Boys Hockey: Willmar gets ready for the grind

Nov. 22—WILLMAR — Before the first game of the season, the Willmar boys hockey team is putting in plenty of hard work.

The Cardinals are hoping to improve last season's 5-21-0 record. And they're having to do it with 19 players — 17 skaters and two goaltenders — on the ice. With the low numbers, Willmar won't play a junior varsity schedule this winter, save for some off-day JV games to help keep the players healthy.

In the opening weeks of practice, conditioning has been the emphasis. And the players are hoping that extra bit of grit can carry them through an improved season.

"We're going to be a lot more conditioned; we'll be hanging with those tough teams," said junior captain forward Cullen Gregory. "We might not be the most skilled but we're going to be conditioned and stick with them. We're going to be side-by-side with them. We just have to work hard to win those hard games."

In his ninth season at the helm, Willmar head coach Jamie Hagen has been encouraged by how his team is taking on the challenge of long nights on the ice. They get their first test Tuesday, Nov. 29 at Breckenridge/Wahpeton. The first home game is Thursday, Dec. 1 against Hutchinson.

"We worked hard this first week," Hagen said. "With a small team, we definitely have to be conditioned, so we take a little bit more time at the end of practice to make sure we get our legs going and keep that wind for the third period."

Gregory returns as the Cardinals' leading scorer. Last season, he had 24 points, with a team-best 17 goals. Along with being the primary goal scorer, Gregory is hoping to be more of a playmaker this season.

"Just spread the puck out more," Gregory said on his focus in the off-season. "Some assists would be nice to give to my teammates. Pass up to the 'D' and get more shots on net and get those dirty goals and assists as well."

Seniors Arron Fischer (5G-4A-9P) and Eil Van Buren (5-1-6) will be paired with Gregory early on.

Of the eight seniors who graduated, five were forwards. So Hagen is hoping some of the new faces can find a way to put pressure on opposing defenses.

"We have a lot of new guys up front at forward that are going to see a lot of varsity time and kind of get thrown into the fire," Hagen said. "Hopefully they're up to the task. We know it'll take a while to get up to that pace. It's definitely a difference from bantams to stepping up to play varsity."

On the blue line, senior Ethan Stark (9-8-17) is a two-way threat who will help push Willmar's offense.

"He's a weapon from back there," Hagen said. "He's willing to skate the puck up through the neutral zone and we're hoping for some big points out of him back there at the point."

Juniors Henry Michelson and Dylan Staska are also back in the fold.

"We got a couple youngins' moving up with us," Stark said, "but I think we can get them going. ... I think we all work together pretty good (on defense)."

Then in net, Willmar will split playing time between senior Braxton Heid (1-5-0, 5.67 goals against, .868 save percentage) and junior Mason Thole (2-7-0, 5.45, .842).

"Both Mason and Braxton are pretty strong goalies," Stark said.

Hagen added, "We're fortunate to have two goaltenders like we have and they're really good together. They work well with each other. We'll have to go with the hot hand and those guys know that."

Through the long shifts this season, the undermanned Cardinals are undeterred in putting together a solid season.

"We just got to start with the first game," Gregory said. "We just got to progress. We got to watch film, correct everything we did wrong in the previous game and then put it into our next game."

Stark added, "We have to do all the little things. We're pretty close. We all like each other; we're all bonding pretty well so far."