MASON CITY, Iowa – The North Iowa Bulls’ first 10 years on the ice were, in a word, dominant.
365 regular-season wins, with a postseason mark that pushed the final total past the 400-win plateau.
More than 150 alumni on college rosters, including nine who landed spots on NCAA Division I rosters.
50 players who moved up to the North American Hockey League.
Nine North American Tier 3 Hockey League attendance titles.
Eight division titles, split between the West and Central circuits.
Four NA3HL Fraser Cup championships.
And, thanks to last Monday’s victory over the Rochester Grizzlies, four national championships.
No team in the NA3HL has done what the Bulls have done as the North Iowa region prepares to welcome the NAHL back to Mason City for the first time since 2010, and it seems fitting that the team would cap a decade of unparalleled success in a season that was unparalleled in its own ways.
After seeing the 2020 Fraser Cup Playoffs officially wiped out just hours before North Iowa had hoped to begin a lengthy postseason run, the 2020-21 campaign started two weeks late as league officials sought to set up a structure that would allow the league to operate a full season in a healthy manner in the age of COVID. In the end, the schedule would be trimmed back to 40 games with no inter-division play, putting rivalries with the Rochester Grizzlies, St. Louis Jr. Blues and Peoria Mustangs briefly on hold.
The Bulls would march to a 19-4 start despite a halt to their season in mid-November – junior hockey teams in Iowa were able to play through a COVID spike thanks to guidance from the Iowa governor’s office placing junior hockey teams among their college and professional spectator-sports brethren. Officials in Minnesota failed to give that state’s junior hockey teams the same leeway, forcing the Bulls to take a two-month hiatus from league play until mid-January.
North Iowa forged ahead with a December worth remembering, routing the Carshield 18-and-under team from St. Louis by a 9-1 count in exhibition play before dropping a 5-4 overtime scrimmage against the Grizzlies.
The Jr. Blues and Sheridan Hawks both made their way to North Iowa the following week, embarking on a four-day “Holiday Showcase” exhibition series that saw each team sweep one of its opponents and suffer a sweep at the hands of its other foe. In the Bulls’ case, 7-3 and 6-0 Sheridan wins were enough to shake off 4-2 and 3-1 losses to the Jr. Blues over that same weekend.
A last-minute loss to the Alexandria Blizzard in North Iowa’s 2021 debut only served to motivate the Bulls to their longest winning streak of the year, piling up wins in their next eight games. February 13, however, saw the beginning of a true battle for the West Division championship, with North Iowa winning just eight of its final 17 regular-season games.
The true thorn in the Bulls’ side on the home stretch may have been the upstart Willmar WarHawks, who lost eight of their first 10 games but won 20 of their final 30, including three of their last five meetings with North Iowa. Willmar’s 3-2 overtime win on February 14 would give them their first-ever win on the Bulls’ home rink and end both an 18-game head-to-head winning streak for the Bulls and an 18-game overall home winning streak.
The final battle for the West Division crown would come in the team’s final meeting with the Granite City Lumberjacks on March 27, which saw Kyle Heffron and Carter Newpower score power play goals in a 3-1 win, capping a 27-11-1-1 regular season and the closest division race in Bulls history.
The Bulls would prove the most battle-tested team heading into the Fraser Cup tournament just a few weeks later, holding off fourth-seeded Alexandria in a three-game West Division semifinal series. The next series was even closer, another three-game series that went the distance as the Bulls held off the WarHawks for the West Division playoff championship. The WarHawks landed in that West Division Final thanks to a shocking two-game sweep against the Lumberjacks in the opening round.
After Game 2 of the West Division Finals, North Iowa never lost again, shaking off the Hawks for a 2-1 pool-play victory at the Fraser Cup tournament before blitzing the East Division champion Northeast Generals for an 8-1 win the following day. They would put away the Oklahoma City Blazers, 2-1, in the Fraser Cup semifinals, ending the seasons of five former Bulls in the process. After giving up an early goal to the rival Grizzlies in the Fraser Cup Final, the Bulls ended their season with five unanswered goals, including three in the second period alone. Newpower’s empty-net goal with 1:47 remaining ran the final margin to 5-1 and touched off the biggest celebration in North Iowa junior hockey since 2016.
“This wasn’t the most talented group of kids that we’ve won with,” said North Iowa head coach and general manager Todd Sanden. “It was probably the team that had the most respect for each other, up and down the bench, in the locker room, in the community. This was a really fun group because they bonded really early and they loved each other.”
Thanks in part to the shorter season and heavy West Division competition from top to bottom, North Iowa’s numbers might seem a bit pedestrian in comparison to previous years. Carson Jones’s 41 points led the division, but are the lowest total ever for a player who led the team in scoring. Defenseman Cal Nauss was right behind with 38 points, including 28 assists, making him the first defenseman ever to lead North Iowa in that category. In all, seven Bulls players closed the season with 30 or more points, far past the next West Division team on the list – the New Ulm Steel, with just two.
The record books remained largely untouched at year’s end – goaltender Carsen Stokes played every minute in the Bulls’ postseason run, racking up an 8-1-1 finish in the Fraser Cup playoffs and tournament. He would go on to make 115 saves on 119 shots in the Fraser Cup tournament, earning MVP honors on the long weekend. Newpower scored seven points to lead North Iowa at the tournament, including five assists.
“Those are pretty legit numbers for a guy (Stokes) who came to us late in the season, and wasn’t ready to play when he got to us,” said Sanden. “That kid did a ton of work, and he brought a level of calm to our team by his play that I haven’t seen in quite a while.”
It was Evan Babekuhl who ended up taking his run at the franchise record books, finishing with a dozen wins on the year and 35 for his career, second only to Matthew Bartels’s 41 regular-season wins. Both Babekuhl and Bartels closed their junior careers as national champions. Nauss scored four goals on the power play, putting him at six for his career and tying Ron Lindgren and Harrison Stewart for the most power play goals all-time among North Iowa defensemen.
It was also a memorable year for player advancement, given the uncertainty of the season. Four players announced NCAA Division III commitments, all to Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference schools, with two (Jac Triemert, Kyle Heffron) set to join each other next season at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Three others would land NAHL tenders, with Caleb Huffman making his NAHL debut late in the season with the Kenai River Brown Bears.
The near future appears to be every bit as bright for the organization, with announcements on the horizon for the NA3HL team’s location, brand, coaching staff and other details. The Bulls will also announce nominees for their All-Decade Team next week, with fan voting throughout the month of May and the announcement of the All-Decade team set to cap off the month.
Season tickets are now on sale for the Bulls’ 2021-22 season in the North American Hockey League, with a 10-percent early-bird discount still in effect through Friday. Updated news and information on North Iowa Bulls hockey are always available at www.northiowabulls.com, and by following the team’s social media platforms on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.