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Junior Hockey: Willmar WarHawks coach is back for a second act

Kirk Olimb returns after a rushed first season and is aiming for a berth in the NA3HL playoffs

100320.S.WCT.WarHawks Jake McClenahan
Willmar WarHawks forward Jake McClenahan makes a move on goaltender Luke Weberg during Thursday's team practice from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — In his first year as head coach, Kirk Olimb’s Willmar WarHawks started well, but stumbled through periods of the 2019-20 NA3HL season.

With the puck dropping for their 2020-21 season on Friday at New Ulm, the WarHawks are looking for a reversal of fortune.

The team opened last season winning four of its first five games, but later had losing streaks of four games or more on three separate occasions. By last season’s end, the WarHawks were six games under the .500 mark, had a minus-64 goal differential and were 12 points out of a playoff spot. It was the second consecutive season Willmar failed to make the postseason.

“It was a little bit disappointing to not make the playoffs,” Olimb said. “But at the same time, we were in the thick of the battle right down to the end, chasing Alexandria for that fourth and final playoff spot in our division. Our division is just really, really tough.”

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100320.S.WCT.WarHawks Luke Weberg
Willmar WarHawks goaltender Luke Weberg zeros in on the puck during Thursday's morning practice from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Shaking off the frustration of his first year, Olimb enters the season with plenty of optimism.

Hired as head coach in late March 2019, Olimb scrambled to form a roster of his choosing. By the time he reached out to prospects in April, many players had hundreds of teams to pick from.

Now with a year — and more importantly — a winter under his belt, Olimb was able to get familiar with players and coaches from the area and beyond.

“This year, I got to be in high school rinks all throughout the winter,” Olimb said. “In spring and summer, you are doing what you can, especially with (COVID-19). But I was able to get out and recruit and build those relationships throughout the entirety of the high school season last year.”

With just four players back from a year ago, the WarHawks enter the new season with basically an entirely new team.

Starting a team-high 20 games in net last season, goaltender Luke Weberg is back, as is Willmar Cardinals senior forward Elbridge DeKraai. In a player vote, the duo were named team captains. Chaska’s Owen Thomas and Bemidji’s Ethan Mock complete the returners.

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100320.S.WCT.WarHawks Kirk Olimb
Willmar WarHawks head coach Kirk Olimb instructs his team during Thursday's morning practice from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Of the 23 new players, 15 are from Minnesota and three hail from Wisconsin. There are also players from North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California and Germany.

“We’re excited to have a whole new group in here; guys excited to be in Willmar and to be a WarHawk,” Olimb said. “We’re looking to make some big moves this year, certainly be in that playoff hunt and really the sky’s the limit. Our goal, our focus is to win, and to win the whole thing.”

Players reported into town on Sept. 18 and held practice the following days. In the practices since, Olimb notes Richfield’s Nic Gustafson, Bloomington’s Jeremiah Konkel, Louis Anders, of Munich, Germany, and Ethan Light, of Manhattan Beach, Calif., as some of the early standouts.

With the new crop of forwards, the coaching staff believes the team can unlock a smothering defensive style.

“I really like our team speed, so I want to play really fast and really aggressive,” Olimb said. “Last year, we had solid players, but we amped it up a little bit with our speed, especially.

“We want to take care of the defensive zone first and with our team speed, we want to take away a lot of time and space.”

Additionally, Olimb wants his defensemen to look for more chances pinching and jumping into a play on the offensive end.

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Willmar is scheduled to play its first five games on the road. On Oct. 23, the WarHawks welcome North Iowa for their home opener.

For games played at the Willmar Civic Center, a maximum of 500 fans will be allowed in the rink with 250 placed on each side. Social distancing will be enforced in the stands. As for the players, they are screened and have their temperatures taken as soon as walking into the building.

“At this point, we’re just taking as many extra precautions as we can.” Olimb said. “We’re following all of the proper guidelines and sanitizing everything as much as possible. ... It’s anywhere but normal, but we’re making the best of it and I think the guys have done a good job of following the rules, guidelines and protocols to make sure everybody stays safe and healthy as much as possible.”

100320.S.WCT.WarHawks Ethan Mock
Willmar WarHawks defenseman Ethan Mock moves in on goaltender Cooper Olson during Thursday's team practice from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

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