NA3HL Hockey: Willmar opens at home Oct. 14
Willmar WarHawks fans are going to have their patience tested if they want to see the team at home this year.
The North American Tier 3 Hockey League's schedule was announced July 18 and the WarHawks start their second season with a seven game road trip before the home debut Oct. 14 against West Division rival and reigning Silver Cup champions Granite City.
"It'll be a challenge but I think it's good for us," said Chris Blaisuis, head coach and director of hockey operations for the WarHawks. "We have 13 returning guys and (at least) 13 or 14 new guys so that early road trip allows guys to bond. They get to know each other and get that road trip out of the way."
The WarHawks will open the season Sept. 16 with a road game against West Division foe Breezy Point North Stars.
A lengthy road trip to start the season also means a favorable percentage of home games down the stretch and that's exactly how Blaisuis and Operations Manager Jeff Newberg wanted it to be when they worked on building the schedule. The WarHawks will finish the season with 10 of the last 13 games at the Willmar Civic Center.
"Last year we played a ton of games in February and March and most of those were on the road," Blaisuis said. "We would get off the bus and we would just come out flat because we were constantly on the bus. When weather is crappy and you're in the playoff hunt you want to be home. All of our long road trips are before the weather gets bad."
Last season, the WarHawks played 23 games prior to the holiday break, leaving 24 games from Dec. 31-March 11. Those 24 games in 71 days tested the WarHawks' roster and depth, something that Blaisuis expects to be significantly improved this season. During that stretch, the WarHawks had three weekends with three games but this season the schedule will feature more regularity. Willmar will play at least once every weekend of the season and features 29 games on the schedule before the new year starts.
"We'll have some extra guys early on and they'll get plenty of opportunity to compete for spots," Blaisuis said.
One of the major tests of the season comes early on from Oct. 6-8. Willmar will start with a visit to Breezy Point and follow that with a two-game set against the La Crosse Freeze, one of five non-divisional series of the season.