For the North Iowa Bulls, the 2020-2021 season is all about unfinished business.
After the NA3HL postseason was canceled prior to the start of the West Division semifinals, head coach Todd Sanden said that he walked away with an “empty” feeling.
The Bulls finished the season with a 38-7-2 overall record, and won the team’s seventh division title in nine years, but because of COVID-19, the team did not get a chance to play for a Fraser Cup title.
“The best way to describe it is ‘empty,’" Sanden said. “Not being able to finish it off or get a finality or ‘Were we good enough, did we get it done?’ Did we not? I still think that when you look back on it, we had a great season.”
On Friday, the Bulls will finally take the ice again as they begin a new season at Mason City multipurpose arena at 7:30 p.m. against the Alexandria Blizzard.
It will be a year of adjustments and changes, following a strange offseason. Sanden usually spends his spring and summer months traveling around the area recruiting players to join the program, but with rinks in Minnesota and much of the Midwest shut down until the summer, he spent much of the offseason with hardly anything to do.
“It was really weird,” Sanden said. “I spent a lot of time at my lake place, which is obviously enjoyable, but you kind of feel like you should be working somewhere else, too. There wasn’t anything going on to go to, or be at. Weird offseason this year.”
In a strange twist of fate, the Bulls' season will begin just four days after the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final, which the Tampa Bay Lightning won with a 2-0 victory on Monday over the Dallas Stars.
It is a bizarre situation, but par for the course in 2020, and Sanden hopes that the lack of NHL action will help his program.
"We’re going to have a few months without pro hockey, which I think will be good for our program," Sanden said. "People aren’t going to be able to get their fix on cable or satellite TV, so maybe they’ll come out to the rink here and watch us play. As everybody knows, it’s such a strange environment that we’re living in due to the pandemic. We know we are blessed here."
This season, the Bulls are missing a lot of the scoring production from last year’s front line, but return a fair number of players, including both goalies, forwards Sota Isogai and Carter Eha, and defenseman Nico Aguilera.
“The returners know what it is like to have their season come to an abrupt ending,” Aguilera said. “We know that can be taken away, just as quickly as everything else. I think the rookies coming in, they know what can possibly happen with the COVID situation, and we can make the best of our opportunities when we can.”
This year is also the first full season for the Bulls at Mason City multipurpose arena. The team moved to the downtown arena in early January of 2020, after spending the first eight years of their existence at North Iowa Ice Arena, dubbed “The Barn.”
Though last season was successful from a wins standpoint, the move to a new arena was a bit of added stress for the players. Now, the team is excited to settle into their shiny new downtown home, which Sanden calls the “crown jewel” of arenas in the Midwest.
“A lot of the vets are comfortable with the new arena,” goalie Evan Babekuhl said. “We know what to expect with the games. We like playing here. It was kind of weird all last year, moving into a new locker room, and not really getting settled in. Being able to settle down here for the new year and calling this our new home is great.”
Babekuhl, along with Joe Daninger, is one of the team's two returning goalies. Both performed well last season enough to earn their teammates’ trust on the ice. Babekuhl finished with a save percentage of 91.5, while Daninger finished at 92.9 percent.
“Being able to have both goaltenders jump in there for a game, and having the team be comfortable playing in front of them, it's just some confidence that not a lot of teams have that opportunity to have,” Aguilera said. “It’s going to help us propel to our goal.”
With a new season dawning, the Bulls are eager to make up for the heartbreak of 2020. There was no trophy raised in the NA3HL last season, but North Iowa plans on taking it home this year.
There is no other option for a team with something to prove.
"You always come in with a purpose to start the season, but especially this year," Babekuhl said. "We’ve got a huge purpose. We’ve got to win it all."
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.
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