Jason Feldman Post Bulletin
The Rochester Ice Hawks won’t be at full strength when they open their season on Saturday.
But second-year head coach Eric Hofmann likes what he’s seen from the 18 guys in camp so far.
“Work ethic, character, personality,” Hofmann said. “They’ve been busting their butts for us, doing everything we’ve asked. They’ve started to come together as a team really well.
“They’re good players, but what I really like is they’re good people, too, doing the right things for the right reasons, doing things for the team, not for themselves as individuals.”
Rochester has 15 skaters and three goalies in camp; that’s the group they’ll put on the ice at 7 p.m. Saturday at La Crosse in the North American 3 Hockey League season opener for both teams. The Freeze went 23-22-2 last year and feature a pair of former Rochester John Marshall standouts, forward Brandon Ratzloff and defenseman Josh Frerks.
Hofmann said leadership will be vital from the seven Ice Hawks who were part of the team’s tumultuous 10-36-1 season last year. That season included just four wins before Christmas and Hofmann replacing longtime head coach Nick Fatis in November.
“We have seven returning guys, and they’re the right returners, and the guys who have been brought in to complement them. … The team has come together nicely. They’re very prepared for the season and the (opener).
“It’ll be a good matchup. We have to get all the nerves out, but so do they.”
Up front, the Ice Hawks will be led by veteran Zach Curry, a 6-foot-1, 170-pounder from Olathe, Kan. Curry is the team’s top returning goal scorer; he had 10 goals and 15 points last season. Rochester Mayo grad Austyn Renn and former Dodge County Wildcat Matt Shupert are also back at forward.
Hofmann said the coaching staff also likes what he’s seen from, among others, newcomers Aaron Moots and Jake Beal, as well as Noah Roach (“he’s probably the most dynamic player we have,” Hofmann said). Trevor Witthus and Josh Hoffman have also stood out, coach Hofmann said.
THIN ON ‘D’
Defense is a question mark for Rochester. The Ice Hawks have just four blue-liners on the roster, though Hofmann is working on trades that could bring in at least two more defensemen within the next month.
Ryley Cook is the lone returning defenseman.
Ice Hawks veterans Alex Tarr and Michael Smits have been converted from forward and will see a lot of ice time.
“Actually, we should’ve done it sooner with those two,” Hofmann said. “Smits has been great, he’s made the transition so smoothly. I’m really excited to see him and Tarr play in a game.”
Rochester Lourdes defenseman Cort Buck will also play extensively. Buck will play with the Ice Hawks until Lourdes’ season begins, then he will re-join the Hawks after Lourdes’ season ends. He’s the third Buck to the play for the Ice Hawks, following in the skates of his older brothers, Griff and Duell.
“He has as much passion as his brothers and, in my opinion, has even more intensity. Griff and Duell might get mad at me for saying that … but maybe as the youngest brother, he has to be the strongest.”
Rochester has three goalies, all of whom will see some time early in the season. Drew Schenkenberg is the lone returner in net, though he is out for approximately two more weeks, while recovering from a knee injury. Hofmann said Schenkenberg hopes to be cleared in time for the team’s home opener on Sept. 23.
That means either Tait Carlson or Luke Murphy will be in net in the Hawks’ opener. Carlson played at St. Mary’s University in Winona last season, but chose to come back and play juniors this year. Murphy is a 2000 birth year player, who played in a handful of games for La Crosse last season after his high school season in Pine City ended.
“They all have their strengths, they all have good work ethics and they all get along,” Hofmann said. “They each bring a different style, which is good.”
Hofmann said the Ice Hawks are ready to play a real game after two weeks of battling against each other in practice.
“The older guys, they’re leading by example and demanding the work ethic from the other guys,” Hofmann said. “Their intensity has been there, the passion has been there.
“We’ll play to the strengths of our players and we just have to find a way to win. Our guys have a great mentality and they feed off each other.”