NA Now: Wisconsin Windigo
The NA Now series features a look at all 29 teams in the NAHL for the 2022-23 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season. NA Now looks into each NAHL team including interviews with all the head coaches in the NAHL, as they provide fans with their expectations and outlook for the season, including taking a look at their strengths as a team and thoughts on the league. It will also take a look back on last season and how each team fared and what they accomplished.
Head Coach: Blake Hietala (1st Season)
2021-22 record: 60 GP, 25-26-9, 59 pts. (6th in the Midwest Division) *as Minnesota Magicians
2021-22 leading scorer: Hunter Longhi (62 points) *as Minnesota Magicians
2022 Playoffs: Did not qualify *as Minnesota Magicians
2022-23 Division: Midwest
First regular season game: Wednesday, September 14th vs. North Iowa Bulls
Home opener: Friday, September 23rd vs. Fairbanks Ice Dogs
Back on March 16, 2022, the Minnesota Magicians were sold and relocated to Eagle River, Wisconsin, where they will make their debut in the NAHL during the 2022-23 season as the Wisconsin Windigo. The Windigo will play their home games out of the iconic ‘The Dome,’ which was the first indoor ice arena constructed in the State of Wisconsin in 1925.
The Magicians, who had been in the NAHL since the 2013-14 season, missed out on the playoffs and finished 6th in the Midwest Division during the 2021-22 season. The pinnacle for the Magicians came during the 2020-21 season when they won the Midwest Division playoff title and advanced to the 2021 Robertson Cup Championship, where they ultimately bowed out in the Semi-Finals to the Aberdeen Wings.
With the change in name and location, also came a change behind the bench as the Windigo named Blake Hietala as the team’s first head coach. This will be Hietala’s first stint as head coach, having previously served as an assistant coach in the USHL for both the Green Bay Gamblers (2018-22) and Madison Capitols (2017-18). Hietala, who is originally from Houghton, Michigan, played in the NAHL during the 2007-08 season for the Bismarck Bobcats before going onto play NCAA Division I hockey for Michigan Tech University.
“I’m really excited. We have a very good and dedicated ownership group and I think people are going to realize very quickly that we have one of the best places to play in the league. The Dome has a lot of character and I think the atmosphere of the home crowd will be exciting once we are able to show them the level of play that the NAHL has,” said Hietala. “I think I’ve been able to take different things from each of the places I’ve been as an assistant and build them up to a point where I have this opportunity to be a head coach. It’s a challenge I think I am ready for and I am ready to put my own spin on things and ready to lead. It wasn’t that long ago that I was playing in the NAHL and doing exactly what these players were doing, which is trying to develop, grow as a man, and make it to the NCAA. I will lean on that experience to help our players.”
The Windigo just completed their main tryout camp this past weekend and will have players reporting to their main training camp in just a few weeks. Hietala said that the main components for this season will be a mix of returning veterans and some players they selected in the 2022 NAHL Draft. “We didn’t have a lot of picks in the early rounds, so we had to try and find some value later in the Draft, which I think we did. We feel good about the Europeans we took in the draft. All bring experience and superb skills to our team,” said Hietala.
The Windigo will also have some key players from last year’s Magicians team who have made the move East to Wisconsin. “We have a good core of returners who played last year with the Magicians. Jon Bell will be a guy that we rely on early for some leadership on the ice and in the locker room. I also look for forward Sam Jacobs to really take that next step as well after having a great rookie season last year and earning an NCAA Division I commitment to Air Force,” said Hietala.
Bell, 20, who is committed to play NCAA Division I hockey for Army, took a big step forward during the 2021-22 season, recording a career-high 26 points in 51 games played last season. He has almost 100 career NAHL games on his resume, so he will be looked upon to have a solid final season in the NAHL. Jacobs, 19, was 5th in team scoring during the 2021-22 campaign with 43 points in 59 games played.
“We have worked hard on a lot of things here off the ice to get the team and season going, so it will be exciting when training camp and the season begins, so we can see what we have on the ice and build from there. We are really excited for the NAHL Showcase and taking the ice for the first time on September 14th. There’s a lot of people who will have smiles on their faces because they have worked hard to get us to this point and make the Windigo a reality.”
Next up: St. Cloud Norsemen