MASON CITY, Iowa – The North Iowa Bulls’ first North American Hockey League season did not lack for change, with the team facing off against brand-new opponents with an entirely new crew on the ice in 2021-22. The Bulls closed out the season with a 22-28-4-6 record, taking sixth place in a Central Division that met and likely exceeded all expectations in terms of parity and depth.
After a decade in the North American 3 Hockey League that included eight division championships and four NA3HL titles, the Bulls climbed the ladder to the North American Hockey League, inheriting the returning players from the former Amarillo Bulls organization, which announced in March that it would be relocating to Mason City. The returning players from the 2021 Fraser Cup team played for a newly-branded Mason City Toros squad that finished second in the NA3HL West Division and came within just one win of returning to the Fraser Cup tournament.
The Bulls got off to an outstanding start to their first NAHL campaign, earning a 5-1 win in their first North American Hockey League game, with Logan Dombrowsky netting the first goal of the first season on the new circuit and Fraser Cup-winning netminder Carsen Stokes earning the team’s first NAHL win. By the end of the weekend, North Iowa had taken a 3-1 record into the rugged Central Division. By Thanksgiving, North Iowa had rolled up wins in nine of 12, and sat in first place in the division standings.
Two of the season’s most storied streaks came in that red-hot run for North Iowa, with Chris Carroll notching the Bulls’ first 10-game point streak in three years and a three-game stretch for Carter Rapalje with seven goals in late October and early November. His four-goal game against Bismarck on November 5 was North Iowa’s first hat trick of the NAHL era, and the Bulls’ first four-goal showing since 2019.
Two of the season’s biggest changes came to the Bulls in mid-November, with the departure of veterans Carroll and Ryan Coughlin to the New Jersey Titans and the departure of associate head coach Kevin Murdock to an NCAA Division I coaching position with the University of Alaska-Anchorage. Longtime NAHL’ers Jake LaRusso and Brett Morich would join the team in that same time frame, with LaRusso notching a goal November 20 in his Bulls debut, a 7-4 win at the St. Cloud Norsemen. Also joining the team in late November was forward Dylan Gajewski, who had led the NA3HL’s Willmar WarHawks to their first-ever playoff series win the previous season – he opened his time with the Bulls on a tear, notching goals in four straight games, becoming the first North Iowa player since 2017 to pick up goals in his first four games in a Bulls uniform.
In the second half, injuries and a run of unlucky bounces hit one of the NAHL’s youngest teams – Dombrowsky, Rapalje, Max Scott and Casey Roepke were among those who missed significant time due to injuries after the start of 2022. Though North Iowa would not finish the season with a playoff berth, the Bulls were right in the thick of the battle night in and night out, playing 40 of their 60 games to a one- or two-goal finish, more than any team in the league except Aberdeen (46) and Lone Star (40).
There were more than enough milestones and moments to go around in 2021-22, starting with the team’s first commitments in the NAHL era, as brothers Jack and Michael Mesic announced NCAA Division I commitments in the same week to Ferris State and Northern Michigan, respectively. Several players made their 100th junior hockey appearances for North Iowa this past season – Coughlin, Roepke, Jack Mesic, Greg Japchen, and Sean Vlasich all played their 100th NAHL games for the Bulls, while LaRusso crossed the 150-game threshold late in the season.
Two Toros call-ups reached milestones with North Iowa as well, wearing the same crest that they wore last season as NA3HL champions. Sota Isogai made his 100th junior appearance in his Bulls debut during a November call-up from the Toros, with his 100th junior point coming the previous night for the Toros in a win at the Minnesota Loons. Jack Campion joined the team from Mason City at the new year and remained with the Bulls the rest of the way, notching his 100th junior point in mid-February and coming up just two games shy of a 100th junior outing of his own.
Rapalje caught fire again at the end of the season, with goals in a team-best five straight games in late March, while Michael Mesic finished with a team-best 49 points and joined Vlasich as the team’s only players to appear in all 60 games. Mesic would edge out Maine’s Zion Green as the highest-scoring 17-year-old in the league, and his mark would prove to be the NAHL’s best in five years among 17-year-old players.
Rapalje finished with a team-high 28 goals, taking second on the roster with 42 points, while Vlasich finished in third with 40 points and a team-best 33 assists. He became the second Bulls player in as many seasons to lead the team in helpers, after Cal Nauss closed out the Bulls’ NA3HL run with a team-high 28 assists last season. First-year forward Byron Hartley caught fire a couple of times himself after the first of the year, with 15 points over a 10-game span in January and early February, and firing up again for nine points over a span of eight outings in March and early April.
Hunter Garvey led the goaltending efforts this season, earning 15 wins. He was an iron man in net for North Iowa, taking the decision in 30 games of a 33-game stretch near the end of the season’s first half before Kyle Kozma settled into his spot in the Bulls’ goaltending tandem.
In all, eight 2001-born players finished their junior careers with the Bulls this season, with two already having announced commitments to NCAA Division I schools. Two others have made decisions regarding NCAA Division III commitments, and have announcements pending as the admissions process wraps up at their schools of choice. The remaining four are likely to make their announcements as the offseason progresses.
The Bulls’ first NAHL season was a strong one in terms of fan support as well, with 30,983 fans coming out to support the team over its newly-expanded 28-game home schedule. 1,106 fans per night came to see the Bulls play on home ice, returning to full capacity after a 2020-21 campaign beset by COVID-related restrictions on crowds at sporting events and other gatherings.
2022-23 season tickets are on sale now, with 10-percent early-bird discounts available through the end of April – click here for details. 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.