After having the longest postseason run in franchise history, the Alexandria Blizzard is looking to go even further in the 2019-20 season.
With the first week of practice underway, the Blizzard has made a good impression on head coach Jeff Crouse.
“I was pretty happy, for the most part, about how the guys came into practice this week in shape,” Crouse said. “It’s tough to find ice around and to stay in hockey shape. I was impressed with the work ethic. This week is about getting the legs and hands back and being able to think on the ice.”
Alexandria was eliminated in the second round of the NA3HL Central Division playoffs last year. North Iowa swept the best-of-three series and advanced to the Frazier Cup Playoffs. The bitter taste of losing is something that’s stuck with forward Brandon Connett throughout the summer.
“It’s been in my mind the entire offseason. It’s all I’ve been thinking about,” Connett said. “It’s been pushing me and all the other returners to come back and get back at it for the regular season and another playoff push.”
Connett is part of a core group of players returning for their second season in Alexandria. Carter Rieland, Cole Lehman, Val Popowski and Ike Taraszewski all played big minutes last winter and look to do more of the same this time around. However, they’ll have big shoes to fill as the Blizzard lost their top two point-getters from last year.
“Losing guys like Brett (Meister) and (Dylan) Giorgio is tough. They were big pieces of our team,” Connett said. “It’s going to hurt on and off the ice. I think they taught a lot of us, the first-years last season, what to do and how to take on the season. It’s something we’ll do for the first-year guys this season.”
The Blizzard is waiting on the potential return from a key player from last year. Goaltender Ville Hyttinen was released from the St. Cloud Blizzard out of the NAHL and is thinking about coming back to Alexandria, Crouse said.
The head coach believes Hyttinen could be a great addition to the three goalies he already has.
“We aren’t sure what’s going on with Ville yet,” Crouse said. “He might be coming back, or he might not. After he got let go from St. Cloud he was thinking about maybe coming back here in the next few days.”
Alexandria has three new faces between the pipes. Bailey Rosch graduated from AAHS last spring and is looking to make an impact coming off of a minor knee surgery three weeks ago. Crouse also traded for the right to Anoka graduate Nathan Hadley. Brandon Keeney is the fourth member of a group that looks to stop a lot of pucks this season.
“I have good, young talent in net,” Crouse said. “I like where we are at and I like the work ethic. Bailey skated a little on Tuesday. I have some bigger kids and they want to get better. They’re young and they’re willing to put the work in.”
Throughout the first week of practice, Crouse leans on the guys who have been here before.
“I rely a lot on the vets this time of year,” Crouse said. “There’s so much going on right now and they pick up on the stuff I miss. There’s good leadership, especially with guys like Connor Busse, Brandon Connett, Derek Dropik and all of those guys. Those guys know how I work and what this community is like. They will step up and show the way to the new guys.”
During the early part of the year, a handful of members from the Alexandria Area High School team will play for the Blizzard. It’s an opportunity for them to not only prepare for the season ahead but for the level of play after their high school careers are finished.
“We want to provide an opportunity for local kids to be the best hockey players they can be,” Crouse said. “Jack Westlund made the (Minot Minotauros) and I think the Alexandria Blizzard had something to do with that. Stepping up and playing against older kids and a higher level of competition is huge for development. If there’s local Alexandria high school hockey talent that wants to continue to play at a high level, the Blizzard wants to help them.”
The NA3HL is a long season, but every point matters. Avoiding the same lethargic start from last year is a priority for the Blizzard.
“We got off to a really slow start last year,” Connett said. “That could’ve been the difference in North Iowa coming to Alexandria for two games instead of us going there. The big thing for us is getting going early. We want those extra 8-to-10 points that we didn’t have last year.”
The Blizzard will play its first game on September 20 in Granite City. On October 11, Alexandria hosts its first game of the season against the Lumberjacks.
“Oh man, I am pumped to be back here. We feel really good. Everyone is getting along really well so far and the guys coming in are really good kids,” Connett said. “We are having a blast. We knew who a lot of the new guys were before they came in. Hockey is a small world. I’m excited to be with these guys this year.”