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Windigo excited for playoffs in first season

Wisconsin forwards Luke Baker (13) and Zachary Burfoot (17) celebrate a goal by forward Ben Anderson (24) during a game against Minnesota this season in Cloquet, Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Windigo)

EAGLE RIVER, Wis. — After a 4-0 loss to the Minnesota Wilderness on Oct. 7, 2022, Wisconsin Windigo coach Blake Hietala admitted that he felt little like he was going to be in for a long season. The Windigo, who play in the North American Hockey League’s (NAHL) Midwest Division, were 2-7 and things looked rather bleak.

Six months later, the Windigo finished the regular season with a record of 39-18-1-2, good for 81 points, four points better than the Wilderness, winning the Midwest in the process.

Hietala, a Houghton native and Michigan Tech graduate, feels that his team has made a ton of progress over the course of the season.

“It obviously feels pretty good,” he said. “We came into the year, and a lot of teams that I’ve been a part of, you sit down with the group, and you set goals at the beginning of the season. To be completely honest, we didn’t even do that this year. We just talked about doing things the right way, coming to try to get better every day, and looking up and seeing where we’re at at the end of it.

“Credit to our group, they really embodied that this year.

Wisconsin forward Luke Baker (13) attempts to clear the puck out of his own end during a game against Minnesota this season in Cloquet, Minnesota. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Windigo)

Hietala likes the fact that the team embraced its rough start, and rather than panic, it took the time and effort to get better.

“Obviously, with our slow start, the group stuck with it, improved areas we needed to improve on, and kind of got rewarded for it,” he said. “So, I’m really happy for our guys in the way that they progressed and kind of stuck with it early on, and then finished pretty strong for the last few months here.”

Part of the reason for that improvement came from the fact that Hietala and his staff tried to run the Windigo more like a United States Hockey League team, rather than a more typical NAHL squad. That meant they worked hard to keep a large chunk of the core group together, and as they clinched the division title, they were tied for the fewest number of players used in a game during the season.

“Our core pretty much remained intact throughout the year,” said Hietala. “We had, obviously, some moving parts. We were fortunate enough to get some guys down from the USHL, made a move or two that impacted us pretty well. But, I think, for the most part, our core stayed intact, and it was a good core.

I think before we had clinched first place, we were tied for using the least amount of players in a game in our division. Then, once we clinched, we were able to get a bunch of our younger affiliates in games.”

Hietala takes pride in how well the core of the Windigo bought into what he wanted from them.

“I was pretty happy with the fact that we didn’t turn over 50 players or 60 players this year,” he said. “We had a core that was the main part of it most of the year, and then some of the pieces that we were able to add helped.”

One of the other areas of pride for Hietala and his staff was the depth the team developed over the course of the season. Victor Widlund led the team in scoring with 17 goals and 48 points in 58 games. Eight other players scored at least 31 points. While some players were close to a point a game, Hietala loved how, on any given night, a different player proved key to the Windigo’s success.

“We did definitely have the top-end guys, but we didn’t have them for 50-60 games,” he said. “Our depth, I think, is definitely the biggest strength of our team. If you kind of look down to the lineup, we’ve got guys that would be on our ‘fourth line’ that are over a half point of game. We feel like we can roll four lines out against most teams, and not just have guys that are strictly out there to shut other teams down. We think we’ve got responsible players that can contribute on both ends of the ice right through our lineup.

“We’ve got four (defensemen) with over a half point a game, which is pretty good.”

The Windigo were not afraid to add to their core when it felt like they could find a player who would fit well. Max Martin proved to be exactly that type of player. Martin scored four goals and 12 points in 27 games with the Minot Minotaurs before being acquired by the Windigo. He found a home in Eagle River, scoring 12 goals and 33 points in 29 games.

“We liked some of the things that we thought he could bring to us,” said Hietala. “(We) didn’t know he was going to be this good. He ended up having 33 points in the last 29 games. So, that was a big addition for us.

With a player like Martin, sometimes a different team in the NAHL fits better.

“Sometimes a change of scenery is good for a kid,” Hietala said. “Sometimes the way a team plays is better for one kid than another. So, I couldn’t sit here and predict that he was going to do what he did for us in the second half when we got him. We did like him as a player, but I think it was kind of a perfect storm of things. He’s been pretty comfortable since he got here.”

A player on the roster the whole season who had a similar experience to Martin in the second half was rookie Drew Fisher. Fisher had just five points, a goal and four assists, through Oct. 30, 2022. Once things started to click for him, he started to score more regularly, finishing with 11 goals and 31 points in 58 games.

“A guy that’s been here all year that’s, I think, in the last month or two, started to pop and kind of come into his own was Drew Fisher,” said Hietala. “Metro Player of the Year last year in the Twin Cities, played for Cretin-Durham Hall. (He had a) pretty slowish start for us, but you could kind of see the skill and the tools. I want to say that in December, he probably had less than 10 points. Then, the last couple of months, he started to contribute offensively, and (he was) better throughout most nights. He ended up with 31 in 58. So, that’s the kind of growth that you hope to see in a kid like that. Hopefully that second half propels him into being a big-time player for us next year.”

Markham gets a taste

Houghton Gremlins standout Camden Markham had a chance to get into three games for the Windigo in the late season, and he picked up a point, an assist, against the Springfield Jr. Blues on April 14. In his third game, he put three shots on net.

For a player like Markham, who is looking to keep moving forward with his hockey career, getting a taste of the NAHL was very valuable to him.

“It felt like he got more comfortable as each game went on,” Hietala said. “Obviously, it’s a big step up from high school, the speed and the strength of everything, and just how quick everything happens. Hopefully it’s a good experience for him, and leads him into a good summer and hopefully helps prepare him for the fall.”

Getting back to work

Making the playoffs was half of the battle for the Windigo. Now that they are there, they will host the Chippewa Steel in the opening round of the Robertson Cup Playoffs. While it was hard for the team to maintain its focus once they sealed the Midwest Division title, Hietala feels that the team has been getting back to what it does well this week as they get ready for the Steel.

“I think they’re really excited,” he said. “I think since we clinched a playoff spot, you could tell there were certain days where it was a little less energy. Guys are probably just a touch less focused on details, practices and games.

“But, Monday, when we got back to work here, getting ready for Chippewa, you could tell there was definitely another step in practice. The pace was a little higher. Guys were talking, and you can kind of just feel the energy. So it feels pretty good right now.”

Playoff schedule

The Windigo will host the Steel in a best-of-five format. Games One and Two will be at home at the Eagle River Sports Arena on Friday, April 21, and Saturday, April 22, with both games starting at 8 p.m. If the series goes to a fifth game, it would be back in Eagle River on Sunday, April 30.

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