Much like the rest of the North American Hockey League, the Central Division will take on a bit of a different look this coming season, and that includes its coaches.
One familiar face back in the fold is Pat Cullen. After leading the Southern Minnesota Express to back-to-back Robertson Cup Championship Tournament appearances in 2006 and 2007, Cullen has returned to his old stomping grounds to guide the first-year Owatonna Express.
“We're excited for the challenge to try to put together a competitive team,” said Cullen, who mentored a number of Division I players during his first go-round in Southern Minnesota. “We know we have our work cut out for us, but we feel that with the way the community of Owatonna has stepped up to keep a team here, anything is possible.”
Down I-35 in Albert Lea, the expansion Thunder has called on Brad Zangs to lead its charge behind the bench. A seasoned coach, Zangs has plenty of experience in the college and junior ranks with a solid track record of development to boot.
Even further down the interstate in Mason City, the North Iowa Outlaws have promoted assistant coach Jeff Crouse to the head post after Dave Boitz left to accept the head coaching position with the Alaska Avalanche.
“I'm very excited to take over the reigning Central Division champions,” said Crouse, who served as the Outlaws' assistant coach since their inception in 2005-06. “It's a big step in my career and I'm very much looking forward to the upcoming season.”
The stakes are even higher for the Outlaws, who are guaranteed a berth to this year's Robertson Cup Championship Tournament as host.
“Our expectations are set very high just because of that and also because of our record from last season,” said Crouse. “Our main focus is to defend our regular-season title and continue the success and tradition we've built here.”
Of the returning coaches, Brad Willner is back in Alexandria after leading the Blizzard to its first-ever Robertson Cup Championship Tournament appearance last season. In addition, three of last year's Blizzard are set to play college hockey.
Also back in the Central is Byron Pool, who will embark on his first full season as head coach of the Bismarck Bobcats. Two players from last year's Bobcats team will play Division I hockey this fall, including goaltender Jake Kremer, who will stop pucks at the University of Minnesota.