The 2016-17 season marks the twenty first season for the Ice Hawks participation in USA Hockey’s Junior Hockey. The Ice Hawks are participating in their second season as part of the NAHL family: They moved to the NA3HL from the now defunct MnJHL in 2015. While several of the former MnJHL teams folded, many moved to the USPHL. The NA3 seemed like a much better fit for the Ice Hawks.
The Ice Hawks were first awarded membership to the Minnesota Junior Hockey League, in May of 1996 and began league play with the 1996-97 season with Mankato, MN (LeSueur, MN) as their ‘home’. The Ice Hawks were incorporated as a Minnesota Non-Profit Organization with Federal 501 c (4) status. As a nonprofit organization, their sole mission was to focus on player development. The team struggled through the first few years of its existence. The city of LeSueur proved to be a major difficulty in recruiting and for fan support.
The LeSueur Community Center was about a 30 min drive from Mankato where coaches and players lived, worked or attended school. Attendance was about 50 fans per game. At that time, typical league attendance was less than 100 per game. The Ice Hawks appointed Mike Cole from New York State as their first coach. Mike led the team to their first league victory vs the Lakers in October of 1996. Victories were rare for the rag tag bunch who often skated with 15 or fewer players. Cole was replaced by Josh Leal, a graduate student at Minnesota State- Mankato and a former Gustavus Adolphus College player and Assistant Coach. The Hawks finished the season with only a handful of wins. None the less, several players moved on to College or to advanced Jr. League. One player suffered a season ending injury in early February of that first season. That player is current head coach Nick Fatis. Nick was the enforcer on that 1st squad and racked up big penalty minutes as well as a few goals/assists. Like Fatis, several other players from that first team moved into careers in coaching and/ or sports management. Other notable players on that team included Jeff Crouse who is currently coaching in the NAHL and has had a long career as a coach/general manager for several NAHL teams and Jasen Cairns who is currently a NCAA College Athletic Director. Following his injury, Fatis finished the season as an Assistant to Coach Leal and began his Jr. coaching career
The next few seasons resulted in incremental improvement as the Hawks were often out manned by the Twin Cities teams. Josh Leal served as head coach and did an admirable job with the available talent. Still the Ice Hawks produced about 5-8 players per year who moved on to college or to advanced programs. Leal was named ‘Coach of the Year’ in his final two seasons with the Ice Hawks. He left to join the Rochester Mustangs (USHL) as an assistant coach for the 2000-01 season. Nick Fatis assumed the head coaching position for the 2000-01 season. The Ice Hawks showed a significant improvement as recruiting efforts were increased and as the organization and its staff matured. During the early months of the 2000-01 season, the Ice Hawks had their first 5 game winning streak and were in second place. However, several high school players, who were among the most talented in the league, returned to their high school teams (including two who were named to the MnJHL All Star team); others were lost to advancement. The team stumbled through the remainder of the season but remained competitive. With gradual on ice improvement, the Ice Hawks recognized the need to move from LeSueur to an area with greater opportunities. The Ice Hawks obtained league approval to move to Rochester if and when the rumored demise of the Mustangs occurred. By the spring of 2002 the Ice Hawks considered Owatonna as a possible temporary home. Later that spring, with the completion of the Mustangs USHL season, the Ice Hawks received word that the Mustangs had folded and that the Rochester area was available. he Ice Hawks took over the USHL caliber facilities vacated by the Mustangs.
The move to Rochester brought on a mixture of enthusiasm from some local Jr. Hockey fans and a wait and see attitude from others. Businesses in the community were much more skeptical. “What exactly was the MnJHL and why could this team succeed when the USHL couldn’t? “ Sponsorships and support from businesses were minimal. Many thought that the Ice Hawks were just one of the many teams who moved in to Rochester and would then soon fold. By the second half of that first season, fans found the Hawks. Features like ‘Skate with the Hawks’, the ‘Air Show’ and modest ticket prices made it affordable and fun for families of former Mustangs fans. As well, several Rochester area players on the roster increased Ice Hawks visibility among the former Mustangs fans. The most often heard comment at the REC was that the MnJHL and the Ice Hawks provided entertaining hockey and a fun time for families. Junior Hockey began making a ‘comeback’ in an area with a great hockey tradition.
The Hawks began to improve dramatically in their 2nd season in Rochester. They earned a berth to the National Tournament in Syracuse, NY and returned home as bronze medalists. Since then the Hawks have appeared at Nationals nine consecutive seasons and earned three additional bronze medals (for a total of four ‘bronzes’). In recent years attendance improved dramatically and Rochester became the ‘hot’ place to play and the attendance continued to grow. Public Address Announcer Jeff Boehmer added to the atmosphere with dance contests, sled races and other activities during breaks in the action and intermissions.
Currently, the Ice Hawks have developed a loyal fan base that is the best in all of Jr. A Tier III. Every home game feels like a party. Rochester was awarded the Jr. A National Tournament in 2011, 2012 and 2013. On the evening of April 1, 2011, a ‘full house’ of 2,600+ fans greeted the Ice Hawks in their first National Tournament appearance at their home rink. Unfortunately, the eventual National Champion Helena Bighorns defeated the Hawks that night. In the 2012 National Tournament, the Hawks earned the Bronze Medal losing a heartbreaker in the last few minutes of the game.