24 Teams in 24 Days: Austin Bruins
The ‘24 in 24’ series features an in-depth look into all 24 NAHL teams, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season on Saturday, September 8th.
‘24 in 24’ will go in-depth into each NAHL team and will include interview with all 24 NAHL head coaches as they prognosticate and break down their outlook for the upcoming season.
Year #2 for the Austin Bruins last season was one that was considered by many to be a big success. The Bruins won 36 games during the regular season, had one of the best home records in the league and were able to win their first playoff games and a playoff series. On top of all that were the nine NCAA commitments from last year’s team and a huge spike in attendance and community awareness.
Austin was remarkably consistent last season on the ice with 18 of their 36 wins coming in the last half of 2011 and 18 of their 36 wins coming in the first half of 2012. The team never had more than two regulation losses in a row and put together an eight-game winning streak in February and March to make a push towards the playoffs and even home ice advantage in the first round. Despite finishing seven points behind the 2nd place Alexandria Blizzard, the Bruins were able to defeat the Blizzard 3 games to 1 in their best of five Central Semi-Final Series and move onto the Central Finals against Bismarck. Despite taking one of two games on the road to begin the series, it was not meant to be as Bismarck swept Games 3 and 4 in Austin on their way to the title.
“I think anybody that coaches would like to win it all, but in only our second year, I thought we made some really good strides,” said head coach Chris Tok. “We won our first playoff series and got to the division finals, which gave the guys a little taste of playoff success that I hope we can build upon this season.”
Along with the success on the ice, came success in the community. In a year that featured the NAHL breaking their all-time league attendance record, the Bruins contributed their share to the record as they were one of 13 NAHL teams to average more than 1,000 fans per game and they increased their average attendance by almost 34% from the year before. It came to a peak back on February 4th as the Bruins had their largest crowd ever of almost 2,000 fans in their annual Paint the Rink Pink Night.
“The growth in the community has been tremendous. It is so important for our players to establish that personal connection with the fans and community,” said Tok. “I think the product we put on the ice improved and the community responded to that as well.”
With nine players off to the NCAA, Tok had his hands full in building a team for the 2012-13 season. The biggest void was defensively with the loss of players like goaltender Tyler Bruggeman and defensemen Jon Gehrt, Christian Folin and Trevor Waldoch. The Bruins do return goaltender Nick Lehr, who appeared in 22 games last season and posted a 91.8% save percentage. Nolan Kirley and Chris Fischer both return for their third season with the Bruins organization, which they have been a part of since the beginning of the franchise. “They understand what we expect on and off the ice and will be able to be good mentors to the younger guys. They are two guys that fans have come to identify,” said Tok.
The offense will be led by AJ Reid, Brandon Wahlin and John Simonson. Reid, an Army recruit, only played in 26 games last season, but was the only player on last year’s roster to average more than a point per game last season. Wahlin was second on the team in scoring with 40 points and Simonson was right behind Wahlin with 38 points. “All three guys scored some big goals for us, especially down the stretch, so we expect them to be even better this season,” said Tok.
There are plenty of new faces this year including 16-year-old goaltender Jason Pawlowski, who became the most recent in a long line of players to move onto the next level from the Omaha AAA Lancers 16U team from last season in the North American Prospects Hockey League (PHL). The other two that Tok pointed out were forwards Zach Johnson from Rochester, Minnesota and Nate Mondry from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “Zach is a hard-working player that can get up and down the ice with the best of them,” remarked Tok. “Nate plays fast, hard and little bit wild, but is a great talent and came into camp in very good shape. I think both players will be able to adapt very quickly to this level.”
Tok believes that after last year’s success, the goals for this year are clear. “We want to win the division and we know we have some tough teams to knock off to get there,” said Tok. “Long term we can think about something like the Robertson Cup, but it all starts with the success and winning the division.”
Next up in the NAHL 24 Teams in 24 Days series, the Amarillo Bulls.