By Jim den Hollander / USPHL.com
While the USPHL’s Premier Midwest-West Division traditionally sees multiple changes from week to week in the standings, four teams – Minnesota Blue Ox; Minnesota Moose; Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings and Hudson Havoc – have finished as the division’s top four and first round playoff hosts for each of the past four seasons.
The four teams that have had to travel for first round matchups have cut the margin each season as parity steadily takes over in the division, most notably the Steele County Blades who have improved each season and missed out on a top four spot by just two points in 2021-22.
Every team goes through turnover each season and there has been a little more movement this past year with new coaches and/or management on four teams, and one whole new franchise as well.
Order is 2021-22 Points
Minnesota Blue Ox
The Blue Ox have shown an improvement in each of the past four seasons and were the class of the division last year, winning all but seven of 44 contests.
“Last year’s record-breaking year of 43-8-1 (including playoffs) for the Ox will be a hard season to top,” said Head Coach/GM Jay Witta who has been the team’s only Head Coach since it joined the USPHL in 2017-18. “Even though we fell short of the National Championship, finishing in the top eight, we advanced 12 players to a higher level of hockey at the College and Junior level, which is a great achievement.”
Introductions will be in order on the first day of the pre-season though as this team looks to once again lead the Midwest West this season.
“We have 20 new faces and five returning players coming back this season,” summed up the coach.
Returners for the Blue Ox are ‘02 defenseman and captain Griffin Bourassa, ‘02’s Marc Abrego and Zach LaMotte and ‘03’s Nate Cheney and goaltender Eli Marchese. Witta also named seven additional players with junior hockey experience – ‘02 Jared Petty, ‘03’s Dylan Smith, Preston Cloutier, Rylee Luebbers, and ‘04’s Mike Abrego, Noah Scherff and Arseniy Malyutin.
Additionally, Swedish imports Elias Johansson, an ‘02 goaltender, and ‘03 defenseman Jacob Ullsten, will make their debut.
Meanwhile, a group of 11 rookies will be looking to jump in at a high level, led by Minnesota High School state champion Tommy Babb from Andover, Minn. The list also includes ‘03’s Dylan Hender, Chase Mann, Karl Grafelman, Brendan Shaner and ‘04’s Gavin Gordon, Joseph Rosenberg, HArrison Foss, Jack Wallace, Gabe Myers and goaltender Justin Garstecki.
“The five returners will all play pivotal roles in our success this season, said Witta, “With Captain Griffin Bourassa leading the charge, all seven players coming in with junior experience will give us the depth we will need to grind through the seven-month season,” said Witta. “We hope to repeat as Midwest-West Champions. Every night should be a battle, which is what we want in order to climb that mountain towards the end of the season to make another run at our third straight national tournament appearance.”
This weekend, the Blue Ox face both the Blades and the Minnesota Mullets on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
Wisconsin Rapids Riverkings
The Riverkings will see an entirely new lineup and a change at the top with Paul Pechmann stepping in as the team’s Head Coach and General Manager after previously coaching an ACHA Division 2 team at Elon University in North Carolina.
“I am excited about our roster,” said Pechmann. “We are a diverse group, which is intentional. Our roster is entirely new and comprised of big heavy guys that can play the physical game plus adding in the shiftier speedster guys, which gives us good balance.
“Plus, there is plenty of international experience at high level juniors worldwide that I expect to lead by example,” Pechmann said. “I really like the depth of our roster and can’t wait to see our guys battle every night.”
The team is almost entirely new from top to bottom, but ‘04 Ian Tumm and ‘03 Bora Yildrim is a terrific start. Both have strong resumes in prep school and, for Yildrim, international competition.
“Defensively, I am looking forward to seeing Kyle Cupolo (‘03) excel and be a workhorse for us along with Cameron Gardiner (‘04). I am also excited to see the growth of James Deubel (‘04) and Matysse Maville (‘03), of Angers, France, all led by the leadership and experience of John Leppert (‘02).”
