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NA3HL Hockey: WarHawks ready for second season

Willmar WarHawks forward Jordan Cooper skates with the puck into the offensive zone in Thursday's practice at the Willmar Civic Center. Jake Schultz / Tribune1 / 3
Willmar WarHawks captain Braden Shea skates the puck into the offensive zone in Thursday's practice at the Willmar Civic Center. Jake Schultz / Tribune2 / 3
Willmar WarHawks Graham Day, left, and Jordan Cooper talk during Thursday's practice at the Willmar Civic Center. Jake Schultz / Tribune3 / 3

Snow gathered along the boards and sweat dripped from faces Thursday morning at the Willmar Civic Center as the Willmar WarHawks wrapped up their morning practice.

With one more day of practice before the start of the organization's second North American Hockey League Tier 3 season, the team on the ice had special teams and defensive zones on their mind. They were working on how to break the puck out of their own zone but another big focus was Saturday's season opener at Breezy Point, a rematch of last year's inaugural game.

"That game has stuck with me," Willmar head coach Chris Blaisuis said of last year's 5-3 loss. "I feel like we're ready to go in there and get the job done, play a complete hockey game, which is something we didn't do (in last year's opener)."

Blaisuis could have the players to do it, too. He returns 12 players from last year's squad that finished 22-22-2, just six points out of a playoff spot. Among those returners is forwards Max Oelkers who netted 11 goals and 14 assists in 47 games and Braden Shea (9-8--17 in 29 games), as well as defensemen Wyatt Toll (2-14--16 in 41 games) and Graham Day.

Willmar High School graduates Tanner Dahle and Eli Slagter should also factor into the WarHawks lineup on a nightly basis.

In net, the WarHawks will look to junior hockey veterans Luke Fry and Brady Anderson as well as rookie Drake Voell to start the season but if all works out Alex Cathcart could return to the team following an up-and-down 2016-2017 campaign. The Northridge, California native suffered a concussion during the offseason while training with members of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings and is still working back towards a medical clearance. He has been "symptom-free" in recent days.

"It's really good news that he's doing better," Blaisuis said. "Now we just need a streak like the (Cleveland) Indians have, string together a few weeks of good days and he'll be here."

Zach Martin is one of the top returners as well, having missed nearly all of last season with a knee injury.

"Losing Martin last year, that was somebody I could never replace," Blaisuis said. "We missed him last year so it's great to see him back out on the ice. In general, we have a lot of high-end guys coming back as well as some guys who were role players last year that are showing plenty of improvement already."

Martin, a 6-foot, 175-pound forward, combines speed and quick hands to deliver impressive finishing. For a moment last year, though, it appeared WarHawks fans would never get the chance to see Martin display those skills, aside from his two goals in three games.

"There was a while there where I thought I might not ever play again," Martin said after Thursday's practice. "But I feel good now, I feel like I'm in shape. I was a little nervous (skating so hard) at first, but I'm good now."

Martin will be one of three players to wear the "A" as an alternate captain this year, including Oelkers and Toll. Shea, a center from East Grand Forks, North Dakota, is the team's captain.

"I don't think there's any added nerves from being a captain," Shea said. "It means doing a bit more in the locker room, more responsibility, but on the ice I just need to do what I need to do to help team."

Part of the responsibility comes in helping out the team's five rookies. It's a drastic difference from last year's team that featured 18 new players to junior hockey. This year's team is still plenty young, coming in at an average age of 18.64, but most of the players have junior hockey experience, with the WarHawks or somewhere else.

The players aren't the only one with experience. Blaisuis is now in his second year on the bench for the WarHawks and made some adjustments with the full offseason to help prepare for the 2017-2018 season.

"I had more time to get guys that fit my style and build some relationships," Blaisuis said. "Also, with the schedule, we were able to set it up a bit more in a way that works better for us. We start on the road and it's spaced out a bit more evenly so we don't have an end of the season like we did last year where guys just lost their legs."

The WarHawks start this year with a six game road trip, starting Saturday at Breezy Point. They don't come home until Oct. 14 against the Granite City Lumberjacks, the defending Silver Cup champions.

Blaisuis also entered training camp three weeks ago with a solid idea of lines and team build.

"We have 12 returners so there's a foundation already in place," Blaisuis said. "The locker room has much better chemistry (than last year) and they are committed to each other. Guys know why they're here."

Line continuity throughout training camp has been really important early on, Shea said.

"I think all of our lines are clicking really well," Shea said. "Coach did a good job and he's let us work through things together. Our top three, I think they could go anywhere and play."

Right now, the WarHawks are just focusing on playing in Breezy Point, a game that could help set the tone for the season to come.

"I think last year, when we let the game slip away, that sort of foreshadowed what was to come," Blaisuis said. "Take away the last game of the season and we missed the playoffs by four points. I can find plenty of games where we left a point on the table and it started with that game in Breezy Point. This year we're just going to focus on ourselves and win games."

Jake Schultz

Jake Schultz is a sports reporter and photographer for the West Central Tribune, working his first job out of college. He graduated from St. John's University (CSB/SJU) in 2016 and is a baseball fanatic. You can follow him on Twitter @StJake29. 

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