After kicking off its first season of operation with eight road games that covered some 3,000 miles across Ontario and northern Minnesota, the Thief River Falls Junior A hockey team is gearing up for a belated home debut. That will occur this weekend when the Norskies take on English River in a three-game Superior International Junior Hockey League series at the Ralph Engelstad Arena.
The Miners will be in town for games Friday and Saturday that have 7:30 p.m. start times, and a Sunday contest that features a 5 p.m. opening face-off.
General manager Kevin McCallum, who brought the SIJHL expansion franchise to Thief River Falls, is looking for a large fan turnout as the community gets its first taste of Junior-calibre hockey for players in the 18-to-20-year-old category.
To date, the SIJHL has attracted a total paid attendance of 8,975 for 28 games – an average of 321 fans per game. At the outset, McCallum said home attendance in the 350 range would make Thief River Falls a viable league member.
Obviously, more would be better. The Norskies ownership group is hoping the REA – easily the finest facility in the SIJHL – will help pad those attendance figures.
Around the league, Dryden has averaged 377 fans for seven home games; Fort Frances 366 for seven home contests; and English River 320 for four home starts. Thunder Bay and the Minnesota Iron Rangers both draw an average of 249 fans – for six games at the Hoyt Lakes Arena and four at Thunder Bay. The high single-game crowd was 480 for the Dryden home opener; the lowest turnout was 190 for Sunday’s Thief River Falls game at Thunder Bay.
Two Thief River Falls preseason games against non-league opponents played at the adjoining Huck Olson Memorial Civic Center drew well, and the Norskies anticipate the fan base will grow for the Ralph Engelstad Arena contests against SIJHL competition.
The Norskies will be trying to build momentum off a 6-1 Sunday win over league-leading Thunder Bay.
“We’re starting to play as a team,” said Thief River Falls coach Cole Workman. “Every game we’ve made strides – getting away from playing as individuals.”
The Norskies are also beginning to do the little things that win hockey games, according to Workman. It has been a struggle to do that on a consistent basis, he admitted, but said the pieces fell into place in the Sunday victory over the North Stars.
Workman has been regularly making line changes while trying to find the combinations that work the best. “We’re getting closer to setting our lines,” he said. “We’re about 90 percent there right now,” he said.
Michigan natives Connor Smith (7 goals, 4 assists) and Alec Daman (3-6) currently rank 1-2 on the Norskies’ scoring charts with 11 and 9 points, respectively. Thief River Falls native Keaton Huot (1-6) is third on the list with 7 points.
In the nets, Junior A veteran Ryan Buttazzoni, an Alberta product who played last year with the El Paso (Texas) Rhinos in the Western States Hockey League, has seen more ice time, but is still competing for the full-time job with Sam Novak, who is from Grafton, N.D.
“We don’t have a No. 1 (goalie) yet,” said Workman. “Both Buttazzoni and Novak have had their moments.”
After spending so much time on the bus, Thief River Falls coaches and players are looking forward to being at home. “I have a sore back,” quipped Workman. “It will be nice to sit in the office, then head over to the rink two hours before game time. I’m more excited for the players. They’ve been booed every time they stepped on the ice so far. They haven’t had the opportunity to experience what it’s like to get that home crowd support.”
After wearing their orange road jerseys for eight consecutive games, the Norskies will take the ice decked out in white this week. Under SIJHL rules, home teams wear white – until midseason when the road teams switch from color to white.
The Norskies’ bid to treat the home crowd with a win won’t be an easy task this weekend. English River is 7-2, carries a six-game winning streak and has the best winning percentage in the SIJHL with a .778 figure.
Single-game ticket prices for the Norskies’ home schedule are $10 for adults; $8 for seniors ages 65-over and students showing proper school identification; and $5 for youth ages 6-12. Children ages 5-under are admitted free.
n Forwards – Blair Lindholm, Keaton Huot, Michael Johnson, TRF; Elias Thompson, Wautoma, Wis.; Connor Schuster, Minot, N.D.; Alec Daman, Chelsea, Mich.; Cody Aavig, Mitchell Soderberg, Grand Forks, N.D.; Brendan Bomay, Big Rapids, Mich.; Garrett Medina, Saginaw, Mich.; Austin Storm, Colorado Springs, Colo.; Connor Smith, Pinckney, Mich.; Ryan Lessard, Grafton, N.D.
n Defensemen – Cameron Jones, Colorado Springs, Colo.; Christian Bundschuh, Orange County, Calif.; Peter Grytdahl, Hermantown; Logan Jackson, Riverdale, Utah; Erik Colstrup, Ellendale; Jack Dunnell, Grand Rapids; Jake Eischen, Hastings; Tyler Chalupsky, Mahtomedi; Connor Bowey, Winnipeg, MB.
n Goalies – Kross Braaten, Minor, N.D.; Ryan Buttazzoni, Hinton, AB; Sam Novak, Grafton, N.D.
gp g a pts
Connor Smith 8 7 4 11
Alec Daman 8 3 6 9
Keaton Huot 8 1 6 7
Connor Schuster 8 2 3 5
Austin Storm 5 2 2 4
Tyler Chalupsky 8 2 2 4
Mitch Soderberg 8 2 2 4
Michael Johnson 7 1 3 4
Logan Jackson 6 1 2 3
Blair Lindholm 3 2 0 2
Ryan Lessard 7 2 0 0
Jake Eischen 5 1 1 2
Garrett Medina 7 0 2 2
Connor Bowey 4 1 0 1
Jack Dunnell 4 1 0 1
Peter Grytdahl 7 1 0 1
Cameron Jones 6 0 1 1
Erik Colstrup 7 0 1 1
Arshia Mitchell 1 0 0 0
Chris Bundschuh 4 0 0 0
Brendan Bomay 5 0 0 0
Cody Aavig 7 0 0 0
Elias Thompson 7 0 0 0
gp ga gaa sv%
Ryan Buttazzoni 7 26 4.00 .907
Sam Novak 3 10 6.31 .811