Junior hockey almost vanished from Southern Minnesota when the Express packed up for Michigan after last season to become the Motor City Machine.
That was until a group of local supporters - the same contingent that headed the organization before its sale to the Machine ownership group last year - put their hands in the middle again in an effort to keep pucks moving in Owatonna.
“We just couldn't let this team go, and we were willing to contribute and give it a solid try,” said Express board member Bill Stewart. “We felt that with a local group getting involved, we could get a lot further with local companies and government, and so far it’s proven to be true. We have a much better feel for the community.”
The Express is getting it done with an ever-growing volunteer core committed to seeing the team prosper. According to Stewart, the organization has become more active in the Owatonna community through player involvement while putting a stronger emphasis on corporate partnerships, marketing and ticket sales.
On and off the ice, the team is led by head coach and general manager Pat Cullen. No stranger to the NAHL, Cullen guided the Southern Minnesota Express to two straight Robertson Cup Championship Tournament appearances in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
“Pat does a great job with the kids and sets a great example for them as far as public behavior goes and public involvement,” said Stewart, who is joined on the Express board by Barb Howell, Rick Kolz, Rick Spitzack, Dennis Von Ruden, Greg Wobschall and Mark Woodrich.
After 11 games this season, the Express sported a 4-7 record, good for fourth place in the NAHL’s Central Division. Cullen is confident that mark will improve over time.
“Not unlike our first year having a team here (in 2005-06), we’ve started slowly because it takes time for the players get used to doing things the way we want them done," said Cullen. "That and our competition is very good.
"We’re making progress and hopefully we’ll see more positive results in the win column.”
This coming weekend, the Express tangles with the first-year Albert Lea Thunder, which picked up its first victory in team history against Bismarck on Saturday, in a home-and-home series.
“Albert Lea is coming off of a big win and should feel good about themselves, so we’ll have our hands full,” said Cullen.
For an optimistic Stewart, he’s taking the resurrected venture one day at a time.
“At this point we’re happy with things, but we still have a long way to go,” he said.
FIRST, SECOND CLASH IN NORTH: The Mahoning Valley Phantoms are back on the road this weekend as they get set to open a three-game series with the red-hot Traverse City North Stars in northwest Michigan.
Traverse City enters the weekend with a franchise-best eight-game winning streak, the second-longest streak by any team in the NAHL behind St. Louis’ current 14-game tear. The streak has posted the North Stars to a seven-point lead in the North Division standings over the second-place Phantoms.
“Traverse City is always a hard working, physical team,” said Phantoms head coach Bob Mainhardt. “We need to be very disciplined and play excellent team defense to match Traverse City's intensity and give ourselves a shot against them in their home arena.
“They’ve had a tremendous start and will continue to be one of the top teams in our league.”
With both teams so even statistically, Mainhardt believes the series will likely hinge on depth.
“This weekend will show how deep both teams are at this point of the season,” said the sixth-year coach. “It will be a great test for both squads. It will take all 20 players each night to come out on top.” - Paul Teeple