Putting the ‘Win’ in Windigo: Eagle River-based junior team finding success under Houghton native

Houghton native Blake Hietala draws up a drill during a recent Wisconsin Windigo practice at the Eagle River Sports Arena in Eagle River, Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Windigo)

EAGLE RIVER, Wis. — A year ago, the Minnesota Magicians of the North American Hockey League were muddled in a season where they eventually finished with their fourth-highest win total in franchise history, yet were not destined to make the playoffs.

A year later, now known as the Wisconsin Windigo, after having moved to Eagle River, Wisconsin, the Windigo are in first place in the Midwest Division with a record of 30-15-1-2 in 48 games. They hold a four-point lead over the Minnesota Wilderness and a six-point advantage over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.

For first-year head coach Blake Hietala, who played five seasons with the Michigan Tech Huskies from 2010-15, the ride has been a fun one.

“It’s been good,” he said. “Obviously, (there have) been some ups and downs, but I feel like I’m learning a lot still. (I) have been able to learn a lot through the early parts that had some downs in it, and been able to apply them a little bit.

“Our group’s been great to work with and I think you’ve seen some improvements because of that.”

After a loss to the Wilderness on Oct. 7, 2022, the Windigo fell to 2-7 to open the season, and Hietala admitted that things were nowhere nearly as fun as they are now.

“We took our lumps early, which I think has helped us a little bit in the long run,” said Hietala. “We started 2-7, and there were some days where it looked pretty bleak for us, but credit to our group. They kept showing up every day to work, and get better, and are getting rewarded for it now.”

With a pair of wins last weekend on the road against the Springfield Jr. Blues, the Windigo are on a six-game winning streak. They have also won nine of their last 10, which has helped them vault to the top of their division.

Along with the Windigo, the Wilderness and the Ice Dogs, the Midwest Division features the Kenai River Brown Bears, the Anchorage Wolverines, the Janesville Jets, the Chippewa Steel and the Blues. Hietala is proud of how well his team has come together to work its way to the top, but also knows that can change very quickly.

“It is a very tight division,” he said. “Anybody can beat anybody on any given night. It feels like every weekend there can be big swings in terms of where teams are at the standings. I think you’ve kind of seen multiple teams go from top to middle, back to the top, bottom to the top, and top to the bottom. It’s been a lot of fluctuation. So, it’s definitely a tough division.”

Hietala has worked throughout the season to help his team understand that there are no nights off in terms of success, and that if they are willing to work for it, the opportunity to win games is right in front of them.

“We take care of one game at a time, because there’s no opponents that we can look past or take lightly, by any means,” he said in an interview last week. “We go to Springfield this weekend, who’s last in the standings, but that’s a really skilled hockey team. If you don’t show up and do things right, they’re going to score some goals.”

The Windigo won both games this past weekend, earning a 3-1 victory on Friday and 4-2 win on Saturday.

With 12 games left in the regular season, the playoffs are right around the corner. However, Hietala continues to try to focus on taking things one game at a time, rather than try to put too much pressure on his team to perform.

“What I will say is that I really like this group,” he said. “I like the mix of skill and grit. We’ve got a really good group of kids. It feels like they believe that we can beat anybody on any given night.

“Right now, our division is way too tight to be looking at playoffs.”

Anderson making strides

A player that Heitala feels has made some large strides this season is a 20-year-old forward named Ben Anderson. In 46 games, Anderson has 12 goals and 27 points. He went from not being a guaranteed player at training camp to playing a Top 6 role for the Windigo, while also earning special teams time as well.

“We’ve had a lot of guys that have taken big steps,” said Hietala. “I think one kid you could probably point to, and he’s kind of the poster child for that, would be Ben Anderson. He’s a 20-year-old forward that probably, coming into the season, I didn’t know if he would make our team. But, he had a really good camp (and a) really good early in the season. He’s just kind of grown and grown and grown his role where he’s playing a Top 6, he’s on the power play, he’s killing penalties.

“We gave him a letter in December, and (he) recently committed to University of Alaska-Anchorage. So, he’s probably the poster child for that. He’s worked, worked, and become a Division I hockey player. So, he’s been probably one of the cooler stories that I’ve been able to have as a coach.”

Moving on

With Anderson’s offer from the Seawolves, the Windigo now have seven players committed to Division I programs and two set to go to Division III schools, including Noah Pickart, who is with Marian in the NCHA already.

“That’s most of why we do this is to help kids advance their careers,” Hietala said. “So that part is probably the most rewarding of what we do, even better than the wins and losses, is seeing these kids get opportunities to advance and go have success.”

Adding Markham

Last week, the Windigo and Houghton Gremlins co-captain Camden Markham agreed to a tender agreement. Markham broke the Houghton school record on Saturday for career points with 194, and he will help lead his team to the Division 3 semifinals against East Grand Rapids on Friday.

Hietala likes what he has seen of Markham so far, and feels that he could benefit from some getting opportunities at the next level.

“I think just the skill set right now,” said Hietala when asked what he liked about Markham. “He’s a big body. He’s really good, skilled stick, can shoot a puck, can make some plays. So, I think early on, where our focus is going to be kind of rounding out his game, kind of making it a little more complete. But, for us, the base of it is there. The base of his game is there with the skill set. So, I’m excited to work with him.”


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