There have been a few constants in North Iowa life over the past several years. Cold winters, discussions about the River City Renaissance project, and the North Iowa Bulls winning a division title.
Since the Bulls began play in the fall of 2011, the team has captured seven division titles in its nine years of existence, and won the NA3HL Fraser Cup in 2013, 2014 and 2016.
For head coach Todd Sanden, who has been at the helm of the team since its inception, the key to that decade of success has been the support of the local hockey community.
“We’ve been blessed with great players and great families that support them, and a community that does that as well,” Sanden said. “Also consistency with staff. Coach Mark Hicks and I have been here the entire duration of this team, so when you have that, that works in your favor too. We’ve been truly blessed with really good players here.”
One big boost for the Bulls this season is their brand new home. In early January, the club made the move from “The Barn” out at the North Iowa Events Center to the downtown Mason City multipurpose arena. Since that time, the Bulls have gone 13-3 and have drawn multiple crowds of over 2,000 people.
“It’s been surreal,” Harrison Stewart said. “It’s definitely a lot different from The Barn. We love The Barn, but this arena is a huge upgrade. We couldn’t have done it without our fans. We’re very thankful.”
The Bulls won the West Division title on Feb. 29 with a 4-2 home win over Peoria, and will play the Alexandria Blizzard on Friday in the West Division semifinals.
“As far as our goals and expectations, winning the West Division was one of the first ones on the list,” Sanden said. “We’re excited about that. Going into the playoffs, this division is so tough that you can’t look past any opponents.”
Sanden gives credit for the team’s season to the leadership and strong play of the older players. Stewart and Nick Bowlin are two of the 10 “99s” on the roster, players who were born in 1999 who are in their final season of junior hockey. Both players are eager for the playoffs.
“Those are the guys that really understand our expectations, and they set the expectations at the team level,” Sanden said. “We’re blessed to have such a great group.”
The Bulls are known throughout the league for their speed in transition, and have battled their way to a 36-7-2 record, as of Thursday. For the older guys, this is their last chance at bringing home a title to Mason City, and a division title is just the first step toward making that happen.
“We had a good regular season,” Stewart said. “Winning the division gives us a lot of confidence, but that’s just the first thing we got done. We’ve got a lot more to do.”
The Bulls and Blizzard have faced off five times this season, and North Iowa has won all five matches. In spite of that, the Bulls know that overlooking opponents in the NA3HL playoffs can be dangerous.
“They throw their weight around,” Bowlin said. “That’s how they create offense is through hitting and turnovers. We’ve just got to minimize our mistakes and capitalize on our chances.”
As Sanden knows, in these best-of-3 postseason series, anything can happen. The seasons are long, but the playoffs can be over in the blink of an eye.
“You can’t wait for tomorrow,” Sanden said. “If you do, you’ll be done and out of the series. A sense of urgency is of the greatest course there when you’re starting those, and you know it’s best of three. Just getting good clean starts to the games, and pushing the pace in both speed and execution is going to be important.”
Sanden has steered the team through many wins, and has been a part of lots of celebrations. Although it has been an almost annual tradition in his time in Mason City, winning never gets old.
“It’s always special because you do it in different ways,” Sanden said. "Winning divisions are hard because that is a body of work. That’s a full course of the season, in order to do that. They’re all special.”
The Bulls and the Blizzard will face off at 7:30 p.m. on Friday (March 13) at Mason City multipurpose arena in Game 1 of the West Division semifinals. Game 2 will be on Saturday at Alexandria.