Dan-ecdotes: At halfway point, North Stars having best season yet
Since its first season in 2012, the Breezy Point North Stars junior hockey team has been a work in progress.
In its first two seasons, the team had single-digit win totals and finished last in the West Division. In the third season, they improved to fifth out of six division teams. Last season, they finished third in the division but were eliminated in the division semifinals.
Now they have a new coach in Jon Jonasson, a rebuilt team and a new outlook. So far this season, they are 18-6-1 and are currently seeded first in the West Division.
“It has been great,” Jonasson said. “We are doing better up to this point than I thought we would. We had to recruit half a team, and lot of those guys are younger, so we thought it would take us until about January to reach our peak. We brought in a lot of guys who are hard-working, good-character guys who all mesh very well. We are definitely happy with the route we have gone so far.”
The organization brought in general manager Craig Larson during its second season. With previous experience in establishing junior hockey teams, he immediately began recruiting top-tier athletes and building a local fanbase to fill the Breezy Point Arena.
“At this level - building a team from scratch at the start - it takes a lot of work to build a team and build a brand in junior hockey, and certainly to introduce junior hockey to an area that is not familiar with it,” Larson said. “It takes about five years for a team to get good. We are in our fifth year and we are pretty good right now.”
A turning point on the ice, according to Larson, came with the hiring of Jonasson as head coach this past offseason. An experienced coach and recruiter, Larson and the North Stars were drawn to the consistency he could bring - and has thus far brought - to the team.
“The players like him and they like working hard for him,” Larson said. “He has recruited every one of them and got to know them on a personal level. There were a lot of veteran players that were the core of our team last year, and 11 or 12 of them chose to stay because of conversations they had with Coach Jonasson and relationships they made with him before the start of the season.”
Jonasson has strived to have his team play with more discipline and finesse, as opposed to the “hard-nosed” teams of previous seasons that played an excessively aggressive game. Because of that, the team is seeing more goals and fewer penalty minutes. With 24 games left in the season, the Stars are roughly 35 goals short of their total from all of last season.
“In the past, we have had simplistic, overly physical teams who spent more time in the penalty box and made their way with a more physical presence,” Larson said. “They beat teams by beating them up … This year, we have a great deal of speed and skill, and we have fantastic goaltending.”
The team’s success is also due to the recruitment efforts of Larson and Jonasson, bringing in talented athletes from as close as Crosslake - like former Lightning skater Nick Reed - and as far as Europe, like Swedish goalie Magnus Lindhe and Czech forward Matej Krasny.
“They are only afforded so many opportunities there (in Europe) and an opportunity for them is going to an American university,” Larson said. “They want to get exposure before going to an American college … There is certainly a different element they bring. You find a little bit of everything with them when they come here.”
For Larson and the team administration, the goal is to “grow the game” in the area enough to have an additional ice rink built. The arena would not only be the new home rink of the North Stars, but could also be used by area high schools teams and benefit the public as well.
For Jonasson and the North Stars, the goal is to continue their new-found winning ways.
“The ultimate goal is to win the Silver Cup,” Jonasson said. “We want to get out of our division playoffs, which this team hasn’t done before. For each player, our goal is to make sure these guys get exposure and help move them either to college or the Tier-II level … We are going in the right direction. We are in first place and it is a tough first place to keep.”
Dan Determan can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter @PEJ_Dan