A phrase commonly heard in sports is” peaking at the right time.” The Alexandria Blizzard was doing just that, which left this group disappointed that it could not see how things played out during the postseason.
Due to the spread of COVID-19, the NA3HL canceled the remainder of its season one day before the start of the West Division playoffs. The Blizzard wrapped up the fourth seed by going 8-0-2 in the final 10 games of the regular season.
“It’s unfortunate, and it’s out of our control,” assistant coach Jon Crouse said. “There were really no other options other than this. They’re disappointed because they were excited to go to North Iowa and play in the playoffs because we’d been playing so well.”
When the news broke on the night of March 12 about the suspension of the NBA season, Blizzard players took notice. After a regular practice the following morning, Alexandria captain Brandon Connett received news from a friend in the hockey community.
“I have a buddy that plays for the Lincoln Stars in the United States Hockey League, and he called me and said their season paused,” Connett said. “I’m thinking that we are all part of USA Hockey, so it’s only a matter of time.”
The coaching staff initially informed the players that there wasn’t going to be a playoff series against top-seeded North Iowa. However, they told them not to lose hope that there would be hockey left to play. The following morning, the Blizzard showed up at the Runestone Community Center for another practice, which ended up being the last one of the season.
“There are teams that wouldn’t have ice time through the middle of the month,” Jon Crouse said. “You could even look at a team like New Ulm in our division. They wouldn’t have ice past March, and it would be a logistical nightmare to figure out where teams are going to play.”
Alexandria finished with a final record of 24-18-4-1. Last year, Alexandria upset top-seeded Granite City in the first round to win its first postseason series in franchise history in the NA3HL. This year, they were looking for the same kind of magic.
"We felt like we really could've done some damage in the playoffs," Connett said. "When we got Ryan Mohrmann on this team, he came in and helped out a lot. It wasn't just him, because it's a team thing, but his winning-mentality to go along with the veterans really pushed us."
Connett leaves after big year
While he may not care how many times he put the puck in the net, Connett did it a lot this season. With his 39 goals, he tied the franchise record for goals in a single regular season.
"I was here to win, and I want the team to score. But when you get that close to something and you don't get it, it kind of sucks," Connett said. "I had chances down the stretch of the season to get one more. All I needed was one more bounce or one more game, and I would've had it. The sad reality is that I won't get that chance anymore. But looking back on the season, we did a lot of great things, and I don't dwell on it."
Fans will remember Connett for what he did in a Blizzard jersey, but others will think of what he did away from the team. After two years of volunteering with youth hockey teams, the Alexandria Area Youth Hockey Association honored him at their banquet this spring.
"He's going to be missed in more ways than just hockey," Jon Crouse said. "He has those intangible assets that you want in every player on your team."
Connett believed in paying back to the hockey community as others did for him growing up.
"When I was young, I remember the high school players and guys at the next level coming to skate with me," Connett said. "I looked up to them so much… I wanted to set an example for future Blizzard players to come that they look up to us. To them, we are like pro hockey players. Any chance I could, I got on the ice with them, and it was a blast."
Connett will move on to the University of Wisconsin-Stout to play at the Division III level, and the Blizzard will wait and see if another critical piece to the program finds a new home. Goaltender Ville Hyttinen has another year of junior hockey eligibility left but isn't sure if it'll be in Alexandria.
"Ville can come back, but he has some opportunities professionally in Finland he might pursue," Jon Crouse said. "We want to help him get to the next level, but the door isn't completely closed on that yet."
From the start of the season, the Blizzard's main challenge was trying to replace a large group of guys that left from the year before. After putting one of the youngest teams in franchise history on the ice to start the season, Alexandria is looking forward to having a big group of experienced players back next season.
"We have a lot of kids that can come back, but a lot of them want to move on to a higher league," Jon Crouse said. "If they do come back, it'll be nice to have a veteran-laden lineup to start the season."
For the players who are moving on from Alexandria, they will have fond memories of playing in front of the Blizzard fans.
"It was an absolute honor and the greatest two years of hockey in my entire life," Connett said. "Playing here was extremely special… I think it'd be hard to find a Blizzard alumni that wouldn't want to throw on the Blizzard sweater one last time."