Word spread a week ago of the Steele County Blades getting the official nod from area decision makers to move forward with putting a Minnesota Junior Hockey League franchise in Owatonna, Minn. beginning in the 2012-13 season.
This week, the time has come for the MnJHL to makes its official introduction to the community.
The Four Seasons Centre in Owatonna will host a pair of MnJHL games Nov. 4 and 6, offering a glimpse at what can come both on and off the ice.
Erik Largen started his junior hockey career as a goaltender with the MnJHL's Twin Cities Northern Lights, before advancing to the Tier II level with the then Owatonna bred Southern Minnesota Express and eventually landing a chance to play Division I college hockey in Alaska.
Now the Northern Lights head coach, Largen will make his return to Owatonna with a first place team at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4 to face the Edina Lakers at the Four Seasons Centre.
Two days later, Largen the Lights will be back to face the Rochester Ice Hawks at 5:45 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6 on a night that will showcase the top-two teams in the MnJHL standings, as well as the possibilities the league can bring to those that someday play for the Steele County Blades.
"More than anything, that's what makes this weekend really exciting," said Mark Woodrich, who sits on the Blades Board of Directors. "Erik Largen is a great example of how this can really work. The kids playing in the MnJHL come to play everyday because they are working to get somewhere. Erik did that, and we hope to get many more players that come through here in the future do the same."
Figuring out who those players may be is an ongoing process, but it's one that is at least started, and to Woodrich and the rest of the people behind getting the Steele County franchise to this point, that sounds as good as a goal horn.
"We've put in a lot of hours to get here," said Woodrich. "The hard part is behind us. Now, it gets fun."
The MnJHL originally approached the Owatonna group last summer. Countless conversations and signatures later, the Steele County Parks and Recreation Board recommended the MnJHL and the Blades to the county for approval.
Last week, that item made it to the Steele County Board of Commissioners agenda, which passed it unanimously.
"We were waiting for that," Woodrich said. "We were always going to host these games, but we've been holding off with the shouting and screaming that the Blades were playing next year. Now we know; the Blades are playing next year in Owatonna."
The MnJHL will make three more trips to the Four Seasons Centre before seasons end. Rochester plays Hudson Nov. 26, Rochester plays Edina Feb. 10 and Rochester plays the Northern Lights again Nov. 26.
After then, the next MnJHL team to hit the ice inside the Four Seasons Centre will be the Steele County Blades.
"Yes it will," said Woodrich. "We have a lot of work to do. We have to find a coach, and get then get some players out. We're working now. We're out scouting. We know we can't announce in May that we are having our first camp in June. We have to start getting to work, and getting the word out now. But like I said, this is the fun part. We're ready to bring junior hockey back to Owatonna."
Last weekend in the MnJHL -
Dells Ducks: The Ducks opened last weekend by shutting out Edina 5-0 Oct. 28. Matt Rowe (Fox River Grove, Ill.) made 43 saves in goal, and both Aidan Verbeke (Elmwood park, Ill.) and Devin Mascarin (Thunder Bay, Ontario) each had two points in the victory. Billy Warren (Montgomery, Ill.) and Ben Stachowiak (Bloomingdale, Ill.) both added two more points in a 3-2 Ducks loss to the Lakers Oct. 29.
Edina Lakers: Edina got goals from Derek McMasters (Austin, Minn.) and Drew Decker (Edina, Minn.) 58 seconds apart in the third period, and Brenden Kruckenberg (Rapid City, S.D.) finished with 27 saves in goal as the Lakers topped the Dells Ducks 3-2 Oct. 29.
Hudson Crusaders: Cody Rich (Bellingham, Wash.) scored his 13th goal of the year for the game-winner, and Jake Bruhn (Chippewa Falls, Wis.) and Nick Townes (Crown Point, Ind.) had two points apiece in a 4-3 Hudson victory over the Minnesota Owls Oct. 29. Rich then added another goal and three assists, and Mackie Hayman (Wake Forest, N.C.) did the same in a 7-1 win over the Dells Ducks Oct. 30.
Maple Grove Energy: Zach Albers (Woodinville, Wash.) and T.J. Marquardt (Victoria, Minn.) each finished with two goals and an assist in a loss to Twin Cities Oct. 30.
Minnesota Owls: The Owls dropped a pair of one-goal games last weekend. Brad Jerzewski (Madison, Wis.) had 43 saves and Robert Erickson (Coon Rapids, Minn.) assisted on both Minnesota goals in a 3-2 loss at Rochester Oct. 28. Dallas Tucker (Littleton, Colo.) had two goals and an assist in a 4-3 loss at Hudson Oct. 29.
Rochester Ice Hawks: Rochester extended its winning streak to three, and now has victories in seven of eight after a pair of victories last weekend. Karel Popper (Maineville, Ohio) made 36 saves in the Ice Hawks' 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Owls Oct. 28, and Charles Gallagher (Albany, N.Y.) scored four times and set up a pair in a 12-1 win over Maple Grove Oct. 29.
Twin Cities Northern Lights: Fourteen games into their Minnesota Junior Hockey League season, the Northern Lights are already 10 games over .500. Twin Cities won both times out last weekend. Keenan Wallace (Fairbanks, Alaka) finished with 23 saves in a 5-0 shutout at Hudson Oct. 28, and Corbin Belling (West Des Moines, Iowa) scored four times and Nick Edwards (Brighton, Ill.) had four assists in a 12-4 victory over Maple Grove Oct. 30.
Games scheduled for this weekend -
Friday, Nov. 4
Hudson Crusaders at Dells Ducks, 7 p.m.
Rochester Ice Hawks at Maple Grove Energy, 7:05 p.m.
Twin Cities Northern Lights vs. Edina Lakers, 7:30 p.m. (Game being played at Four Seasons Centre in Owatonna)
Saturday, Nov. 5
Hudson Crusaders at Dells Ducks, 7 p.m.
Maple Grove Energy at Rochester Ice Hawks, 7:05 p.m.
Twin Cities Northern Lights at Edina Lakers, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Nov. 6
Rochester Ice Hawks vs. Twin Cities Northern Lights, 5:45 p.m. (Game being played at Four Seasons Centre in Owatonna)