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Junior Hockey: WarHawks eye the playoffs

Willmar native Elbridge Dekraai returns as captain for the Warhawks as they begin play for the 2021-22 NA3HL season.

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Willmar WarHawks forward Elbridge Dekraai knocks down New Ulm Steel forward Zach Maillette while going after the puck during the first period of a game on Friday, March 19, 2021 at the Willmar Civic Center. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — The Willmar WarHawks return to the ice looking to add onto to their successful previous season, with the hometown defender Elbridge Dekraai returning for his third overall season, second as captain.

Willmar kicks off its NA3HL 2021-22 season against New Ulm at 7:10 p.m. Saturday at the New Ulm Civic Center.

After being named a captain last season and helping lead Willmar to a 22-18 record and making a presence in the postseason, Dekraai is set to reprise his role.

Dekraai, 18, finished the ‘20-21 regular season with three goals and eight assists with 11 points, tallying two goals and nine assists in ‘19-20.

WarHawks’ head coach Kirk Olimb shed some light on the local defender and what he brings to the junior hockey club.

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“He’s a smart player with good skills. He can shoot the puck, can make plays, isn’t afraid to throw the body around and plays physically in a tough game,” Olimb said. “He's a guy that can play kind of anywhere in the lineup and he’s had the opportunity to do that with the WarHawks.”

Olimb added it was not just solely based on skill as to why Dekraai will again be captain and a focal point to this year’s success, but the attitude he brings to the team.

“He’s a kid that’s enjoyable to coach and it’s fun having him around with his work ethic and attitude,” he said. “Even though he’s only (18), one of the younger guys on the team and can play two more years of junior hockey, I think he’s got a bright future. He’s a great kid and a great hockey player both on the ice and off.”

After taking the role of captain last season, Dekraai says he now feels more comfortable with that title heading into this upcoming season.

“It’s definitely more of a responsibility,” he said. “Being named captain last year, being one of the younger guys, the other guys kind of helped me out and showed me a little bit more of the ropes for this upcoming season.

“After getting some more experience under my belt, I feel 100% more confident of being a junior captain,” Dakraai added. “It’s a lot different from a high school [captain] where you’re kind of leading by example. Being a junior captain you gotta show people what to do and then this year I’m playing more of a prominent role, so I’ll be showing my leadership there as well.”

Dekraai is the lone Willmar athlete on the roster.

“It’s a great feeling to go out there and see all the fans, some that I know, some I don’t, and just play for them,” he said. “Having them cheering me on, it’s a great feeling having the ability to represent my hometown.”

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Dekraai is one of 10 athletes that will be returning for Willmar. This news has contributed to the defender being highly excited for this season and was a strong reason for him wanting to return to the WarHawks.

“After playing last season, we had such a strong connection. I mean, we truly had a brotherhood,” he said. “I’ve been on teams where we’ve been close. But it was truly, for the first time, where I just felt like I was really with brothers. I wanted to come back and just have that again. So far, we’re having that again, so that’s nice.”

Willmar earned a playoff berth last season, placing third in the West Division and battled the Granite City Lumberjacks in the opening round. Willmar swept the series 2-0, advancing to take on the North Iowa Bulls. Willmar lost the first game 5-2 before tying the series with a 2-1 win in game two. North Iowa closed the series with a 4-2 victory in game three. The Bulls would go on to win the Fraser Cup, defeating the Rochester Grizzlies 5-1.

Dekraai believes the WarHawks have the potential to return to the postseason and potentially go farther than last season.

“Just knowing that we can have that success, and having the good attitudes and chemistry that we have in those returning veterans and adding that with the new rookies, that’s one of the biggest things in being successful,” he said.

Aside from Dekraai, the WarHawks are returning forward Jeremiah Konkel, 19, from Bloomington, who finished last season with five goals and 12 assists; defenseman Brady O’Brien, 20, from White Bear Lake, who recorded two goals and 17 assists; and goalie Will Pinney, 20, of St. Louis Park. PInney finished last season with a record of 8-1 for Willmar.

The WarHawks have acquired 6-foot defenseman Enzo Tarucci, 20, of Novi, Mich., along with WarHawks’ first-round draft pick Tate Hammitt of Bemidji, a 6-foot-1-inch defenseman.

“We got some tough decisions to make as far as lineups go and what’s going to happen in the future but we feel pretty strong at all positions,” Olimb said. “Up front we got some pretty good dynamic forwards and guys that we think can really put the puck in the net.

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“We got a lot of speed up there, and then on defense and with goalies, we’re pretty solid as well.”

Dekraai and Olimb agreed the main focus will be looking at grasping the Fraser Cup in April.

“We feel we have the talent to do it if we can go out and execute and play how we want to play,” Olimb said. “Obviously, it’s a long way from now and there’s a ton of work to do.

“If we get complacent at all or think we’re better than what we are, we’re going to learn very quickly that it’s not going to work out. But I am confident in this group. I believe in this group. I think they believe in each other and themselves.”

Dekraai added: “I could see us winning the Western Division Series and going on to win the Fraser Cup. We got a lot of good talent coming in and a lot of good veterans that are just solid players. I think we can go the whole way this year.”

The WarHawks will have their home-opener against the Alexandria Blizzard at 7:10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, at the Willmar Civic Center.

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Willmar WarHawks forward Elbridge Dekraai knocks down New Ulm Steel forward Zach Maillette while going after the puck during the first period of a game on Friday, March 19, 2021 at the Willmar Civic Center. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Matthew Curry is a sports reporter and photographer for the West Central Tribune.
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