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PB View: Grizzlies a breath of fresh air for junior hockey in Rochester

October 11, 2018

The Rochester Grizzlies have hit the reset button on junior hockey in Rochester.

A heavy dose of fresh air — and a badly needed makeover of the ice rink itself — has been pumped into the Rochester Recreation Center.

The standard hockey locker room smell (think “soaking wet dog with soaking wet dog breath,” if you’ve never experienced it) is even slightly less hockey locker room-ish. It’s more like “soaking wet Yorkshire Terrier” as opposed to the usual “soaking wet giant sheepdog.”

But I digress.

Everything smells better, looks better, sounds better, tastes better to a fan base, players and coaches, when a team is winning.

So far, the Rochester Grizzlies have done a lot of that.

To be sure, 15 percent of a season is a tiny sample size, but six wins in its first seven games — six consecutive wins — is an unexpectedly roaring start for Rochester’s newest entry in the North American 3 Hockey League.

“It’s definitely a statement to show we’re not here to mess around,” said defenseman Logan Olson, a Rochester Lourdes graduate who is second on the Grizzlies with six assists. “We’re trying to make this a strong program, make it fun for the community to watch and show the young kids here that it can be a fun place to play, try to get them working up the ladder and work their way here.”

Much like every time a Minnesota Vikings kicker takes the field, there had to be a collective holding of the breath and a tight gripping of the cowbell among junior hockey fans in town when they saw the score of the Grizzlies first regular-seaosn game, on Sept. 15: Granite City 10, Rochester 0.

The comparisons came instantly to the Rochester Ice Hawks, a franchise that was put behind the eight-ball prior to its first season in the NA3HL, struggled making the transition from the Minnesota Junior Hockey League and never recovered.

We’re seeing now that the Grizzlies franchise has a solid foundation, an ownership group that isn’t satisfied unless it puts a winning product on the ice. Mike Cooper and Craig Patrick have done it with the NAHL’s Austin Bruins and are intent to do it in Rochester.

“I just think the blueprint was there for us with Austin,” Grizzlies head coach Casey Mignone said. “Their support and backing, their understanding of what it takes to be successful over there has really helped us. We’re a pretty young team, young hockey ops department ... everyone here is pretty new and hungry.

“And this city, it’s a hockey community and we know if we keep doing things the right way, the fans will come back.”

Cooper and Patrick purchased the Ice Hawks franchise in April and re-branded it as the Grizzlies.

But it is truly a new franchise, from the front office to the coaching staff to the players to the team name. Only forward Josh Hoffman remains from last year’s Ice Hawks roster.

“We told guys, it’s not every year that you get to come into a team that has one returning player,” Mignone said of his message to potential players during the summer. “A lot of the young guys like that, thinking ‘we have a chance to carve out some big roles right away.’ Guys like (Brock) Hildenbrand, (Peyton) Hart, (Matt) DeRosa, younger guys who, on a more established team, it might take them until Christmas time to be playing in the roles they’re in right now.”

To be fair, 40 games remain in the regular season.

Fifteen of the 23 players on the Grizzlies roster are 18 or younger.

They won’t finish the season with one loss. They may not finish the season above .500. Or they might win a division title

No one in the Grizzlies’ front office is preparing a trophy case or measuring fingers for championship rings.

But there is something different about the Grizzlies, an appealing style of play that says they’re more about beating teams on the scoreboard, than with their gloves dropped.

Some stars have aligned that have allowed them to play loose and play well. They’re a first-year franchise, which brings low expectations — or, at least, a wait-and-see attitude — among nearly everyone outside of the locker room. With a roster full of brand-new players, it forces them to bond or to sink, and players know they have to battle for their spot in the lineup every game and every practice. The coaches and players reported for camp in August with a clean slate, no pre-defined roles.

“When you’re winning, you have to find some things to nitpick,” Mignone said. “We also understand we haven’t won anything yet. We’ve won a couple games in a row, and we haven’t by any means played a complete 60-minute game yet. ... This league is not won in October. We have to keep working hard and getting better, and not get satisfied with where we’re at.”

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