Little Falls makes a statement in win over Cardinals

The players on the Alexandria boys’ hockey team believe they have the talent to compete with section favorite Little Falls. Senior goaltender Ben Allen even went so far as to say the Cardinals are the better team despite losing the season series to the Flyers 2-0.

It’s great that the Alexandria players believe that. You’re never going to beat a team if you go into the game thinking you can’t keep up. But if the Cardinals are going to make good on that statement in a possible third match-up come tournament time, they will have to play a lot better than they did in a 6-0 loss to the Flyers on Tuesday night.

Alexandria goaltender Ben Allen looked up at the scoreboard as Little Falls celebrated one of its four goals in the second period on Tuesday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

“We just got to get to practice tomorrow and have a purpose,” Allen said after the game. “It’s almost impossible to beat a team three times, so no doubt in my mind we can beat them in the playoffs. We’re a better team than them.”

The Flyers looked like the dominant team in the section through much of last night’s win at the Runestone Community Center. They have a solid defense anchored by senior goaltender Michael Stumpf that allows just 1.5 goals per game. They showed they can also score in bunches with an offense that is putting up 4.5 goals per contest.

Ben Newman set the tone early by scoring just one minute, 16 seconds into the game. He added his second of the night almost four minutes later on a rebound to give his team a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission.

The Cardinals came out aggressive to start the second period, but a Mark Anez goal completely turned the momentum in the Flyers’ favor. Anez got behind the defense and snuck one past Allen for what felt like a goal that completely deflated any hope that Alexandria still had of making a comeback. Little Falls went on to score three more times to open the game up in the second period.

“We were just off and they were sharp,” Cardinals head coach Scott Woods said. “We changed our line up hoping it would spark guys, but it didn’t work.  I told the guys I will take the blame for that, and we each need to be willing to step up and improve wherever necessary.  Getting behind hurt our confidence, but if we would have gotten one at the start of the second, the period could have been completely different.”

The Flyers outshot Alexandria 41-25 for the game. Austin Bjorge had a big night for them with two goals and two assists. Newman added an assist to his two first-period goals and Spencer Fenske finished with three assists as well. Allen had 35 saves for Alexandria on a night when he was kept extremely busy in net.

The Cardinals still believe they can be a dangerous team heading into the playoffs. Starting Thursday in Willmar, they have seven games left on the regular-season schedule to put this recent stretch behind them and get to the point where they are playing their best hockey in late February.

“The key to moving on is staying positive,” Woods said. “Outside influences creep in, but a team has to stick together and truly believe in each other.”

Youngsters pave the way for Alex in possible section finals preview

Alexandria girls’ hockey coach Andy Shriver liked the players he had coming back from a team that made it to the section finals a year ago. What he wanted most was to establish a little more depth around those veterans.

That meant a host of young players would be given a chance to make a name for themselves at the varsity level. On Thursday night, it was a trio of youngsters who did just that in a 3-0 win against Fergus Falls at the Runestone Community Center.

“It was wonderful to look at last season and see we had a good year and knowing we were returning some of our strongest players on defense,” Shriver said. “We had two letter winners with Nicole [Bartels] and Shanee’ [Herd]. Our two leading scorers were back with Becca [Illies] and Shelby [Iverson], but depth was a concern. These young girls have come in, 8th and 9th graders, and really filled that void.”

Freshman goalie Amy Jost watched the puck during the second period on Thursday night. Jost had 14 saves to earn the shutout in a 3-0 win over Fergus Falls. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Freshman goaltender Amy Jost didn’t have to make many saves as the Cardinals outshot the Otters 43-14, but there was a stretch when the game was still scoreless where she came up big. Alexandria couldn’t connect on any of the 12 shots it had in the first period as the two teams went into the first intermission in a scoreless tie.

The Otters had some solid chances to take the first lead early in the middle frame. A penalty a little more than three minutes into the second gave Fergus Falls some good looks at the net during the power play. Jost turned them all away, including a couple rebound opportunities from right around the net.

