockey moments.
He was part of the 2017-18 Cardinals team that made it to the state championship as a sophomore. He suited up for the Blizzard's first playoff series win over top-seeded Granite City during his junior year. After his second stint with the Blizzard was cut short last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he's looking to make up for lost time, even if it's not where he expected to be.
In March, Strong signed a tender agreement to play for the Minnesota Wilderness in the North American Hockey League, meaning if he was good enough to play in the NAHL, his road led to Cloquet. When it came time to prove himself at the tryout camp, Strong realized that the junior hockey landscape was going to be different this year.
"There were quite a few guys that played in Canada the year before or played in other leagues that were trying to play in the NAHL," Strong said. "With all the COVID stuff, there were just more kids there. Even the high school numbers were up with the uncertainty of there not being a season. It was a really competitive camp, and I thought I played really well."
The junior hockey trickle-down effect is hitting leagues across North America. The pandemic has caused multiple NA3HL, NAHL, and the United States Hockey League teams to close their doors. The players on those teams need somewhere to go, and with a lot of them being Division I prospects, the bubble kids got hit the hardest.
"It was always in the back of my mind," Strong said. "A tender isn't a guarantee; it's a chance to try out. I knew if it didn't work out, I could always come back and play for the Blizzard. That's just how it ended up working out for me this year."
Strong leads the Blizzard in all scoring categories with six goals and seven assists in 11 games played. Last year, he finished with 30 points in only 19 games. He plays on the Blizzard's top line while also quarterbacking the power-play unit.
"I try to go out there and do my part," Strong said. "One player can't do it all in this game. The points my teammates or I put up can't happen without the help of the other guys. There's a lot of things I've been focusing on this year to be a complete player. That includes being solid on defense, making the right pass and backchecking hard. Those parts of the game are just as important as scoring a goal or making an assist."
The Blizzard are only allowed to play divisional games this season. The Breezy Point North Stars opted out of this season, leaving just five teams. With players filing down from higher-tier leagues and fewer roster spots to fill, the competition in the NA3HL has never been better.
"This all started in the USHL with some of those teams folding," Strong said. "The American kids that were trying to play in the (British Columbia Hockey League) couldn't travel, so they trickled down. A lot of kids that were going to play in the NAHL got cut. All of those kids are playing in the NA3HL, which makes it more competitive and more fun."
Strong understands that not every player is as fortunate as he is with having a familiar team to fall back on during a pandemic.
"It's huge for me to have this as an option," Strong said. "I wasn't worried about if I was going to play hockey or not, and that's more than a lot of players can say. This team has been good to me over the years and has always pushed me to get to the next level. They're still doing that today. I'm thankful to have Jeff, Jon (Crouse) and (Mitri) Canavati with me in my hockey career."
Currently, the Blizzard season is on ice following the latest statewide shutdown. Strong doesn't know when they'll be back, but he is anxiously waiting for the call.
"I think we're trying to stay in shape and be ready to come back whenever they let us," Strong said. "(Head coach Jeff Crouse) said that we could get the call in four days, four weeks or anytime in between. There's just a lot unknown right now that we can't control."
The Blizzard are sitting in third place in the West with a record of 5-5-1-0.
"We're feeling good," Strong said. "We had a few tough losses to Willmar, but we are competing with Granite City and North Iowa, who are good every year. They're not just the top teams in the division. They're some of the top teams in the league."
Without knowing the pandemic's lasting impacts, it's hard to know where Strong's talents can take him. However, the goal is still to make it to the collegiate level.
"Obviously, every player in this league wants to make it to the NAHL," Strong said. "That's my goal. That's going to give me the best opportunity at playing Division I or finding a good Division III school. Right now, my focus is on this year. I want to be the best player and the best teammate I can be for this team."