(photo credit: Fairbanks Ice Dogs)
FAIRBANKS, Alaska – In the Bulls’ six-plus-year history in the North American Tier 3 Hockey League, six Bulls have gotten the call to the Division I ranks. Some spent just days in a North Iowa uniform. The latest alumnus to reach Division I, Kohei Sato, spent two full years with the Bulls and started a third season in Mason City before moving up to the NAHL with the Northeast Generals.
Todd Sanden may be about to add to that list as the reigning NAHL Goaltender of the Month heads to the Tier II league’s Top Prospects showcase in Plymouth, Michigan. Fairbanks Ice Dogs goalie Josh Benson was one of seven former NA3HL players to be named to the NAHL’s showcase earlier this month.
“He’s brought his game to a completely different level,” said Fairbanks head coach Trevor Stewart. “He’s more fit. He’s more confident. He obviously knows the league a bit more, and for him to come back in the shape and the mental capacity that he’s in right now, it’s been a real blessing for us.”
Benson departed North Iowa after a nearly-perfect seven-game run with the Bulls to start his junior career. His record was perfect, with seven wins in as many appearances. In those seven games, he allowed only a goal-and-a-half per night and stopped more than 94 percent of the shots that came his way.
“Coach Sanden traded him to us around Christmastime last year,” said Stewart. “We were in a bad place – I think we were 11 games below .500. He came in and we finished nine games above .500.”
The move to Alaska gave Stewart a sturdy second option in net alongside Holy Cross commit Erik Gordon, and propelled the Ice Dogs to a second-place finish in the NAHL’s Midwest Division. This year, with the Stillwater, Minnesota native as the Ice Dogs’ number-one netminder, the Ice Dogs will head to March as the league’s top team, and winners of 23 games in a row.
“I’ve been fielding some calls from college coaches (on Benson),” said Stewart. “It’s just a matter of time. Goaltending is a delicate position to commit to as a college coach, but there’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that he’s going to get an opportunity at the Division I level.”
Benson will briefly reunite with his former coaches this week, as Sanden and assistant coach Kevin Murdock make the trip to Plymouth, where both the NAHL and NA3HL will hold their Top Prospects events. Seven current Bulls players are joining Sanden and Murdock on the trip.
“We feel that he’s very close to an NCAA Division I opportunity,” said Sanden. “We’re certainly hopeful that he’s able to make a selection and pick a school here soon. Maybe that Top Prospects (showcase), like it was for Kohei, will be a moment where he shines and is able to get something done very soon after.”
Benson is playing on the Blue squad, representing the league’s Midwest Division. NAHL Top Prospects will play one game on Tuesday and one more on Wednesday before returning to their teams for games this upcoming weekend. The Ice Dogs continue their southern road swing this weekend with two games against the Shreveport Mudbugs.