“We feel great about our goaltending,” Shriver said. “We’ve got a 10th grader [Bailey Serum] and a 9th grader who have played, I think, the exact same games and minutes right now. We just feel very comfortable at that position. To have that depth at the most important position on the ice is great. Amy had some great saves. There was a flurry there where there was a quality shot and two quality rebounds. Any one of them could have gone in, and she kept the shutout intact.”

Freshman Mari Wosepka scored Alexandria’s first goal of the night midway through the second period. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Jost kept it scoreless before one of her freshmen teammates got Alexandria on the board a little more than seven minutes into the middle period. Mari Wosepka took a nice pass from fellow freshman Hanah Hansen and tapped it into an open net.

Almost seven minutes later, it was 8th grader McKenzie Revering who scored from the perimeter off an assist from senior co-captain Shelby Iverson. Junior Taylor Ellingson then put the finishing touches on Alexandria’s seventh win of the season with an unassisted goal late in the third period.

“We’ve been depending on them all year,” Shriver said of the depth some young players have provided. “Now that they’ve been tested and passed with flying colors, we know we can count on them. At this point in the season, there’s no more 8th and 9th grade. You’re either varsity or you’re not, and they are.”

Eighth grader McKenzie Revering watched the puck as Fergus Falls tried to clear it during the second period on Thursday. Revering gave the Cardinals some breathing room with a goal that made it 2-0. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

It was an important win for the Cardinals as they moved to 3-0 against Section 6A opponents. Two of those wins are against Fergus Falls after they beat the Otters 3-0 on November 13, as well. Northern Lakes looks like the other contender in the Section 6A field with a 7-6 record. Alexandria will see how it stacks up against the Lightning on January 22. But up to this point, the Cardinals seem to have established themselves as the favorites as they look ahead to the playoffs.

“Fergus has some outstanding players who can change the game on  one shift,” Shriver said. “Yes, we feel strong and confident, but anything can happen in those rivalry games.”

Card boys’ hockey bounces back nicely after Moorhead

Alexandria head boys’ hockey coach Scott Woods will be the first to admit that the level of competition was much different on Thursday night, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t happy with how his team bounced back from an 8-4 loss to Moorhead in the season opener.

The Cardinals were caught on their heels from the get-go against the 14th-ranked Spuds on Tuesday night. Moorhead jumped on them 4-0 after one period before Alexandria settled down and played them even over the final two frames.

Junior forward Toby Helgeson (right) led Alexandria with one goal and two assists in a 5-0 win over Prairie Centre on Thursday night. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Two nights later, the Cardinals were the ones who took an early lead and never looked back. Alexandria jumped all over Prairie Centre on Thursday behind first-period goals from Jack Wensman, Brady Bast, Tom Schmidt and Patrick Leary. It was exactly the kind of start this team was looking for to erase the memories of an ugly opener.

“I think it was totally different competition and I think we were on the other side of it where we were the team attacking most of the time,” Woods said. “That’s probably going to be the biggest factor for anyone who was here watching, it’s two different caliber teams. But I think we played a little better, played a little sharper.”

Alexandria wasn’t going to give Prairie Centre any hope in this one. Wensman and Bast scored less than three minutes into the game. Near the 10-minute mark, Schmidt and Leary scored less than a minute apart in a game that felt all but over after 17 minutes.

“We were pretty excited,” Wensman said about getting back out on the ice after giving up eight goals against the Spuds. “Moorhead is a pretty good team, and it was good to start against them, very fast paced. That led into this game where we got a bunch of goals in the first period.”

The offensive firepower through the first two games is what this team was most excited about after Thursday night. Woods came into the season a bit concerned with where his offense was at. He said he knew he had guys who were capable of scoring, but it was a matter of finishing off chances on a more consistent basis than they did a year ago.

