The ‘17 in 17’ series features an in-depth look into all 17 NA3HL teams, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season on Saturday, September 8th. ‘17 in 17’ will go in-depth into each 3HL team and will include interview with all 17 3HL head coaches as they prognosticate and break down their outlook for the upcoming season.
Granite City Lumberjacks
Head Coach: Brad Wilner
Associate Head Coach: Howie Borden
2011-12 Record: 33-11-4, 70 pts. – 1st in West Division
Playoffs: Won Central Division title vs. North Iowa, 2-1
2012-13 Division: Central (2011-12 Central)
Opening Night: Friday, September 14th vs. North Iowa – 6:45 pm at The Rhino Deck Arena - East
Plenty of accolades can be said about 2011-12 NA3HL Organization of the Year and 2011-12 NA3HL Silver Cup Champions, the Granite City Lumberjacks. It was a banner season to say the least. The team brought home the hardware and the honors of General Manager of the Year to Brad Wilner, Forward of the Year to Peter Linblad, and NA3HL MVP and Goaltender of the Year Matt Grove.
Throughout the first half of the season, the team was doing well, but a tragic accident on December 6th at the NA3HL Showcase left the team in shock. Forward, Ezra McPhail’s life changed forever after he crashed on the ice and suffered a serious spinal cord injury that paralyzed the lower half of his body. What happened after the injury, is something Head Coach Brad Wilner describes as the motivation behind the team for the second half of the season. “When Ezra got hurt, the team took on a new life, and they wanted to play for him. The passion gave a different feel to the rest of the games. Guys went out there and knew it could be their last shift, and they played that way,” he said.
The statistics don’t lie. In the 18 games following the accident, the Lumberjacks managed to lose only four. The team hung Ezra’s jersey on the bench every home and away game for motivation. The rest of the season would rally around him. The winning continued as Granite City swept the Minnesota Flying Aces in the Division Semi-Finals, beat North Iowa 2-1 in the Division Finals and lost only one game in the NA3HL Championship, to St. Louis in the round-robin, before their rematch in the final game when they won 2-1 for the Championship title.
There is more to be said than just a title for the Granite City Lumberjacks. Last year, Odessa Jackalopes (NAHL) head scout, Craig Sarner, found promise in forwards Tyler Cayemberg and Taylor Portner during the NA3HL Chicago Showcase. “That’s what it’s all about,” Wilner expressed. “Those players were able to go down mid-season, finish their season there and continue their path in the NAHL with Odessa again this year. That says a lot about the kind of players in the NA3HL.”
Other players moving on from the Champions roster are Nick LaRue, TJ Christensen, Peter Lindblad and Goaltender of the Year, Matt Grove all whom will be attending NCAA Division III programs this fall. Forward, Zach Sikich will move along to the NAHL and meet former teammates Cayemberg and Portner in Odessa, while Jake Peterson will become apart of the Janesville Jets organization. Finally, one of the most notable player advancements of the Granite City’s roster, is that of Ezra McPhail. After his injury, McPhail beat the odds of letting his spinal cord injury inhibit him from getting back on the ice. Erza found a new passion in sled hockey, and after training all spring, was named to the U.S. National Development Sled Hockey Team.
As for rebuilding the roster, Wilner and Associate Head Coach, Howie Borden looked for players to bring in with previous junior hockey experience. Forwards Aidan Verbeke, Alex Koopmeiners, Drew Otta and Aaron Storch will all be players to keep an eye on this season. The Lumberjacks will also have a former Chicago Hitmen goaltender, Brandon Perillo, in net. “Were losing Grove, but were gaining a goalie who has experience in our league,” Wilner said. The team also made trades over the summer to shear up the blue line, acquiring Tony Buchao from Quad City and Colten Thiel from Flint.
Without the veterans, it would be impossible for Granite City to focus on a repeat of last season. Key returning defensemen are Blayne Ellson, Isaac Hoagland and Matt Raiola, while the vital upfront returners are DJ Vold, Aaron Azevedo and Nick Turbitt. All of those named have put in at least two-years of their junior careers into the organization and were essential players in their success last season.
The defending Champions will kick off their season September 14th, hosting the North Iowa Bulls. According to Wilner, North Iowa will be the team to beat this year.