Going prospecting: Hietala, five players, represent Windigo at prospect tournament

Wisconsin coach Blake Hietala will coach the Selects Silver team at the NAHL’s Top Propects tournament on Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 5 and 6, at the Mario Lemieux Sports Complex in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Windigo)

EAGLE RIVER, Wis. — When the North American Hockey League (NAHL) holds its annual Top Prospects Tournament on Monday and Tuesday, Feb. 5 and 6, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the tournament will have a decidedly Wisconsin Windigo flavor, as five skaters and coach Blake Hietala are all set to be involved in the two-day event at the Mario Lemieux Sports Complex.

For Hietala, who is in his second season as the head coach of the Windigo, the honor of representing Eagle River means a lot to him personally, but even more importantly, it means a lot from a team perspective.

“Well, for one, I’m obviously honored and excited to be a part of this part of it,” he said, “but we kind of look at it as more of a team award, per se. I think the coaches are selected based off of win percentage, so I give a lot of our credit to the guys and how they have played so far this year.”

With five players being involved, Hietala, who will be coaching the Silver Selects team, is excited to see all of them earn some exposure from college scouts.

“We’re excited for those guys to get that opportunity,” he said. “Basically every Division I school will be there, every NHL scout. So, it’s a good opportunity for those guys to get exposure. Not only for their next step, but hopefully they go and play well, and there’s some pro guys that have notes on them for four or five years from now.”

Wisconsin coach Blake Hietala addresses his team on the bench during a game against Chippewa this season in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. (Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Windigo)

When he was brought in to be the first head coach of the Windigo after the team moved to Eagle River from Minnesota, he was sure the team would find success, but, at the same time, he was not sure how quickly that would happen.

“(When) we started this, we didn’t know how long it would take to get to the point we’re at,” he said. “So, (we’re) pretty happy with what we’ve done so far in just over a year and a half. But, at the same time, there’s a lot that we still want to accomplish.

“Like I said, it’s cool to be a part of, but you’ve got some other things to accomplish.”

With three wins last weekend, the Windigo finished their most recent road trip to Alaska with five wins. Since Jan. 5, they are 8-1 with that loss coming in a shootout against the Minnesota Wilderness. The hot streak has helped Wisconsin vault to the top of the NAHL’s Midwest Division with a record of 25-10-3-2, good for 55 points, four better than the Janesville Jets. However, the Jets have two games in hand, so Hietala knows his team still has a long way to go. In fact, they will face the Jets eight times before the regular season comes to a close.

“Our guys have done a good job,” he said. “We were a little inconsistent early, but you saw spurts of maybe how good this group could be. They’ve done a good job the last couple of months of adding some consistency to our game, and bringing it most nights and obviously getting rewarded for it in the standings. But, at same time, we’re excited for the last little stretch of games here. We’ve got a ton of important, big, meaningful games.

“We play Janesville eight times. We’ve still got Minnesota a couple of times. So, we’re excited for the challenge ahead of us.”

With key matchups against both the Jets and the Wilderness, the goal for Hietala and his group is to be playing its best hockey down the stretch.

“We’ve talked about that a lot in the first half,” said Hietala. “We’re trying to grow and be playing our best hockey down the stretch and into playoffs. Hopefully (it) looks like we’ve taken the right steps towards that, but (we need to) try to keep our foot on the gas here and keep going the right direction.”

Joining Hietala in the Top Prospects Tournament are forwards Will Schumacher and Everett Pietila, and defenseman Sam Groebner who are all part of the Midwest Division team. Rookie forward Jacob Jastrzebski will be a part of the Selects Gold team. Defenseman Carter Theissen will play for the Central Division team, due to his nomination coming before he was acquired in a trade by the Windigo from the North Iowa Bulls.

Pietila is third on the Windigo in scoring with 11 goals and 43 points in 40 games. Schumacher is second on the Windigo in goals with 23, and fifth in points with 35 in 32 games. Jastrzebski is fourth on the team in scoring with 11 goals and 38 points in 40 games as a rookie.

Groebner is still searching for his first goal of the season, but has 13 assists in 39 games. Theissen has three goals and 19 points this season in 36 games between the Bulls and the Windigo. In seven games with Wisconsin, he has three assists.

Schumacher has split time with the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede, which was not new for him, but in his most recent call-up, Hietala said that his high-scoring winger played with more confidence.

“He’s a kid that’s played a couple of different spurts up there, so this wasn’t his first time,” Hietala said, “but I think it was probably the first time he went up there with a little more confidence, and kind of knew what to expect. (He) was able to score a goal in Sioux Falls. Their coaches were happy with how he played. So, happy for him to get that opportunity.”

Pietila scored 11 goals and 22 points last season, so to see his confidence grow this season has been rewarding.

“He’s been great for us,” said Hietala. “He works really hard. He’s got a good brain. He’s a guy that can kind of play up and down your lineup in different situations. We saw it towards the end of last year. (Assistant coach) Casey (Kirley) and I thought he might be able to be a 50, 60 point guy for us, and he’s had a nice year so far.”

Hietala also beams when talking about the season Jastrzebski is having.

“He’s been awesome for us,” Hietala said. “He was a kid that we targeted early last year and we were able to get him a handful of games with us last season. He stepped right in this year, has kind of played like a veteran, and is a huge piece of what we’re doing right now. (He) plays in all situations, which is impressive as a young kid. I think he leads the league in scoring for 2005 (birth year players), and I think he’s going to be rewarded with a college commitment here soon. So, pretty happy for him as well.”


The Midwest will open the tournament on Monday, Feb. 5, at 2 p.m. against the East. Selects Silver and Selects Gold will face off at 4:45 p.m. The Central and the South will play at 7:30 p.m.

On Tuesday, Hietala and Selects Silver will face the Midwest at 10 a.m. The Selects Gold will face the South at 12:45 p.m. The East and the Central will play at 3:30 p.m.


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