So far, so good on that front. Toby Helgeson scored almost seven minutes into the second period to give Alexandria its ninth goal of the season. Perhaps most encouraging was seeing five different players score and eight total players finish with at least a point against the North Stars. Helgeson led the way with three points after adding two assists, while Bast, Leary, Wensman, Schmidt and Matt Resch each added two points apiece.

“Offensively, at least for the first two games, it seems like we have a lot more firepower,” senior goaltender Ben Allen said. “Defensively, we’re getting there. We need to do a little work, but offensively, we’ve really got it going a lot faster this year.”

Allen just smiled and shook his head when asked how it felt to post an 19-save shutout after the way things went against Moorhead.

“It really felt great,” he said. “Since we put four up in the first period, it was just a relief to know we could score and put up good numbers.”

Senior goalie Ben Allen watched the puck near center ice during the second period on Thursday. Allen finished off the shutout with an 18-save performance. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

It wasn’t always easy for Allen. He had to stop a flurry of shots in the opening period, thanks in large part to Alexandria spending eight minutes in the penalty box. The Cardinals had to fend off two 5-on-3 advantages for Prairie Centre on a night when Alexandria took nine penalties compared to one for the North Stars. That’s something they know can’t happen against better teams in conference and section play.

“A team like Willmar for example, if we take penalties like we did tonight with their power play, we’ll be in trouble,” Woods said. “Some of it is just bad habits. I had a hard time with some of the calls. I didn’t think they were great, but I’m the first to tell our guys when they take penalties that they shouldn’t. Some of it is that and some of it is just bad habits, things they think they can get away with that we’re trying so hard to get away from.”

Woods said some of those penalties have to do with the fact that a lot of these guys have gotten stronger through off-season workouts. He admits that there is a fine line between playing physical and playing smart. Alexandria needed to be physical against a strong team like Moorhead. The key will be harnessing that style of play to make sure they don’t put themselves at a disadvantage in closer games.

“We have a big team,” Woods said. “Sometimes they’re just trying to give a little push and the next thing you know, the guy’s down. They have to realize that and be smarter about how they take penalties.”

That was one of the only complaints the team had after an otherwise strong performance against Prairie Centre. This team has lofty goals for the rest of this winter. The Cardinals remember exactly what it felt like to get knocked out of the playoffs in the first round after a 4-3 loss to Willmar this past February.

Woods said he thinks that motivated a lot of the returning players in the off-season. He had almost perfect attendance from his varsity players in the summer program. It’s a group that wants nothing more than to get back to playing for a section championship. These first two games have given them a good indication of what they need to work on to get there.

“I think we have the right pieces if we play well and do the things we need to,” Woods said. “We got to be a little better defensively in our end and not give up opportunities. Obviously, we didn’t give up as many tonight, but we were playing Prairie Cenre and not Moorhead. It’s a different caliber of team. All in all, we do believe that if we continue to grow and get better throughout the year, we’re definitely expecting to contend for the title again.”

Blizzard still searching for consistency

The Alexandria Blizzard was still looking to capitalize on a few more chances after back-to-back home games with Breezy Point this past weekend.

Alexandria dominated the pace of play in both games but had to settle for a weekend split. The Blizzard won 5-3 on Saturday after falling 3-2 the night before.

Alexandria outshot the North Stars 42-22 in its win but came out on the wrong side of the scoreboard, despite outshooting Breezy Point 47-23 on Friday.

The Blizzard’s Ian Eckland handled the puck behind the net during Alexandria’s home opener against Granite City. Eckland is tied with Garrett Skinner for the team lead in points with 10. (Echo Press photo by Lori Mork)

“The big thing with us is consistency right now,” coach Jeff Crouse said. “We need to make sure we play consistent hockey. Friday night, we outshot them really but, but we didn’t bring it right away. When we do what we are supposed to do, we’re really good. When we don’t bring it, we’re pretty average.”

