WILLMAR — The last time the Willmar WarHawks competed on the ice was 56 days ago.
Granite City captured a 4-2 road victory over the WarHawks on Nov. 20 in the last game before Emergency Executive Order 20-99 went into effect and halted play in an effect to slow the spread of COVID-19.
With restrictions for sporting events loosen up, Willmar is scheduled to resume its season at 7:10 p.m. Friday against the Alexandria Blizzard from the Willmar Civic Center. The team will host the Granite City Lumberjacks on Saturday night.
As part of new COVID protocols, up to 150 fans will be allowed in the arena.
When the puck drops to restart the season, there will be a few new faces in WarHawks sweaters.
The team added seven players over the break: forwards Ben Luedtke, Alex Kupka, Lewis Rowan and Tommy Raith, goaltenders Lukas Haugen and Will Pinney and defenseman Henry Andres.
Luedtke was acquired from North Iowa, where he had four assists in nine games for the Bulls. Haugen rejoins the team after going 5-9 with 3.48 goals-against average and .922 save percentage last season.
Ten players who were a part of the roster before the stoppage are playing elsewhere. Fourth on the team in points with 10, forward Louis Anders returned to his home country of Germany to play SC Riessersee as part of the Deutsch Eishockey Liga, a second tier professional league.
“We have a handful of new guys. Trying to teach new systems has been a focus this week,” WarHawks head coach Kirk Olimb said.
As for the players returning, the break provided them an opportunity to return home, be around family and take time off. The coaching staff stayed in touch by offering them in-home exercises to strengthen up and hone their skills. Additionally, questionnaires were given to keep them active and engage.
The players returned to Willmar for their first practice back on Jan. 3.
“It was definitely a little bit of challenge to keep everybody tight, but the boys have a group (chat) and they talk all the time,” Olimb said. “They’re a tight-knit group.”
“I was pretty happy with the shape most guys came back in, I was a little bit worried about it coming in,” Olimb said. “We had almost two months off, but they seem to have done a pretty good job keeping themselves in pretty good shape.”
Prior to the restart, Willmar had a 5-9 record and was fourth in the West Division with 10 points. North Iowa topped the division 22 points.
The WarHawks have struggled this season against the Bulls and second-place Granite City, losing all seven of their games against the two teams and being outscored by a combined 48-16 margin.
Willmar has fared much better against the other two teams in the division. The WarHawks are 2-1 versus Alexandria and 3-1 when matched up against New Ulm. With the Blizzard and Steel lined up for five of its next seven games, Willmar hopes it can begin the restart with a winning stretch.
“In these next seven games, we’re looking to rattle off some wins,” Olimb said. “A reasonable goal would be to go 5-2. Obviously, we want to go 7-0, but anything worse than 5-2 would be a pretty big disappointment.”