MASON CITY, Iowa – With a 41-win season but without an appearance in the NA3HL Fraser Cup national championship tournament, there were certainly some major goals left on the table at the end of the North Iowa Bulls’ 2017-18 season.
Don’t get to thinking the entire season was lost simply because of a couple of losses in the Central Division finals to a superb La Crosse Freeze team, though.
During the team’s seventh season in Mason City, the team won its 300th game (as did head coach Todd Sanden), ran up a 34-game stretch without a regulation loss, and won its sixth straight regular-season division championship. The longest winning streak of the year was a 13-game run heading into the new calendar year, and the Bulls were able to win nine straight entering the division finals. In fact, the two losses to La Crosse were the only things separating the Bulls from their sixth straight appearance in Chicago.
That 34-game point streak came to an end January 13, with a 2-0 loss to the Freeze. La Crosse goalie Will Graves was masterful in that game, earning his second shutout win over North Iowa in as many years. Up to that point, the Bulls had been able to rack up a 28-0-2-2 mark for the season (plus two more wins to close out the previous season). Graves would score a couple more wins over North Iowa on the way to a semifinal appearance at the Fraser Cup tournament.
“We had a great team and a great group of kids,” said Sanden. “In the La Crosse series, their best players really rose to the occasion. Their goaltender was better than we’d seen him all year long, and their leading scorer (Clayton Lackey) was in every game in a big way.”
One of the defining qualities of the 2017-18 campaign was, indeed, North Iowa’s goaltending – first-year Bull Colin Cain etched his name into the team record books with 27 wins, tying him for the third-best wins mark in NA3HL history along the way. He enters the month of April in the process of finalizing a commitment to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.
“Colin probably had the edge (heading into the playoffs),” said Sanden. “He was here all year. They are great kids, very motivated, very dedicated, and came to the rink and worked their butts off every day.”
Connor Poczos joined the Bulls from the North American Hockey League’s Minnesota Wilderness, and Tyler Hawk came to town from the Pittsburgh Vengeance, just prior to the roster deadline in early February. All three got a chance to test their mettle in the playoffs, with Poczos and Hawk earning first-round wins against the Wausau RiverWolves.
2017-18 turned out to be one of the best seasons in team history in terms of college and NAHL advancement. Entering the month of April, nine current and former Bulls had made college commitments. Most of those nine will be playing NCAA Division III hockey next year – former Bulls goalie Josh Benson landed an NCAA Division I spot for next season at Sacred Heart University.
Current Bulls defenseman Jaxon Jones earned an appointment to the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York – he will play for the Academy’s ACHA Division II team next year, but will be offered the chance to try out for the school’s NCAA Division I squad.
Four players have also signed tenders for next season with NAHL teams, nearly half of the league’s total haul heading into the Fraser Cup tournament. Three others played for both the Bulls and an NAHL team this past season.
Third-year defenseman and team captain Shane Bernhardson was able to turn that longevity into an NCAA Division III commitment to Concordia-Moorhead, but also into a few records of his own. The Apple Valley, Minnesota native broke the team records for single-season assists, career helpers, and career plus/minus rating by a North Iowa defenseman.
His 121 regular-season games ranks second in franchise history. Four North Iowa players hit the 100-point milestone for their careers this past season (include postseason points and Brendan Studioso also earns a spot on that list).
There were a few milestones in the wrong ways, though – the Jan. 13 loss to La Crosse was the first home shutout loss in team history, snapping a streak of 157 home contests with at least one Bulls goal on the scoreboard. The loss to the Freeze to open the division finals was the franchise’s first on home ice in the postseason, and La Crosse became the first team ever to sweep North Iowa out of a playoff series the following night.
The process of building the team for 2018-19 now begins in earnest, and it begins quickly – the NA3HL Draft is barely two weeks away on April 18, and the main Bulls tryout camp for the upcoming season will be held May 11 and 12 in Andover, Minnesota.
“We have the opportunity to return 13 or 14 guys,” said Sanden. “A lot of kids have opportunities at the next level. It could be a very familiar group, but with the amount of kids that have opportunities at the next level, you could see a lot of new faces as well.”
North Iowa packed the home building again this season, drawing a league-best 910 fans per game and just sneaking past the 20,000 mark for the season. It’s the seventh consecutive season that the Bulls have been the NA3HL’s highest-drawing team at the gate.
In September, the three-time national champion North Iowa Bulls begin their eighth season as a member club in the NA3HL. Season tickets are on sale now, with a 10-percent discount available for season ticket accounts that are paid in full by the end of April. For more information, click here. For team news and updates throughout the offseason, visit NorthIowaBulls.com or follow the team’s social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter.