WOODRIDGE, Ill. – As the 2018-19 season draws to a close, the North Iowa Bulls are in Chicagoland looking to finish in first place in the NA3HL for a fourth time. In many ways, it’s a week of “lasts” for the Bulls as well.
The last games of the season – up to four and no fewer than two.
The last time on a bus this season.
The last time with roommates in the team hotel.
And, of course, the very last practice.
Wednesday marked the end of the Bulls’ practice schedule, and the final practice for no fewer than eight North Iowa players with college commitments or North American Hockey League tenders in hand. The stories are different for each man on the ice, but the goal is the same: a Fraser Cup national championship.
“It was kind of sad,” said third-year Bulls forward Brendan Studioso. “It was my last practice here, but I’m excited to get going for the Fraser Cup.”
Studioso is the only man back from North Iowa’s last appearance in the tournament in 2017. With more than 140 regular season and playoff games under his belt, he is the most experienced player in a Bulls uniform. A Cup, however, would be his first as he heads off to Arizona State to join the Sun Devils’ ACHA Division I program next season.
“I’m super excited for the games,” said Studioso. “Everybody’s been preparing this last week and the whole season for this, so I think we should be ready to go.”
Jimmy McDermott is the other third-year NA3HL veteran on the team, but has never been this deep in the postseason before. The Dubuque, Iowa native played for the Wisconsin Whalers each of the previous two seasons, finishing third in the Central Division standings both years. Neither team made it past La Crosse in the division semifinals. This will be his last shot at a title before heading off to St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota next year.
“It’s pretty awesome,” said McDermott. “Until this year I’d never been out of the first round, so to be able to be here and compete for a title, I’m excited. It’s why I came to North Iowa.”
North Iowa Bulls head coach Todd Sanden has seen more than 70 of his players commit to college programs in his eight years in Mason City, with several dozen more moving on to other teams before making their college choices. More than 30 Bulls have played in the North American Hockey League, with seven former Bulls making it to the NCAA Division I ranks. It’s likely several more will make commitments following this week’s run at the Fraser Cup.
Those goals – moving players on to higher levels of the sport and competing in the national tournament – are the yearly mission for Sanden and his Bulls squads. However, McDermott knows the job will not be done until the squad leaves the ice for the final time this season – hopefully, with a Fraser Cup in hand.
“You work hard all year, but you play for a championship,” said McDermott. “A West Division crown is great, but we’ve got four more wins before it’s complete here. Hopefully we can find our stride here and get the job done.”
Studioso was on the squad that was eliminated two years ago in pool play, the last of a run of five straight seasons at the tournament. Last year’s team was knocked out in the Central Division finals by eventual Fraser Cup semifinalist La Crosse.
“My first year, I got a taste of what it was like to make it to the end, and last year we didn’t get a chance to make it to the end,” said Studioso. “This year I’m ready to go, and I think all of the boys should be good to go. We’re as focused as we can be. I think during the playoffs we’ve been getting better and better as we’ve gone on, especially Game 3 against Rochester. If we’re able to build on everything we’ve done in the playoffs we should have a very successful run here.”
North Iowa faces the Lewiston/Auburn Nordiques on Thursday afternoon and the Helena Bighorns the following day. The two squads came to the tournament after winning division titles in the Coastal and Frontier Divisions. The two teams played Wednesday afternoon to open the tournament, playing to a 5-1 decision in the Nordiques’ favor.
Both of North Iowa’s games in pool play at the Fraser Cup national championship tournament are set to begin at 4 p.m., with exclusive live streaming coverage on HockeyTV.