By Alex Kyrias, NAHL
New team, new city, new ownership and new head coach. It sounds a lot like a team that would not have lofty expectations in their first season, but the Amarillo Bulls completely bucked (yes, pun intended) the trend. No other first-year team had a better season than the Bulls, who not only re-energized a community that had thought to have been dead in hockey circles, but also came within minutes of reaching the Robertson Cup finals in their first season.
The Bulls were a mix of aggressiveness, depth, grit and determination last season, something that mirrors their head coach, Dennis Williams. Williams, who had been in the NCAA as head coach of Bowling Green prior to coming to Amarillo, developed a team that would have success when it mattered… at the end of the season.
“Once the guys were able to learn and feed off one another, we started playing the way I thought we could play. I thought it was important to get off to a good start so we weren’t scrambling at the end,” said Williams. To say Amarillo was hot from the start was an understatement. In the team’s first 29 games (or roughly the first half of the season), the Bulls lost in regulation just five times. They were sitting in 1st place in the South Division and everyone took notice that the Bulls were for real.
Although the Bulls cooled off just a little towards the end of the regular season, the playoffs saw the Bulls go back to their old ways, thanks in large part to their veteran goaltender Nikifor Szczerba. He played so much in fact he finished 3rd in the NAHL in games played. After dispatching Texas in four games in the South Semi-Finals, the Bulls set their sights on the division champion and Robertson Cup host Topeka Roadrunners. In a series for the ages, the Bulls would become the South Division playoff champions with a memorable series win in the fifth and deciding game in Topeka.
Although the Bulls would fall one game short from making the Robertson Cup Finals, Williams believes the players returning this season will be that much stronger and battle-tested for the 2011-12 season. “Obviously, we would have liked to have won, but when you look at the season as a whole, the guys have to be proud of what they accomplished. We brought hockey back to Amarillo, got a fanbase believing in a team again and gave our players a great experience. I think any of the players coming back will feed off what happened last year,” said Williams.
With the success last year, come lofty expectations in 2011-12. Gone is the workhorse Szczerba, but Williams has plenty of veterans up front who are expected to carry the load. 20-year-old forward Matt Johnson returns to the line-up a year after registering almost 50 points and who was third on the team in plus/minus. Johnson was one of only two Bulls players on the roster to play in all 58 games. Bulls forwards Joe Kozlak and Michael Erickson are two more players who had good seasons last year, registering 37 and 33 points respectively.
“It’s no secret that if you are going to have success, that your veteran players have to step up and play to their abilities. We want our guys to come in with a little bit of swagger and play with something to prove,” said Williams.
Defensively, the Bulls will be younger and rely heavily on the services of Holy Cross recruit Karl Beckman. Beckman, who led the Bulls in plus/minus, is as good as they come from a defensive standpoint. He stands 6’2 and weighs 195 lbs., so this season will be important for him as he readies himself one more year before going to the NCAA ranks. Williams expects five defenseman to return from last season, which should help ease the burden on whoever he decides to start in goal.
And, perhaps that is the biggest question that lingers for the Bulls is... who will carry the load between the pipes? Williams was quiet on the subject, but odds are it is going to be someone who can handle the rigors of the South Division. “This season will be even harder after what we accomplished last season. We don’t want to be a one-hit wonder,” said Williams. “The division is going to be more competitive with the addition of Odessa and the new coaches in Wichita Falls and New Mexico, so we have to come to play every night.”
Next up in the NAHL’s 28 teams in 28 days series, the Austin Bruins.