North Iowa is moving on up in the hockey world.
On Friday, the North Iowa Bulls announced that starting next season, the team will compete as a member of the North American Hockey League (NAHL), after spending the first nine years of its existence in the NA3HL.
The NAHL is a Tier 2 junior hockey league with around 30 teams across the country. The league hosts players that are 20 years old or younger, and sends many players on to play Division I college or professional hockey.
As a member of the NA3HL, the Bulls have sent many players on to play in the NAHL.
Mason City previously hosted NAHL hockey from 2005 to 2010, when the North Iowa Outlaws played their games at North Iowa Ice Arena. After the 2010 season, the Outlaws moved to Onalaska, Wisconsin and became the Coulee Region Chill, and moved to Chippewa, Wisconsin in 2018 and now play as the Chippewa Steel.
In their 10 years of play in the NA3HL, the Bulls have won seven division championships and three national titles, the most recent coming in 2016. Last season, the Bulls made the move from the old North Iowa Ice Arena, known as "The Barn," to a brand-new downtown arena attached to Southbridge Mall, with a seating capacity of 2,200.
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The team seemed primed for a deep postseason run, but the 2020 Fraser Cup Playoffs were cancelled due to COVID-19.
"It was my goal since my return to Mason City and the North Iowa hockey community in 2011 to bring a competitive, community-oriented, entertaining brand of hockey to this proud junior hockey town," Bulls head coach Todd Sanden said in a team statement. "Through the support of our ownership group at F&S Management, the NAHL Board of Governors, local city government, business leaders and Mason City Youth Hockey, it is an exciting transition back to the NAHL."
Concurrently with the Bulls' statement, the NAHL's Amarillo Bulls announced on Friday that the league had approved a request to relocate the team to Mason City after the completion of this season.
According to Sanden, since there is a common ownership between the Amarillo and North Iowa Bulls, the move is strictly a relocation of the Amarillo team to become the NAHL North Iowa Bulls.
Sanden, who will have a role on the staff of the NAHL Bulls, also said that the plan is to relocate the NA3HL franchise and continue operations, at a location yet to be determined.
The Amarillo team played for 11 seasons, and says that it is making the move for financial reasons, after being unable to find a long-term partnership with the city. After a press release regarding the team's sadness about leaving Amarillo, the Bulls expressed their excitement for the move to North Iowa.
"We would like to thank, first of all, the fans in Mason City. Without their support, enthusiasm and record-breaking attendance, this would not be possible," the Amarillo Bulls said in a statement. "The North Iowa Bulls organization is also grateful to City officials and the Mason City Youth Hockey Association for making it possible for our team to call “home” this special community and its world-class arena. We can't wait to compete in the NAHL Central Division next season."
The North Iowa Bulls will finish their current NA3HL season. The team is 22-8, and sits in first place in the NA3HL West Division.
Shane Lantz covers sports for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at Shane.Lantz@GlobeGazette.com, or by phone at 641-421-0526. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneMLantz.