NA Now: North Iowa Bulls
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.
North Iowa Bulls
Head Coach: Todd Sanden (2nd Season)
2021-22 record: 60 GP, 22-28-10, 54 pts. (6th in the Central Division)
2021-22 leading scorer: Michael Mesic (49 points)
2022 Playoffs: Did not qualify
2022-23 Division: Central
First regular season game: Wednesday, September 14th vs. Wisconsin Windigo
Home opener: Friday, October 1st vs. Austin Bruins
For a decade the North Iowa Bulls dominated the NA3HL. They won four Fraser Cup championships, helped multiple players reach college hockey and built a massive, rabid fanbase in that time. Last season, the Bulls moved up to the North American Hockey League, making the jump from Tier III to Tier II. It started out well for North Iowa, posting a 3-1 record at the NAHL Showcase and they sat near the top of the standings through the Thanksgiving holiday. However, the Bulls struggled in the second half of the season, falling to the basement of the Central Division and would ultimately miss the playoffs by eight points in their inaugural NAHL season.
North Iowa had a very successful year off the ice as 14 players made commitments to NCAA programs. Nine of those coming at the Division I level, including their leading goal-scorer Carter Rapalje and top scoring defenseman Sean Vlasich. “Obviously we had a great start and then hit some bumps in the middle and towards the end of the season. Looking at the number of kids that played last year, we’re very hopeful that the game reps that those guys got are going to be opportunistic for us,” said head coach Todd Sanden.
Looking forward to this season, the Bulls will need to improve on both sides of the puck if they want to reach the Robertson Cup playoffs for the first time. Despite being ranked in the middle of the pack offensively, their power play was the worst in the NAHL, sitting at just a 12.2% success rate. That will need to be much better as the Bulls went 7-15 in one goal games last season including 2-10 in games that went to overtime or a shootout. Defensively, keeping the puck out of the net was a constant problem for the Bulls. North Iowa ranked 26th out of 29 NAHL teams in goals allowed, consistent goaltending will be key in turning it around in the always tightly contested Central Division. The Bulls will also look to regain home ice advantage this coming season. A place that almost never saw the team falter on home ice, saw the Bulls go 9-21 in 30 home contests in 2021-22.
Watch: Interview with North Iowa head coach Todd Sanden
“Probably a little uncertainty for us is our goaltending position. Looking through camps and through the draft and tender process to shore that up and we like the guys that we’re involved with and we just hope we get them to Mason City sooner than later,” Sanden said.
The Bulls will have more clarity with their skaters as a large group of forwards and defensemen are eligible to return to the River City. “When you look at the depth and the numbers of returners that we can have back, certainly looking at forward like Logan Dombrowsky and Max Scott that we have high expectations of. Another couple forwards would be Byron Hartley and Hunter Bulger. Both were around the 20 goal mark last year so looking at those guys to make a jump,” Sanden continued, “Jack Mesic on the blue line is certainly a guy that we're going to lean on and get all the minutes for us.
Byron Hartley put up 20 goals and 37 points in his rookie season in the NAHL. His 20 goals were second on the club while his 37 points were tied for fourth with returning forward Logan Dombrowsky. He put up 12 goals and 37 points in just 48 games. Max Scott only found the back of the net seven times but his 20 helpers got him to 27 points on the year in just 41 games. Hunter Bulger lit the lamp 16 times and ended the season with 25 points through 56 games played. Jack Mesic, committed to Ferris State University, is on the back end. He scored 12 goals and had 28 points, that was good for second most among all North Iowa defenseman.
Mason City has been spoiled with a decade of winning hockey teams and Sanden and the Bulls are committed to getting back into the playoff chase after a year away and rewarding the very loyal fanbase that gives them so much. “Mason City has been an amazing junior hockey community for over 35 years. We just enjoy the community and the support. The support is everywhere from corporate support to fanbase support. I have not seen a community or have been in a community that supports their team stronger than Mason City and we feel very fortunate and excited to be a part of that community,” said Sanden.
Next Up: New Mexico Ice Wolves