MASON CITY, Iowa – The North Iowa Bulls had ended the last five seasons at the same time and in the same manner prior to the 2017-18 season – in Chicago, in the final week of March, playing for an NA3HL championship. After last season came to an end short of the Fraser Cup national tournament, the Bulls had a return to the Windy City on their minds.
That was accomplished in 2018-19, as North Iowa closed out the year with 37 wins and landed in the weekend session of the Fraser Cup tournament. The last team to put away the three-time champs was eventual national champion Texas, with the Brahmas scoring a 3-1 semifinal win over the Bulls on Saturday, March 30.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our guys,” said head coach Todd Sanden. “This team did a great job down the stretch, and we’re certainly excited about where they ended up. I’m proud of another great season in Mason City.”
The numbers for this year’s Bulls were far from gaudy – Matt Dahlseide’s 60 points was the fewest for any North Iowa scoring leader since 2011-12, when Matt Kroska paced the inaugural Bulls roster with 51. Bulls goaltenders tallied all of three shutouts in the team’s eighth year on the ice, with Dysen Skinner tallying two of them.
However, the Bulls were more than up to the challenge of returning to the rugged West Division. Playing in Tier III junior hockey’s “Group of Death,” Sanden’s team still finished in second place with a 32-12-3 regular-season record. The Granite City Lumberjacks closed out the regular season with the West Division title, but needed an 11-game winning streak late in the season to truly put the race to bed.
“Everybody hopes that at that time of the year, your players will elevate their play, being better defensively and more responsible (with the puck),” said Sanden. “That’s the part of the team that I was really proud of – they sold out for each other, and they did those things that help you win those tough, tight, playoff games.”
Instead, Sanden’s team hung its hat on the big moments – North Iowa won eight of its final 11 games of the season, holding off a new-look Rochester Grizzlies team for home-ice advantage in the first round and then holding them off again for a three-game win in the West Division semifinals. A two-game sweep of Alexandria sent the Bulls back to the Fraser Cup tournament, and a resounding win over the Helena Bighorns pushed North Iowa on to their finale against Texas.
The group also had some serious experience to lead the way in the locker room, with a pair of third-year junior players. Brendan Studioso closed out his career with 143 regular-season points, tying him with Marshall Barnes for fourth on the team’s all-time list. His 59 goals ranks fifth, and his 84 assists also places him in fourth.
After two seasons with the Wisconsin Whalers, Jimmy McDermott gave the team an extra leader to look toward in the locker room, posting his third straight 50-point season. Both passed the 100-game mark in junior hockey this past year.
“You look at Brendan as a games-played leader for our group, and what people probably don’t know is the amount of bad luck that he came across in his junior career,” said Sanden. “He was tendered twice and it didn’t work out. That and coaching changes, players have no control over that stuff. Looking at his commitment to this team and his family’s commitment to this team, we’re certainly proud to have had him on board.”
The team’s record book will remain mostly intact after this past season, but several milestones were reached during the past season. Cam Fagerlee notched his 100th career point this season, and Dahlseide and Fagerlee each leaped over the half-century mark in career assists.
The other metrics of success were more than solid this season – the resurgent Grizzlies organization took the attendance title away from North Iowa for the first time after a seven-year run as the NA3HL’s top team at the gate. However, the Bulls still finished the year with 811 fans a game in the building, good for fifth on the 36-team circuit.
More importantly, nine North Iowa players or alumni have already announced commitments to college programs or signed North American Hockey League tenders, with more to be announced soon. Lone Star Brahmas goaltender Seth Eisele, who made his junior debut with the Bulls in 2016-17, became the eighth North Iowa alumnus to land among the NCAA Division I ranks in February, committing to Lake Superior State University.
“We’ve had plenty of kids going on campus visits after that Fraser Cup (tournament) wrapped up,” said Sanden. “I think you’ll see several more kids make those decisions in the upcoming weeks.”
That lengthy commitment list means that despite the loss of only 1998-born Jack Giddings to the junior age limit, there will likely be some rebuilding to do heading into the new season. That new season starts in late August, when next year’s players report to town. The first game of the new season is likely to be on or around September 14, with the NA3HL schedule to be released this summer. The league’s annual draft is scheduled for next week.
“We want to put a similar product on the ice,” said Sanden. “We want to be fast-paced, and a puck-moving, high-execution team. When you look at the basics of what we’re looking for in a skill set, certainly speed and awareness are high on our list, and a willingness to share the puck. The expectations are very high here, and our community comes to expect a certain level of hockey.”
Season tickets are now available for 2019-20, the ninth season of North Iowa Bulls hockey. Early-bird discounts are available through May 1. For more information on North Iowa Bulls season tickets, click here.