On the offensive side, several newcomers will see growth including ‘02’s Willi Tricario and Matt LaJoie, ‘03 Reese Mills and ‘04’s Owen Atkins and Cain Russell, the latter two from Canada and Great Britain, respectively.
“I expect [these forwards] to give us what we need to win every night. I’m excited because of what I feel is tremendous depth in our lineup,” said Pechmann. “I am looking forward to working with every player and helping them develop into an integral piece of our roster.”
Pechmann is new to the division but knows the storied history of this competitive group.
“This is a tough division,” said the coach. “Always has been, regardless of the teams that have come and gone. Coaching in this league for 10 years on the East Coast and knowing of the teams in the Midwest but having little experience coaching against them, you just don’t know how you match up yet.”
On Friday, Sept. 30, the Riverkings begin their 2022-23 season against the Dells Ducks.
The Havoc have been consistently near the top of the division in recent seasons and this year, there is a new man at the helm trying to keep the squad there.
Jake Howie played his own junior hockey at the Tier III and Tier II levels from 2011-15, then moved on to play at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wis., for four seasons followed by parts of three seasons at the minor pro level. The young head coach is pumped about stepping behind the bench in Hudson.
“[I am] really excited for this group of guys,” said Howie. “We have a strong group coming back from a team that made a trip to Nationals last year and have also added a few guys that I think can really help us make that next step.
“We have a fast group and that is how I want the team to play. A very up-tempo heavy forecheck where we give teams little time and space with the puck,” he added. “I think our biggest strength as a team is just the experience of the group. The team has a lot of junior hockey games played and I think that can only help not only early in the season but as the season progresses.”
The Havoc will be one of the leaders in returning players. They are led by returning All-Star forward Patrick Noonan, as well as fellow ‘02’s Harout Tarousian and Cooper Anderson up front. In the back, defensemen Brock Hart, Evan Izenstark and Blake Stanton will set the tone defensively.
“We have a lot of guys coming back and honestly, I expect all of them to have a really good season and grow from last year,” said Howie.
The newcomers are also very exciting for the new coach.
“For us, guys like ‘02’s Jacob Jakusz, Adam Brzezicki and Jack Kerich bring junior experience and should be able to jump right in and make a huge impact,” said Howie. “Rookie-wise, I’m excited at what Paul Cassin in net and Jack Noonan at forward can bring to the lineup. Both come from strong 18U programs and should be able to make good contributions at the junior level.
“I think the Midwest-West brings a lot of good competition and is a battle every night. You have to bring your ‘A’ game or you probably won’t be coming out of the game with a win,” said Howie. “ I think the Minnesota Squatch are in a great position to jump right into this division and maybe shock some people. We played them in the preseason and they have a solid group with a beautiful facility so I think they make a great addition to the division.”
The Havoc open their 2022-23 season on Oct. 8 against the Dells Ducks.
Head Coach Jon Jonasson has played a big part in the Moose being among the division front-runners in recent seasons and he has a good feeling about this season’s squad.
“As a staff, we spent this off-season assembling a roster that competes in every situation,” said Coach Jonasson, who starts against the Minnesota Squatch on Saturday. “We expect our team this year to be very fast and play a high-paced offensive game while being a physical threat for 200 feet.”
“Compared to our 2021-22 season, we have a much older and more veteran team this season. Since our first week [of preseason practice] has started we have already witnessed a more composed and mature team than we have had in the past few seasons,” said Jonasson. “We believe the culture this year will be much stronger than year’s past.
Among the key returners for the Moose this season will be a trio of ‘02’s: All-Star defenseman and team captain Logan Lake, and fellow ‘02 defenseman David Anderson and John Ratajczyk.
The returners will get help from new Moose players including forward/defense Teodor Benno Vaage, an ‘02 from Norway with USPHL Premier experience, as well as ‘02 Mikel Cobo (of Mexcico), ‘03’s John Becker and Thomas Dalsin, both Minnesotans, and ‘04’s Jaden Aguilera and ‘04 goaltender Finn Wilson.
