Two years ago, Northstar Christian Academy hockey director Rick Randazzo was cautious about how the new prep hockey team would fit into the Alexandria community.
After 92 wins and division promotion, the Knights' future looks bright.
The NCA turned heads in the North American Prospects Hockey league last year with a 41-10-6 record in its inaugural season. This time around, the Knights went 51-6-1 to cement themselves as a program that's here to stay.
"If you would've told me that we would have 51 wins in under 60 games, I don't know if I would've believed you," Randazzo said. "It was tremendous to see the growth in our players from the model that we have. Focus, preparation and working with every player to get better, and every player got better."
The NCA had another successful season, but a second-place finish in the Dixon Cup, the NAPHL’s playoff series, on Feb. 14-16, left the Knights with something to be desired. AAA Meijer beat the Knights 2-0 in the final game of the tournament in Detroit, Mich.
"We lost to an excellent team that has been around for many years," Randazzo said. They are well-established. We felt like we played a strong game, even though it was our sixth game of the weekend. We were down 4-2 in the semifinals with five minutes left and won 5-4. We were so proud of the guys."
After a promotion to the NAPHL's Tier I Division, the NCA had new expectations this winter. Moving up to the highest division came with the perk of North American Hockey League teams signing Tier I players to junior hockey tenders.
"One thing that challenged us this year was getting our players to continue to trust the process," assistant coach Tim Jackman said. "Some of the players that got tendered later in the season were wondering why they weren’t getting offers or why they weren't getting looks. The point we wanted to make was to trust in what we are doing, and that's getting better every single day."
NAHL teams capitalized on the success the Knights had over the last two seasons. The NCA had nine players sign tenders with junior hockey programs around the country, the most of any team in the NAPHL.
"We still have two or three guys who are looking to sign tenders," Randazzo said. "It's been an unbelievable season on and off the ice. We had 18 players with a 3.5 or higher GPA. From a success standpoint, I couldn't have asked for anything more this year."
Season comes to abrupt end
While the Knights thrived during their 51-win season, they missed out on four more games. Nearly every sport was hit with the effects of the COVID-19 virus, and the NCA was not immune. The Knights were set for two more weekend series to play against the Sioux Falls Power and Shattuck St. Mary's.
"Shattuck told us that they were sending their players home, so our final home weekend was out of our control," Randazzo said. "Our Sioux Falls weekend we tried to take it day-by-day, but we heard that at least one person in Sioux Falls had the virus and may or may not have gone to school with one of the players. We thought it was better to be safe."
The Knights didn't get a chance to send off their seniors in front of the hometown fans. However, they realized that there are some things bigger than sports.
"We believe that the leadership at Northstar made the right decision in the end," Jackman said. "The word we were using was 'Preventative.' While we tried to take care of all the things we needed to, there were still some things we felt like we needed closure. Before we all went our separate ways, we had the chance to spend some time together and cling to our faith. It was a time where our team and families all came together."
Next season, the NCA will bring in a U16 team to the program. Despite the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Randazzo is confident that recruiting a team will go on with few setbacks.
"We've had a great start to recruiting," Randazzo said. "We've had about 20 players visit for the U16 team visit and another 20 for the older team. We had two weekends coming in April, where we were going to have 37 players come in and skate, that we are probably going to have to cancel. Those are prospects for that U16 team. We've scouted events around the country and have a good idea of who those players are. If we can't get them here, we'll do it the old way."
More to come
Randazzo related their method of recruiting to a famous saying from legendary hockey coach Herb Brooks. He's not looking for the best players, but instead, the right ones.
"We want to find guys that want to buy in and where we can mold them and grow them," Randazzo said. "When we started this program, we took whatever player we could get. Now, we have not tens, but hundreds of players contacting us trying to play for this team. We have recruits coming from all across the country… A lot of our success is from our excellent coaching staff. We have professional-level coaches that have been so great for this program, and kids want to play for them."
The Knights are looking forward to their first full season as an NAPHL Tier I team next year, but they won't forget about the group that paved the way for the program.
"Looking back two years ago, I think people were unsure of how we would fit in the community," Randazzo said. "I'd like to think that we've exceeded expectations. Of our 13 seniors, 11 of them are two-year guys. I told them that they are irreplaceable. They will go down as the guys that set the standard of excellence of what it means to be a Knight."