By Matt Mackinder
The Granite City Lumberjacks may be new to the North American 3 Hockey League, but this upcoming season won’t be their first as a junior hockey franchise.
Having played the last four seasons in the Minnesota Junior Hockey League, the Lumberjacks won the MnJHL title last season and then this past offseason, decided to move to the NA3HL along with two other teams from Minnesota – the Minnesota Flying Aces and the Twin City Steel.
Granite City head coach and general manager Brad Willner, entering his third year behind the bench, said joining the NA3HL is a positive move not only for his squad, but also for the growth of the league.
“I think being in the 3HL will give our players more exposure and opportunities,” said Willner. “When I coached in Alexandria (with the North American Hockey League’s Blizzard from 2005-2009), I had a lot of dealings with the 3HL (then known as the Central States Hockey League) and was impressed with the quality of players that were coming out of that league. When the chance came for us to join the league, I just knew it was a good fit.”
Willner said he has commitments from “a handful of guys” from last season to return and play for the Lumberjacks, but things could change. Granite City held its final tryout camp last weekend and while the team is more or less set, Willner noted that several players will be attending final NAHL camps in the coming weeks.
“We’ll have a good core, no doubt,” Willner said. “We lost a lot on the blue line, including Bobby Chayka, who was our leading scorer last season. There will be some big shoes to fill back there, but we’ll have some good, young defensemen coming in that should help out.”
Having Willner behind the bench will also be a big asset for the Lumberjacks. Along with his NAHL experience, he has also coached at St. Cloud State University and Providence College and won two national championships as a player at Lake Superior State in the early 1990s. Willner was a fourth round draft choice of the New Jersey Devils in 1991 (77th overall) and played professionally for the Albany River Rats (AHL) and Raleigh Ice Caps (ECHL) in 1995-1996. Back in 1991, Willner won a Gold Cup championship with the St. Paul Vulcans of the United States Hockey League.
Needless to say, Willner has the knowledge and background to hopefully have the Lumberjacks in the upper echelon of NA3HL teams this coming year.
“I think more than that, it’s the connections that you make along the way that can be a major help,” explained Willner. “The hockey fraternity is actually very small and it’s easy to pick up the phone and call someone that you’ve played with or against. We have a lot of kids that want to come play here and all of them have aspirations to move up. They’re looking forward to the eight-hour bus rides, which will be a lot like how it is in college.”
His solid reputation aside, Willner said his coaching style, one that mimics Jeff Jackson, his coach at LSSU, will provide players with a basis to improve daily.
“When I was younger, I wanted to be a teacher, but then I thought, ‘I can teach hockey,’” said Willner. “There wasn’t much of a transition from playing to coaching, but coaching is something I love to do. When I look back, I realize that I’m a smarter player now than I was when I was actually playing. Hockey is a simple game and the key is to unlock these player’s minds. Once you do that, then the fun part starts.
“Some people think that coaching is easy because you just stand behind the bench with your arms crossed. You can’t teach during games, you can only make adjustments. The teaching comes in practice and during film sessions. I was always taught that defense wins championships, but equally as important are the players showing respect and discipline on and off the ice.”
Looking ahead to the 2011-2012 season, Willner said no goals have been set as of yet and that will be discussed prior to the season getting underway.
“The team will be all together soon enough and we’ll be like a big family,” Willner said. “Setting goals is a team thing and it’s more than wins and losses and championships. We’re here to develop these kids and if we can play consistently and peak at the right time, we should be all set.
“The season is a process; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t expect to win every game. Nobody’s perfect.”
ST. LOUIS ALUM COMMITS TO UMASS-LOWELL
Cedar Rapids RoughRiders forward Ryan McGrath, a member of the St. Louis Jr. Blues national championship team in 2010, has committed to play collegiate hockey at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell beginning in the fall of 2012.
“We look forward to Ryan contributing substantially to the RoughRiders this coming season,” said Cedar Rapids coach-GM Mark Carlson. “Ryan consistently improved his game last season and is poised to develop even more.”
McGrath was sixth on the team in scoring with 42 points (18 goals, 24 assists) in 58 games during his first USHL season in 2010-2011, helping the RoughRiders equal a team record with 42 victories and capture the Anderson Cup. Four of his goals were game-winners and the O'Fallon, Mo., native also posted a plus-15 rating.
Two seasons ago, McGrath posted 36 goals among 72 points for St. Louis, good for seventh in league scoring.
“I have coached very few who have as good of hands as Ryan,” said former Jr. Blues coach Jack Behan at the start of the 2009-2010 season. “Compare him to (former Jr. Blues stars) Michael Davies, Shawn Gawrys or Paul Stastny if you wish. He may not be at their level, but he’s darn close.”
BATTLE CREEK NAMES KEYES HEAD COACH
The Battle Creek Jr. Revolution has named Richard Keyes as its new head coach and general manager.
Keyes, who played collegiately at Michigan State, has been working with youth hockey teams and travel players of all ages in his hometown of Kalamazoo since his retirement from professional hockey in 2006.
"We are very pleased with Richard and we believe he will re-build this organization” said co-owners Dr. Joseph Burkhardt and Richard Williams.