The Blizzard took advantage of those chances on Saturday by taking a 3-1 lead into the second intermission. The two teams played to a scoreless tie through one period before the Blizzard’s Joe Anderson, Karson Kuntz and Ricky Seidel each scored in the middle frame.

Seidel added his second of the night in the third off assists from Garrett Skinner and Tanner Duffney. Duffney then put the finishing touches on things himself with a goal at 14:58 in the final frame.

Alexandria had a tough time finding the net the night before. Danny Pelzer gave the Blizzard a 1-0 lead through one period, but Breezy Point responded with three straight goals in the second period. Alexandria’s Jack Wensman made it 3-2 with a goal late in the middle period, but the Blizzard could not add the equalizer in the third, despite putting 20 shots on net.

“I think right now it’s something you got to live with,” Crouse said of the up-and-down play. “Usually with young kids, it’s about mid-November and it kind of clicks. Guys get more used to each other, their surroundings and the light kind of goes on. It’s all part of being young. We had a good talk with the guys this week, and they know. We’re really close.”

The split will send Alexandria into a match-up on the road against Twin City this Saturday with a record of 5-5. The Blizzard’s 10 points have them sitting in third place in the West standings behind Granite City (20) and North Iowa (13). Granite City still has a perfect record at 10-0.

“It’s stay focused and play our game,” Crouse said of the match-up with Twin City. “Play Blizzard hockey. You have to bring it every night, and I think we learned our lesson Friday night with Breezy. Play our game. We only have one game in the next two weeks, so we need to take care of business.”

Blizzard hope to make a good first impression with home fans

The Alexandria Blizzard will have every opportunity to make a strong impression on a curious fan base during its home opener on Saturday night.

The Blizzard will not only be showing off a new team in a new league, but they will be doing it against the defending NA3HL champions. Granite City will come to Alexandria for a 7 p.m. drop of the puck with a perfect 7-0 record. That adds to the excitement level for an Alexandria team that is ready to play at home after seven straight games on the road.

“It will be fun,” Alexandria’s Garrett Skinner said. “I always like playing in this rink. It’s one of the nicer rinks, and it’s just always fun to play in front of your home crowd. It makes it a little easier.”

Alexandria’s Garrett Skinner handled the puck as a senior for the Cardinals last winter. He is currently tied for second on the Blizzard in points in his first season in junior hockey. (Echo Press photo by Eric Morken)

Skinner is one of three Alexandria athletes playing for the Blizzard right now. He is second on the team in points with six after scoring three goals in helping Alexandria to a 4-3 record. Jack Wensman and Tom Schmidt are also helping out a young Blizzard team as seniors at Jefferson High School.

“Garrett started off really good,” head coach Jeff Crouse said. “He had a couple games where he settled in. He’s got to get consistent and bring it every single night. If he does that, he’s capable of putting up two, three points per game…Tom Schmidt and Jack Wensman are doing great. I think their production is down, but that’s going to come with time.”

Crouse expects everyone on a young Blizzard roster to continue to progress throughout this season. Most of these guys are just getting their feet wet on the junior hockey level.

“We’re young right now,” Crouse said. “We have a lot of young forwards. Our scoring has been struggling a little bit because of that, but we’ve been getting opportunities. I just think our fans are going to like the way we play the game. We’re a little bit more physical, and I think the overall speed and play of the game, people are going to be very impressed.”

The Blizzard will come into the home opener as a third-place team in the West Division. Alexandria will have a chance to take down the division leaders in Granite City. The Lumberjacks are coming off two of their best games of the season after dismantling a previously unbeaten St. Louis team by a combined score of 12-3 in two games last weekend.

“We’re definitely trying to stack up against Granite City,” Crouse said. “Eventually, once we get rolling, I think with our talent level and the work ethic of our guys, we’re going to keep getting better and better. If we keep getting better as a team, hopefully we’re going to pass up a Granite City or North Iowa and hopefully be the team to beat.”

