Ice Hawks’ Young Defensemen Maturing Quickly

Postbulletin Jason Feldman, jfeldman@postbulletin.com Jan 26, 2017  

It’s no accident that the Rochester Ice Hawks’ improvement on the ice and in the North American 3 Hockey League standings has coincided with the development and improved play of its young defensive corps.

The Ice Hawks are young, up and down their lineup, and the maturation of their blue-liners has led to more success over the past month.

After going 4-23-1 to start the season, Rochester is 3-3-0 in January, all three victories coming against Central Division rivals. That stretch includes the team’s best offensive output of the season, an 8-4 victory against La Crosse last Saturday.

“Our captains have been pressing down on us, and it’s showing in how hard we work,” defenseman Ethan Sievek said. “We could see it last weekend. When we don’t come to work, like on Friday, we lose 5-0. We came to work on Saturday and won 8-4. It’s a matter of showing up to play every night.”

Sievek, one of two 1999-born defensemen on the team, has been a sparkplug offensively in recent weeks. He is fourth on the team with 16 points, seven of which have come in the past eight games.

Sievek won’t be in the lineup this weekend, though, when the Hawks host Granite City at 7:05 p.m. Friday before going to Granite City on Saturday (7:30 p.m.) and La Crosse on Sunday (2 p.m.). The 5-foot-11, 170-pound Shakopee native has been called up to the Tier II North American Hockey League by the Bismarck (N.D.) Bobcats. He’ll be there to fill some holes in the Bobcats’ lineup created by injuries. If Sievek plays well, he could stick with Bismarck for the rest of the season.

It’s no shock that Sievek is in demand. He annually held his own while playing for Shakopee High School against some of the best players in the state and the country, including Lakeville North’s Poehling brothers (all three of whom will play at St. Cloud State) and Burnsville’s Jack Ahcan, a St. Cloud State player who recently won a gold medal with Team USA at the World Junior Championships.

“The level of play in our conference, with the Lakevilles, it’s some of the top teams and players in the state,” Sievek said. “Playing against guys like the (Poehling) brothers really helped. They’re outstanding, so good moving the puck. It definitely helped me a lot.”

While the Hawks will miss Sievek, they have some talented players to anchor the blue line. That includes youngsters Andrew Gates, another 1999-born player, and Ryley Cook, the first 2000-born player in Ice Hawks history.

“There’s been a new dynamic here, practices have been more up-tempo, more energy,” Cook said of the Hawks’ resurgence over the past six weeks. “We’ve all picked it up a notch and things are going good. You can feel it during games, too.”

Ice Hawks coach Eric Hofmann said the young defensemen have been a big part of the the team’s turnaround.

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Gates has six points this season, including three goals in the past eight games. Cook, 6-foot, 175 pounds, is a defensive force, leading the Hawks in penalty minutes.

“For me, being the youngest guy, getting used to the speed and physicality were the biggest things,” Cook said. “Now we’re into the rhythm of the season, and we’re adjusted to it.

“We’ve had some huge confidence boosts. We’re in such a tough division with some really strong teams, and to know we can play with them is a huge confidence boost.”

Hawks to remain in NA3HL next season

Since the Ice Hawks moved from the Minnesota Junior Hockey League into the NA3HL two seasons ago, there have been rumors and talks of the team moving up from the Tier III league to the Tier II North American Hockey League.

Those rumors had heated up in recent weeks, but Ice Hawks management noted this week that if a move is to happen, it will not take place next season.

“The Ice Hawks have been in conversations to bring in a NAHL franchise,” a statement from the team said. “There had been an outside possibility to do so as soon as next season. Regrettably, an agreement could not be achieved in time to meet the deadline for next season.

“The Ice Hawks remain interested in that possibility and will continue to work with potential partners. The Ice Hawks will go forth into the 2017-18 season as members of the NA3HL.”

The NAHL has three teams in Minnesota — the Austin Bruins, the Minnesota Magicians (Richfield) and the Minnesota Wilderness (Cloquet).

Hawks’ Bill, Schmitz honored by NA3HL

The Ice Hawks’ improved play has helped other coaches and officials around the NA3HL to take notice.

 A week ago, goalie Bailey Schmitz was named the Central Division Star of the Week. This week, veteran forward Charles Bill has been named the Central Division’s Second Star of the Week.

Schmitz is 3-9-0 with a 4.70 goals-against average and an .879 save percentage. However, the 18-year-old from Red Lake Falls, Minn., is 3-2-0 with a 1.80 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage and one shutout in his past five appearances.

The 6-foot, 205-pound goalie has stopped 110 of the 119 shots he’s faced in the past five games, and has faced 35 or more shots seven times this season.

Bill had four points, two goals and two assists, in Rochester’s 8-4 victory against the La Crosse Freeze on Saturday at the Rochester Recreation Center. He assisted on both the tying and game-winning goals.

Bill is another Ice Hawk who has been on a hot streak as of late. The White Bear Lake native has 11 points in 20 games this season, 10 of those coming in the past nine games, including a pair of power-play goals.