By Bill Stockwell
The North Iowa Bulls of the NA3HL are the benchmark for Tier-3 hockey in the United States.
The proof is not only the fact that they are the defending National Tier-3 Junior Hockey Champions, but also the fact that they haven’t lost a game in roughly nine months (Feb. 24), spanning two seasons.
The Bulls finished last season reeling off 12 straight victories and have continued their winning ways by starting off the 2013-2014 season with another 17 straight. This included three more W’s at the NA3HL showcase in Chicago over the Nov. 22-24 weekend.
When asked about the team’s continued success, Bulls head coach Todd Sanden said the real strength of the team lies with the outstanding community backing that they receive from the Mason City area.
Mason City has a storied history in junior hockey, including a United States Hockey League franchise (North Iowa Huskies, 1983-99) and a North American Hockey League franchise (North Iowa Outlaws, 2005-10).
Two years after the Outlaws closed their doors, the Bulls arrived to a “proud, hockey-starved community, which has led the NA3HL in attendance since returning to the area.”
Fan and business support fuels the players on the ice, and that continues during off-ice activities.
Tim Santopaolo is in the scoring lead of a league loaded with high-profile offensive players, including two other Outlaws in the top three. Santopaolo had 42 points in 17 games, followed by Richie Marenis (39 in 15) and Matt Kroska (38 in 16).
On defense, the team has seen strong plus-minus rankings from Tyler Richison (+20) and Matthew Kaitchuck (+17).
Andrew Halama is also a solid performer with a teammates-first mentality.
With the North Iowa Bulls off to such a tremendous start, Sanden had a good idea of what it would take to remain undefeated.
“The key is to always strive to get better, breaking down the games and improving the little things,” Sanden said. “Staying undefeated is not very likely. With a long season like we have, injuries and sickness play a major role. When you’re playing a team eight times a year, there’ll be times during the year that the team might not be able to come out firing on all cylinders game in and game out.”
Sanden credits his coaching staff of Mark Hicks, Tim Olson and Alex North for doing a good job, keeping a close tab on the players as the season wears on for any signs of fatigue, illness etc. that may affect the team’s performance.
When asked about the continued success of his team and about the building process, Sanden said that, at the beginning, he tried to sell the Bulls’ affiliation with the Amarillo Bulls of the NAHL as a drawing point, but logistically it was tough because of the distance between the teams.
Now he relies on the atmosphere of the hockey community and the attitude surrounding the team. In addition to this, the Bulls have shown that they are one of the leaders when it comes to moving players to the next level, whether it be NCAA Division III or the NAHL.
After returning 14 veterans from a National Championship team a year ago, it goes without saying that one would want to play for a proven winner like the North Iowa Bulls.
Sanden also added that the “tender” process has brought a lot of success to his program, brought about by the fact that they are very close to top-notch hockey markets in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“Returning a good number of players will set you up for success, but the ideal situation would be to have a balanced roster so that you have the veteran presence, but you will also have the opportunity to build for upcoming seasons as well,” Sanden said.
“[One of the keys to success] is players have to be having fun for the whole season.”
Winning a National Championship would seem to indicate that the Bulls did have fun for the whole season last year and hope to continue that trend as this season continues.
– See more at: http://www.usajuniorhockey.com/2013/11/na3hl-north-iowa-bulls-still-rule-the-roost-after-league-showcase/#sthash.4RAkVJku.dpuf