 

Whirlwind month ends with DelCastillo coaching Hamline University

Former Alexandria Blizzard coach Doc DelCastillo knows being a hockey coach means being flexible and open to new opportunities.

Never was that point pounded home more clearly than in the last month. DelCastillo spent the last three years in Alexandria and was set to move with the Blizzard organization’s Tier II team to Brookings.

Doc and his wife Sue have six daughters who were all prepared to make the move to South Dakota before DelCastillo received an offer to become the next head coach at Hamline University. It was an offer he felt he had to jump at, and the Pipers officially announced him today as the successor to former coach Scott Steffen.

“Our family was packing boxes to move to Brookings,” DelCastillo told me by phone this afternoon. “Now the same boxes are going to be moving to the Twin Cities. We were in the process of getting ready to move. Our internet search for where we want to move to has just changed destinations. The last few weeks have been somewhat stressful. These are good things and good opportunities, but any time changes come for a family like ours, it brings some worries.”

The Blizzard announced on its website that DelCastillo’s assistant in Alexandria, Jeff Crouse, has been named the new head coach for the NA3HL team that will stay in Alexandria. A search is currently underway for the new head coach for the Tier II team in Brookings.

The move to St. Paul is a bit of a homecoming for DelCastillo. He grew up just four blocks from the Hamline campus and was an all-state forward at Hill-Murray High School before playing four seasons at St. Cloud State University. Doc’s mother worked at Hamline and his sister, Melissa, attended school there and swam for the Pipers.

“It’s been a while since I’ve lived there,” he said. “But it’s a very comfortable situation for me. That’s a benefit. We’ve never really lived close to a lot of relatives, and I think I’ll have that situation here.”

The whole process was filled with mixed emotions for the DelCastillo family. Five of his six daughters are old enough to play hockey and were constantly on the go at tournaments. With Doc on the road so much with the Blizzard, the family relied heavily on families in the community to get the girls from place to place.

“Never once did one of my girls miss a tourney,” DelCastillo said. “There’s always people opening up their arms and cars saying, ‘They can come with us.’ We’re really appreciative of that. The community of Alexandria made it really easy on us to live there and function there.”

In the end, the opportunity to move up the ranks and get back into college coaching was too good to pass up.

“I’m no different than the players,” DelCastillo said. “I really tried to improve on my skill set as far as coaching and dealing with the players in the three years I was in Alexandria. I really appreciate the opportunity that [Blizzard owners] Chris and Mitri [Canavati] gave me.

“I’m appreciative to the players. I always preach to our players that if the team is successful then individuals are successful. I’m just a reflection of the sweat that the players have put in during the three years I was there.”

Beetes in the Majors, NAHL sets attendance records

Three former Alexandria Beetles players broke spring training with their Major League clubs to start the regular season in Lucas Duda, Danny Worth and Nick Hundley.

Duda made the biggest impression in the first week as the starting right fielder for the New York Mets. The 2006 Beetle hit two home runs in the second of a three-game series against Atlanta to open the season. He has struggled since then, hitting .189 with three home runs and five RBI through the first 10 games this spring. Duda hit .304 with three home runs and 34 RBI during his summer in Alexandria.

Worth opened the season with the Detroit Tigers but was recently optioned to Triple-A Toledo after collecting a hit in just five at-bats. The move was made to make room for Brandon Inge on a loaded Tigers team that come into the season as the clear front-runner to win the Central Division. Worth hit .307 with three home runs and 31 RBI during the 2006 Beetles’ season.

Hundley has also gotten off to a slow start in nine games played for the San Diego Padres. He went hitless in his first 21 at-bats before going 1-for-2 with two walks in a loss to the Dodgers on Sunday. He broke out of that slump with a double and three RBI on a 3-for-5 day from the plate against the Rockies on Monday. Hundley played for the Beetles in 2004, hitting .293 with four home runs and 27 RBI.

