More than two months after his dismissal as head coach of the Willmar WarHawks, Chris Blaisuis is set for a return to the Willmar Civic Center with a different hawk on his chest.
Now the Rochester Ice Hawks head coach, Blaisuis, and former WarHawk Evan Burke, will take on the Willmar WarHawks at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
The WarHawks' first-ever head coach put up a strong start to the season with a 10-6-1 start in a flurry of games in the opening couple of months, but was let go Nov. 18 following a 5-3 win against the Wisconsin Whalers for undisclosed reasons.
Blaisuis rebounded quickly, however, accepting a job with the Ice Hawks on Dec. 4. The Ice Hawks, a playoff team just a season ago, got off to a 4-18 start before Blaisuis came in. Things haven't gotten much better for the Central Division's bottom dwellers, going 1-12 in the meantime.
Some of that, however, can be credited to a large turnover in roster. Blaisuis moved 14 of the 18 players he inherited in the opening 10 days alone.
Burke, a defenseman now with the Ice Hawks, was one of the players he brought in to help change the culture in Rochester. The versatile player from Glen Mills, Pennsylvania, has excelled as a top-two blueliner for the Ice Hawks, finishing with nine assists in 13 games played.
He spent time with the WarHawks earlier this season as well as last season before being traded to Rochester shortly after Blaisuis arrived there. He said Saturday's matchup will be a mix of emotions.
"I'm excited and nervous," Burke said via text. "It will be nice to see all my old teammates and play against them, and to see all the friends I met in the town over the year I was there. My old billets, too, it'll be nice to catch up with them all.
"But I'm nervous because I know they are still a good team and it's going to be a tough game. But you've got to put friendships aside when we are on the ice."
The WarHawks have an 8-10-2 record since their first head coach was let go, putting their season tally at 18-16-3, good for 39 points and a nine-point lead on the fourth playoff spot in the West Division. As a whole, the WarHawks sit just 10 total points behind division leaders New Ulm.
Rochester, to its credit, isn't so far off of a playoff spot either. The Ice Hawks are 5-30-0 in the Central Division but only three points behind the Wausau River Wolves, a team the Ice Hawks beat 13-4 just two weeks ago. This disparity in playoff qualifications was a sore spot for Blaisuis last season, as his WarHawks team missed out on the playoffs despite having 47 points compared to Rochester's 21.
Saturday's game should feature plenty of emotion with both teams vying for playoff spots as the season starts to wrap up and old friends meet up once again.
"I don't feel like I'll be a visitor," Blaisuis said. "It'll be weird to take a left to go to the visitor's locker room and not a right to the office but I'm looking forward to it. It's a game that we've got to win and to do it with a lot of friends in the building would be great."