MASON CITY, Iowa – The closer the start of the 2018-19 season gets for the North Iowa Bulls and their fans, the slower the days seem to count down.
Todd Sanden’s team will get its first competitive test of the new year Friday and Saturday night with a preseason road trip to South Dakota to face the North American Hockey League’s Aberdeen Wings. The Bulls have been in town since the last weekend of August, giving them two weeks to tune up for these two games and introduce themselves to the fans in the Mason City area.
“They are certainly ambassadors for our team and for themselves,” said Sanden. “With the landscape of winter in northern Iowa, there’s not a lot of extra things to do, so having a high-level sports team in town like the Bulls really is good for our fan base. They get to come out and watch a bunch of dedicated young men work toward personal and team goals.”
North Iowa players, coaches and staff put in hundreds of volunteer hours each season, but also make public appearances such as last week’s stop at the weekly Thursdays on Main street festival in Clear Lake. Hundreds of people spent Thursday evening downtown, with some stopping by to play games with and meet this year’s players.
With ice not scheduled to go into the North Iowa Ice Arena until late September, the Bulls have been on the bus a lot, traveling to practices in Austin, Minnesota. The team normally practices in Albert Lea, but a remodeling at the City Arena has forced the Bulls to head east until one of the building’s rinks re-opened earlier this week.
“It’s just part of what we do,” said Sanden. “With our facility, we can’t get in until late September, so we don’t make a big deal about it. It’s no different for us than any other junior team that’s been there, so we just pack our kids up and put them on the bus and go do what we do where we do it.”
The first week of practice didn’t involve any particularly heavy lifting for the Bulls players and coaches, with three practices before being released for the Labor Day weekend. Equipment orders have also slowly trickled into the team office, giving the players the feeling of Christmas with the reminder that the chance to earn that equipment is just around the corner.
“We get fresh gear every year, and the stuff that they wore last year isn’t the stuff that they’re wearing this year,” said Sanden. “I think there was a fair amount of excitement moving those boxes of gloves upstairs for the kids to put them on and break them in.”
The bus will get an extra workout this weekend with the trip to Aberdeen. For that matter, so will the players – the Wings won the NAHL’s Central Division regular-season title last season, before falling victim to an upstart Minot Minotauros team that made it all the way to the Robertson Cup final.
“Aberdeen is one of the top teams in the league every year,” said Sanden. “We really have to pay attention to detail, and do things well, in order to have any hope of keeping the games close there. You hope both teams get a good skate and work on things that they need to tighten up for regular season play.”
The two preseason games will give Sanden’s six returners the chance to show their improvements, and give more than 20 new players a chance to make their final case to the Bulls’ eighth-year head coach. The Bulls will also play in an environment similar to that which they’ll enjoy at home this season, with a raucous and loyal fan base.
“That’s a pretty tall task when you’re going into Aberdeen,” said Sanden. “The Odde Center is a dynamic facility, where they fill it and it’s loud and it’s boisterous. It’s going to be a great experience for our kids.”
The opening puck drop both nights is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. in Aberdeen, and tickets are just $5 at the door. The Bulls’ first regular-season game this year is scheduled for next Saturday, September 15 at the Peoria Mustangs. The home opener is Saturday, September 29 against the New Ulm Steel.
Individual-game tickets will go on sale, and the promotional dates for the Bulls’ 2018-19 home schedule will be finalized, in the coming weeks. Season tickets for this year are still on sale – click here for season ticket pricing and information. Updated news and information on North Iowa Bulls hockey is always available at NorthIowaBulls.com.