Former Beetle Allen Craig opened up the season on the disabled list because of a knee injury. Last year’s World Series hero figures to play a prominent role in the Cardinals outfield once he comes back, which is expected to be soon after he started rehabbing in St. Louis in early April.

*NAHL sets attendance records

The North American Hockey League (NAHL) announced its attendance numbers recently, which showed that the league has reached new highs in both total and average attendance this winter.

The NAHL drew a record 1,128,098 fans through 840 regular-season games this season. The 28-city league averaged 1,342 fans per game, helped out in large part by the Fresno franchise, which welcomed 106,718 fans in 30 home games.

The Blizzard had the 16th highest attendance in the league with an average of 866 per night. Alexandria welcomed in 25,995 fans total in a season that saw the organization finish with a record 40 regular-season wins.

Bitzer making the most of his minutes with the Blizzard

Alexandria Blizzard goaltender Michael Bitzer seems to improve his stock almost every time he gets a chance in net.

It has been well documented that Bitzer will likely have options as to where he plays hockey next season. With the way he has played in limited opportunities, there is no doubt Alexandria would love to have him.

Photo by Eric Morken/Echo Press: Blizzard goaltender Michael Bitzer watched the puck during the first period on Saturday night.

Bitzer continued to improve his stock with the way he played in a 5-0 shutout of Austin on Saturday night. Alexandria was facing an 0-2 hole in the Central Division playoffs before the former Moorhead standout turned aside 32 shots in a game that the Blizzard controlled in all facets.

Bitzer credited his defense, and they did play great in front of him, but during a stretch in the second period, he made a series of big stops with his team holding onto a 2-0 lead. The Bruins had 19 shots in the middle period and three power plays that they could do nothing with.

“I thought he came up with some really big saves in the second period,” head coach Doc DelCastillo said. “He kept Austin off the scoreboard, and it’s frustrating when you’re playing against that. We kind of ran into that [Friday] night. That’s how [Austin goalie Tyler] Bruggeman played. He stole some from us, and it gets really frustrating when you’re playing against a goalie that’s stealing good scoring chances away.”

For Bitzer, it’s a matter of taking advantage of his chances in goal in his role as a backup behind starter Jacob Meyers. Meyers has been strong all season, finishing the regular season fifth in goals against average (2.09), third in save percentage (.929), second in wins (30) and third in shutouts (6).

He got the start in game one against Austin and took the loss after turning aside 26 of the 30 shots he faced. Meyers has been struggling with an ankle injury the last few weeks of the season, but DelCastillo said starting Bitzer had more to do with wanting to give him a chance than a lingering injury to Meyers.

“Jacob played OK,” DelCastillo said. “But we didn’t win. You give Michael an opportunity, and he took the opportunity and made the most out of it.”

He’s done that almost every time out. Bitzer is now 4-0-1 in his five games in net for the Blizzard. He has 110 saves in 118 shots faced.

“I just feel like I’ve gotten the chance to play,” he said. “Get a few games under your belt, a few minutes. I got used to the speed, and there’s nothing better than playing playoff hockey. I’m getting another run here after the high school season. Hopefully we can run with this and have some fun.”

Hennen’s views on fighting in hockey haven’t changed much

During my interview with Alexandria’s Scott Hennen last week I was curious to see how his views on fighting in hockey might have changed since having the biggest scare of his life because of a fight he got in on the ice last summer.

Hennen had emergency brain surgery at the St. Cloud Hospital last summer after hitting his head on the ice as the fight was coming to an end during a tryout camp for the Granite City Lumberjacks. You can read Hennen’s whole story in this article in today’s Echo Press.

It was the first time Hennen had ever been in a hockey fight. Near the end of our interview, I asked him if his views on fighting in hockey had changed at all since that day. He admitted that he has mixed emotions about seeing it, but feels it still has its place in the game.