While the roster is promising, Jonasson is aware his team will be in tough in the highly competitive Midwest West division.
“Per usual, we don’t expect a single night off in the Midwest West Division,” said Jonasson. “Since the Moose have been in the USPHL Premier, the Midwest West has been one of the strongest divisions in the league. For us, we love the competitiveness every night.
“We know as a program we get the best out of every team each night,” he added. “The level of play in the Midwest West Division is the reason so many players play NCAA D3 and have success after playing in the division.”
Steele County Blades
Blades Head Coach Nick Adamek did a masterful job in recent seasons improving his squad from a team that missed the postseason in 2018-19 to a solid 48-point season in 2021-22, missing a top four spot by two points.
He has his work cut out for him with a big turnover in the off-season, but he is confident his troops can get the job done again this season. They start on Friday against the Minnesota Blue Ox.
“We are a young team that is hungry to prove ourselves in this division,” said Adamek. “We will play with speed and relentless energy.
“Last season, we returned 17 players. This year, we have five returners,” said Adamek, who said there is a way that could be seen as a positive. “We have way more opportunities for players to come in and define their own role as opposed to last year’s group.”
The key will be the play of the returners, though, said the coach and they are eager to take the reins.
“We have five starters, all of which spent the summer improving their own game in hopes of helping our team elevate ours,” said Adamek.
Adamek left no stone unturned in searching out players for his team which will be the United Nations team in the Midwest-West.
“We have a highly optimistic group coming in from all over the globe,” said the coach. “By far the most international flair we’ve ever had. We have players from Czechia, Hungary, Australia, South Korea, Russia, Belarus and Canada (and of course the USA). All are ready to bring it every night.”
It’s never easy in the Midwest West though and while he is confident, Adamek knows his team will have to be ready for every game.
“We know we can’t take a night off in our ever-competitive division. We are excited to show our brand of hockey to the teams in Minnesota and Wisconsin. We know if we can prove our worth here night after night we can compete with anyone in the league.”
Head Coach Chris Walby consistently has the Mullets battling in the mid-to-upper portion of the division and he expects to have a young but competitive team playing in the Twin Cities once again.
“I’m excited about the group we’ve put together,” said Walby. “We sent 12 players on to college from this past season, so we needed to recruit basically a whole new team. We have several new talented players that I anticipate will develop into top end guys in our league, but it’s going to be a process to get there.
“Fortunately, I’ve been able to spend some time with most of the new guys this off-season and feel like we have a solid head start on things already,” said Walby. “We are going to be strong in net with solid goaltending and we’re going to focus on our own end first and let our systems take care of the offensive end and the neutral zone.”
With the move up by so many this season, Coach Walby said the opportunity will be there for both returners and newcomers to take the reins.
“I anticipate our goaltending will give us a chance to win each game as it has in years past,” said Walby. “Goaltender Alex Falkenhagen (an ‘02 from Markham, Ont.) has been lights out for us the last two years. He returns for his third season here with a ton of experience and a very sound group of goalies backing him up.
“I anticipate big seasons from ‘02’s Jack Erspamer, Brent Scott, Tyler Ortega and Ethan Saldanha, ‘03 Austin Poole and ‘05 Tarin Perez, in terms of leadership and point production,” added Walby.
Newcomers that could make their presence felt include forwards ‘03 Jack Eckholm and ‘04’s Cooper Hollon and Jimmy Lindblom, Minnesotans all, as well as ‘03’s Ryan Wruble and Ben Wilcoxson.
Walby is confident those players can help the team remain competitive, but it is admittedly a tough task in this division.
“I think the whole division is going to be deep in talent again,” said Walby. “This division gets deeper each season in terms of talent, team play and our games are great.
“As a group, this division sends several guys on to the NCAA and to the top ACHA programs each year,” he added. “I predict those numbers will continue to grow and I know the people putting these teams together have done an excellent job this off-season recruiting. In the end, I think we’ll have a tight race from top to bottom and I believe our ‘Mullies’ will be in the mix and ready come playoff time to ‘surprise’ some people.”
