The North Iowa Bulls have been the cream of the crop in the NA3HL ever since their first Silver Cup title in 2013.
They had rattled off league records and owned almost every individual scoring record prior to this season. They’ve even been as close to perfect as can be in the league’s biggest tournament having won three of the past four titles — the only loss came in a defeat to Granite City in the 2015 championship game.
But even as the defending champions, the Bulls enter today’s start of the Silver Cup tournament in Romeoville, Illinois, as somewhat of an underdog. However, that doesn’t change their ultimate goal of becoming title winners once again.
“Not many people get this opportunity and it’s very humbling to go out and try to win a second straight championship,” Bulls forward Marshall Barnes said.
With the addition of even more teams into the NA3HL at the start of this season, good teams in the league are by no means hard to find.
After finishing 35-10-1-1, North Iowa enters the tournament as the sixth seed based on regular season points. It’s an odd position for the Bulls to find themselves in after so many years of domination.
“It’s the best of the best,” North Iowa coach Todd Sanden said of the field. “It takes a full season and a postseason in order to get there. We recruit to be the best and that’s what we tell them when they come in that they’re coming to play for a championship and that’s why you’re here.
“But it’s a different feel for us because we’re not the favorite.”
Sanden said the Bulls have had the mindset all season that they have to be upset minded throughout because that’s just where the team sits right now, and there’s no better place to start than working their way back through the tournament.
The eight teams who qualified by winning their divisional playoff series are broken into two pools of four teams each. After round-robin play, the top two teams from each pool advance to the semifinals.
In the Bulls’ pool, they drew Yellowstone (40-4-0-3 regular season), Binghamton (45-1-0-1) and Long Beach (35-10-1-1).
“I think we just have to treat every game like it’s a real game,” Barnes said. “It’s do-or-die every game out.”
While Sanden said losing the first game by no means eliminates them from the tournament, it just makes it a lot tougher. It’s why his staff and in turn, the team, are focusing on the only game in front of them and working from there.
That starts with Yellowstone tonight at 7:30 p.m.
“We’re doing our preparation for (Yellowstone) because you can’t look past any team,” the coach said. “There’s no easy games so you just have to start with that first team, play the game, and then take the 20 or so hours to get ready for the next team.”
If a run can be made by any team, Barnes said this is the one to do it.
They're confident with the experience they have coming back from last year’s title-winning team, which includes Barnes, and the newcomers have risen their level of play over the past few weeks and are playing their best hockey of the season.
For Barnes and the rest of the Bulls, this week is why they’re here.
“I just love competing,” Barnes said. “That’s why I play hockey; to try to win a championship.”