“There is a reason for it to be in hockey,” Hennen said. “Not everybody agrees with that, but if someone jumps your goalie, you have to stand up for him…I kind of still feel the same way [as before the fight], but when it is a stupid reason to fight, it’s kind of like, ‘Why are you guys doing this?’ I kind of cringe when I see it or see people’s heads hit the ice.”

It is one of the more talked about topics in hockey right now. John Branch of the New York Times wrote a telling piece this past winter as he chronicled the life of former Wild enforcer Derek Boogaard after his death. Branch goes in-depth to describe what it was like growing up for Boogaard knowing his ticket to the NHL would be as a fighter and how all those punches eventually took their tole on his physical and mental health.

Fighting isn’t allowed in high school or college hockey, but it is in junior leagues like the North American Hockey League. The Alexandria Blizzard were recently a part of one that got the NAHL’s attention when the entire Aberdeen line jumped the Blizzard players at the drop of the puck in the third period during a game played on March 10.

I asked Blizzard head coach Doc DelCastillo about his views on fighting at this level when I interviewed him for the Hennen piece last week. The popular consensus among those involved in hockey is that it’s simply a part of the game.

“That’s a tough question,” DelCastillo said. “I don’t think we’re known for fighting, our team. I think we can take care of business when we need to take care of business. We’re a feeder system to college, and there’s no fighting in college, but yet, when you play hockey at the highest level, it’s part of the game. Until the rule changes, it’s part of the game.

“We have some pretty tough cats on our team this year,” DelCastillo continued. “I don’t even know if the fans have seen what a couple different guys are capable of doing on our team. When it needs to be dealt with, we deal with it, but I don’t think we’re leading the league in fights…when you come to the rink here, you’re going to see fights. That’s just a part of it, but we’re not an organization promoting it and trying to develop that.”

The NHL sets the example, and it’s clear that players have no interest in eliminating fighting anytime soon. A recent Sports Illustrated poll found that 99.5 percent of the players polled felt it belonged in the sport. That is a telling number of how ingrained it is in the culture of hockey.

Bitzer will weigh his options after Blizzard season comes to an end

There is no doubt that getting Michael Bitzer in an Alexandria uniform through the final few weeks of this season can’t hurt the Blizzard’s chances of retaining him next year.

How much it will help, though, remains to be seen. Bitzer joined the Blizzard last week and is in the process of getting to know his new teammates. He made a good impression on them when the standout goaltender from Moorhead got his first North American Hockey League (NAHL) win in his debut this past Saturday by stopping 30-of-31 shots in Bismarck.

“I’ve only been here a couple days but there’s a bunch of great guys,” Bitzer said when I talked to him on Monday for a story that will be in Wednesday’s issue of the Echo Press. “It’s been a really great experience. I like it so far, and we’ll see what happens this summer and go from there.”

Photo courtesy of MNhockeyhub.com

This summer is when Bitzer’s options will likely grow after the United States Hockey League (USHL) Entry Draft. It’s widely believed that Bitzer will be taken in the draft in May after his stock within the league rose after an already strong senior season was capped off with a great showing at the Minnesota state tournament.

One thing Bitzer said he won’t forget is the faith Alexandria showed in him when the Blizzard signed him to a tender in early December. In the end, though, he has to decide what is best for him and his chances of playing Division I hockey somewhere.

“Them having faith in me right away and giving me the opportunity to play right away will definitely throw a little weight their way,” Bitzer said. “But we’ll see. Whatever options are best for me. We’ll just see what happens. I want to concentrate on what’s happening now and on the rest of the season. I’ll weigh my options and see what happens when we get to that.”

Bitzer has already sacrificed quite a bit to come to Alexandria after finishing his season with the Spuds. He had to give up baseball this spring and the rest of his high school career with his friends in Moorhead. He is currently taking online courses that will allow him to finish up his education and graduate with his diploma from Moorhead this semester.