COVID-19 Ends Bulls’ Title Hopes, Closes Incredible Season

MASON CITY, Iowa – The North Iowa Bulls’ 2019-20 season lasted all of 47 games, the shortest run in the team’s nine-year history. 

If not for an international medical situation, that run was sure to be much, much longer.

The COVID-19 “coronavirus” forced the suspension of the team’s season on Thursday, March 12, and the official cancellation of the Fraser Cup postseason came less than 24 hours later. Along with it went the team’s hopes of winning a fourth national championship and the team’s first since 2016.

The Bulls got off to a raging start to the season, winning 11 of their first 12, including a sweep of the St. Louis Jr. Blues in late October. The next month brought another milestone, with a 5-3 exhibition win over the nationally-renowned Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep program. The team’s previous two wins over the Sabres, in 2014 and 2016, were followed with Fraser Cup championships.

“Historically, they’re one of the top under-18 teams in the country,” said North Iowa Bulls head coach Todd Sanden. “If you’re getting up and down the rink with them and competing with them, it’s a good barometer for how good a team we are.”

Every month, it seemed, brought a new milestone for the Bulls to celebrate. North Iowa observed its final home opener in the former North Iowa Ice Arena on October 4, and played the first half of its home season in the “Barn” before closing down the venerable old building on December 7 with an 8-3 win over the Alexandria Blizzard. The North Iowa Ice Arena hosted its first junior hockey game in October of 1983, and saw nearly 800 junior hockey games played within its walls by the end of 2019.

The Bulls were set to open their new downtown home at the Mason City Multipurpose Arena on December 28 against the Blizzard, but unsafe travel conditions in Minnesota forced a one-week postponement to the festivities. The new schedule ended up working out brilliantly – the Bulls christened the new arena by crushing the Breezy Point North Stars, 16-0. Carter Wagner’s goal barely a minute into the contest set the tone for the rest of the night.

“I couldn’t have had a better time here,” said Wagner. “Every day I’d come to the rink, it was the best time of my life. It gave me that many more tools in my bag for playing at the college level next year.”

That win came in the midst of another record-setting run for the Bulls. This time, it was the defense that shone brightly, with shutout victories over Texas and Elmira at the NA3HL Showcase, Breezy Point and Rochester. North Iowa fell just 13.6 seconds shy of a record-breaking fifth straight shutout against the New Ulm Steel on January 10, settling instead for a team-record 334-minute shutout streak.

After dropping a 3-1 decision at Rochester on February 1, the Bulls never lost again – the 2019-20 season came to a close on an eight-game winning streak. Thanks to a rare skid by runner-up Granite City that saw the Lumberjacks end their season with losses in six of their final seven, the Bulls were able to nail down a West Division championship on February 29, beating the Peoria Mustangs 4-2 in front of a record crowd of 2,140 fans.

The final numbers at the Bulls’ new home were staggering. In 11 games at the Mason City Multipurpose Arena, the team averaged 1,585 fans per night, cruising to its eighth attendance title in its nine years on the ice. Eight of the team’s 11 crowds exceeded 1,400 fans, which would have put them beyond the capacity at the North Iowa Ice Arena. Three of the crowds at the new facility topped 2,000 fans.

“This place is something else. It’s unbelievable,” said North Iowa goaltender Joe Daninger. “The fans are amazing. The people are amazing. You get treated amazing down here, and I can’t thank everybody enough.”

With the end of the season, the Bulls say good-bye to 10 1999-born players as their junior eligibility runs out and the 20th century officially fades from the junior hockey scene. Never again will a player born in the 1900s suit up for a junior hockey team, in Mason City or elsewhere.

“We came in (to the postseason) on a heater, and beating Granite City was a big momentum swing for us,” said co-captain Cam Fagerlee. “Alexandria, who we were going to go up against, they were on a heater too. I just wish we could have gotten to duke it out.”

One of those ’99-born players has already moved on to the college ranks, with Justin Callahan joining the ACHA Division I roster at Iowa State University at the semester break. Ryan Hempel will join him at the beginning of next season, while four ’99-born teammates – Fagerlee, Nick Bowlin, Matt Dahlseide and Joey Petronack – will continue the long pipeline between the Bulls and Wisconsin-Stout.

Jordan Roo made history in January, becoming the first North Iowa player to commit to Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The defending NCAA Division III national champions also picked up commitments from Harrison Stewart and Justin Daly by year’s end.

Of all of this year’s Bulls, Stewart made the largest impact on the North Iowa record books, tying or breaking seven scoring records among North Iowa defensemen. Stewart would tie Adam Orn’s career record for goals by a defenseman, as well as Ron Lindgren’s team record for power play goals by a blueliner. Both Orn’s records for power play assists and points by a defenseman, as well as single-season records in both categories and Shane Bernhardson’s single-season record for assists by a defenseman, would fall by the wayside.

“It’s a tough way to end our junior careers,” said Stewart. “I’m so thankful for everything I’ve gotten to experience here. We had a good team. We were really confident, and we love each other. We’re willing to do anything for each other.”

North Iowa also saw several players stake their claims on North American Hockey League roster spots. Lucas Wahlin spent six weeks in the NAHL with the Jamestown Rebels before returning for the second half of the year. He would sign a tender agreement with the Kenai River Brown Bears, and scored his first NAHL goals for the Brown Bears during a Bulls off-week in February. Zach Simon spent a week with the Lone Star Brahmas before heading back to begin his senior season at Orono High School in Minnesota, scoring his first NAHL goal in his first game with the Brahmas. Goalie Dysen Skinner left for the Minnesota Magicians in mid-December and never returned, usurping the starting spot from Samuel Vyletelka, who briefly left the team to play for Team Slovakia in the World Junior Championships. 12 of the Magicians’ final 13 wins of the season belonged to Skinner. In all, five Bulls players have signed NAHL tenders for next year, or have tender agreements pending with NAHL teams. 14 will begin their 2020-21 seasons on a college or NAHL roster.

With that, North Iowa now looks ahead to its 10th Anniversary season in Mason City, and the team’s first full season at the Mason City Multipurpose Arena. Season tickets are now on sale, with early-bird discounts available on this year’s season-ticket prices until the end of April. For more information on 2020-21 season tickets, or to purchase season tickets, call 641-423-4625. Updated news and information on North Iowa Bulls hockey is always available at www.northiowabulls.com, and by following the team on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.