Cardinal boys hockey matches best start

The Willmar boys hockey team is off to a 4-0 start in the Central Lakes Conference. The last time that happened was in the 1982-83 season, the breakout year for Cardinal hockey.

The Willmar boys hockey team is off to a 4-0 start in the Central Lakes Conference. The last time that happened was in the 1982-83 season, the breakout year for Cardinal hockey.

The second incarnation of high school hockey (a few will recall a post-World War II team that lasted two years) in this railroad town that began in 1972 was only 10 years old. While hockey had its fanatical followers, the sport still was on the margins and had not yet left a dent in conference or postseason play.

That was all about to change. A roster stacked with excellent athletes raised on outdoor ice -- names such as Brian Nelson, Lee Smith, Peter Stahnke and the Marciniak brothers (John, Doug, Dennis) -- the Cardinals roared to the first of three consecutive CLC titles.

Despite a 17-3 record, the prairie upstarts gained little respect from their Metro peers, who voted them a No. 7 seed in Section 5. But the Cardinals bumped off Benilde 7-6 and then Minneapolis Roosevelt, a City Conference powerhouse, 3-1, with Terry Nordlund in goal at the packed Bloomington Ice Gardens. That advanced the Cardinals to the Met Center, home ice of the North Stars. It was crazy, unprecedented, the equivalent of advancing to the Dome for the high school football playoffs today. Willmar was overmatched against the three-line depth of the Bloomington Kennedy Eagles and lost 5-1 at the Met and finished 19-4.

But Willmar was on the hockey map. Soon after, schools like Park Center, Wayzata and Osseo were coming out to Willmar for Christmas tournaments.


Sabres showdown

That undefeated 4-0 start in '82-'83 ended in a 6-3 loss to St. Cloud Tech. Those same Tigers would hand Willmar its other league loss, 4-2, to end the regular season.

The current Willmar team, the third under Dan Tollefson, can surpass that start 27 years ago by sinking Sartell at the Cardinal Arena on Tuesday evening. No easy task.

The Sabres are 4-0-1 in conference play after a 5-5 tie against Alexandria.

"They're the team to beat, along with Alexandria," said Tollefson. "They've got a real nice player in Austin Plaine, who moved there from Sauk Centre. This is a team they've been waiting for."

The same might be said of Willmar. The Cardinals combine senior defense and goaltending and a junior line with a knack for finishing off scoring opportunities. Sophomores also are emerging. It's a mix that might not come around soon again.

Tollefson shuffles three lines. First out are center Gabe Amon with fellow juniors Liam Johnston and Grant Schow. Through nine games those three have combined for 41 goals. Next out is James Johnston with wingers Stephan Reynolds and Landon Peterson, a line that is starting to emerge. After that, it's Tom Chester centering Austin Pakola and Tyler Woltjer with Graham Dahl and Cameron Swenson working in.

The defensive pairs have been senior Matt Schrupp and junior Mitch Fader and seniors Jake Tone and Grant Kallevig. Sophomores Chris Odens and Matt Eddy are the third duo out.


Senior netminders Ben Leitch and Keifer Dahle each have save percentages over .900. So far, Tollefson has alternated the two goalies, but if one gets the "hot hand", that could change.

Tuesday's game starts a marathon of 15 games in 45 days. It's a test of durability and mental toughness. It's a time, notes Tollefson, when players are sore or fight nagging injuries while trying to put a streak together and build for postseason.

Twelve of the dates are clashes with CLC foes, the other three - Detroit Lakes, Prairie Centre and Wadena/Deer Creek -- are Section 6A foes.

"We're still taking shape," said Tollefson. "We haven't played our best game yet, though we came pretty close against Alexandria (a 3-2 win)."

Civic Center at 30

The Willmar Civic Center has turned 30. The building was scheduled to host its first high school hockey game on Dec. 17, 1979. However, delays in construction caused by heavy spring rains and then finally problems with the new compressor caused several postponements.

The Cardinals were scheduled to play Elk River in the new building on Jan. 8, 1980, but the game was moved to Litchfield, Willmar's "home" ice in the 1970s. The debut finally came on Jan. 14, 1980, a Monday, against Buffalo. That first game ended in a 4-4 overtime tie.

On the fly


- The Willmar Rails are looking for a coach for the 2010 season. If interested, contact Rick Maursetter at 320-235-3519.

- The last time the Willmar basketball teams traveled to Moorhead on Saturday for an afternoon doubleheader was in 2008. They lost both games to the Spuds. They return today, both undefeated. The Spud boys are 2-4 after losing by one point to Fargo North on Wednesday. At Willmar a year ago, the Cardinals prevailed 64-47. The Spud girls are 4-4 with a 17-point win over Sartell to open the season and a 65-59 win over Alexandria on Wednesday. Last year Willmar won, 58-36.

- The Cardinal wrestlers also start the new year today at an 11-team invitational in Montevideo. The Cardinals with the best shot at reaching a weight-class final: Nathanial Swoyer (12-2) at 171 pounds, Coty Milhausen (11-4) at 145 and Alex Johannes (12-2) at 119.

- The Bremer Bank Boys Basketball Classic drew 1,500 fans for four games. Not a bad turnout considering Saturday's weather, plus a Vikings game on Monday. Also Fond du Lac didn't bring any fans. The first holiday tournament here, the Red-Wood Classic in 1978, drew 1,100 fans. That was followed by 1,900 in 1979. Both were six-team tournaments.

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