The Mullets begin the season on Saturday against the Minnesota Blue Ox, and they also play Steele County on Sunday.
The Outlaws head into the season with several new faces, as well as a new name for the former Rum River Mallards. One face familiar to junior hockey fans in Minnesota and Wisconsin is Don Babineau, who steps in as the team’s Head Coach.
Babineau is a veteran junior coach and familiar with this group of teams dating back to the pre-USPHL era. He is looking forward to leading the Outlaws into the competitive Midwest West Division.
“I believe we will be very competitive this season, with some returning veterans along with many players with junior experience who will shape up our roster,” said Babineau. “We will play a fast, skilled 200-foot game. I believe we have players at all positions that will contribute not only for a winning season but most definitely in the improvement daily on and off the ice and be in the top three in our division. I think that is a realistic goal.
“I think experience is key. We have a decent number of players that have a year under their belts which will obviously help. The returners are excited for some changes to the structure of our program,” Babineau added. “I think they really want to win this season and that’s always a good early sign. I honestly think they know we have a good hockey team which makes them more engaged on our team mission along with their personal goals.”
The team’s name and the Head Coach are new, but among the key returners are: Easton Parnell (‘03), a Cambridge, Minn.-born forward who scored 13 goals and collected 39 points last season to lead the team in scoring. Right behind him was Big Lake’s Tyler Schmidt (‘03) right behind Parnell with 11 goals and 36 points. Keanu McClanahan (‘05) is looking to step up after a 19-game debut last season with three goals and seven points.
Among the newcomers are Minnesotan forwards Andrew Aljets and Peyton Andrews (both ‘04’s from Cambridge) and goaltender Robert Bymers (‘03/Alexandria), who already has a year of college hockey under his belt.
The Outlaws make their debut in their new identity on the same night the Minnesota Squatch made their full debut – Friday night in Elk River.
Former Dells Ducks player and assistant coach Anthony Rohde will make his head coaching debut this season. He expects a full experienced roster will help the team make a big turnaround this season.
“I think our team this season is very strong at every position and has a winning attitude,” said Rohde. “Also, I think we have an adaptable playing style because of the variety of players we have. The biggest difference between this year’s team and last season’s team is our depth that I see so far.”
There are some key returners who put in their time on a struggling squad and are now ready to put up some W’s. Among them are second-year captain ‘02 Bryce Jacobsen (a native of Deforest, Wis)) at center, ‘05 defenseman Jack Kopfstein and ‘02 utility player Adam Brown, returning for his fifth season of junior and third with the Ducks, who start the season on Sept. 30 against Wisconsin Rapids.
Among the team’s newcomers that could play a key role this season are forward Jacob Behnke, an ‘03 who moves up to the Premier after a big season with the Islanders Hockey Club Elite team in New England last season, and defensemen Reece Atkins (‘03/Amery, Wis.) and Canadian import Jaxson Armstrong (‘05).
While Rohde believes the team can rebound from some tough recent seasons, progress is hard to come by in this division.
“I think this year the division will be strong as usual,” said Rohde. “I am looking forward to seeing what the Blue Ox can do after a good run at Nationals last season.”
Chic Pojar has delivered junior hockey to Elk River, Minn., and a ninth team to the competitive Midwest West Division.
Pojar brings a great resume having played at the pro level, but with an expansion team, it is difficult to know where his group stands before they take the ice in real games.
“We are an expansion team so our entire roster is new players,” said Pojar. “We will be a young team as we have only three ’02 birth years. We have some really skilled forwards and our goaltending will be solid.
“We want to have a fantastic game day experience for both our fans and visiting teams.”
The team may be young and inexperienced but with Pojar and Jason Wood as an assistant having slid over from the Blue Ox, this team could provide a challenge for the other eight squads quickly.
But it’s a tough assignment in a tough division.
“The Midwest West has been a strong division over the past few years,” said Pojar. “We should be competitive all year and plan to make a push come playoff time.
As aforementioned, the Squatch start playing this Friday against the Isanti Outlaws in their debut at home.