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Minnesota Wilderness prepare for second year in NAHL

Chief among a laundry list of lessons the Minnesota Wilderness learned in their inaugural North American Hockey League season was to live in the moment.

“What we learned from last year, I guess, is not to plan for the future,” general manager David Boitz joked Thursday.

Boitz, who joins the Wilderness full-time after advising them in an informal capacity during the 2013-14 season, said the team debuted with visions of progressively building a competitive program. Immediate success made that plan go poof.

“Going into last year, we hoped to be competitive, and then Years 2 and 3 would be really good,” Boitz said. “But last year we had the fourth-best overall record in the entire league and finished second in a really strong division.”

The de facto start of the Wilderness’ second season is today with the kickoff of the team’s three-day “main camp” in Andover, Minn. Practice officially starts next month, and the puck drops on the regular season at the Sept. 17-20 NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minn.

Will the sequel be as good as the original installment?

Under Cloquet icon and former NHLer Corey Millen, the Wilderness went 60-37 last year — their .692 winning percentage was fourth-best in the 24-team league — and finished second behind eventual NAHL champion Fairbanks in the Midwest Division.

Boitz is one of two key offseason additions. Longtime NAHL and college coach Brian Meisner, like Millen a Cloquet native, joins the team as an associate head coach. Their task is to put a quality product on the ice, while Boitz aims to boost the atmosphere at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet. That includes what he called “a heck of a light show” for pregame introductions.

After modest home crowds greeted the Wilderness the first half of last season, fans started flocking to the rink to watch the plucky upstarts. Boitz says they averaged between 800 and 1,400 fans per night near the end of the year. That’s a healthy number in the NAHL, said Boitz, who hopes to parlay the late-season buzz into even better turnouts this time around.

“We’ll try to have more of an entertainment value than last year,” he said. “Obviously, we had a good team and it was great hockey, but you can’t always bank on that, right?”

Boitz spent the past week moving to the Northland from Richfield, Minn., where he lived a block and a half from the home venue of another NAHL team, the Minnesota Magicians.

Ten players from last year’s Wilderness team committed to play either NCAA Division I or Division III hockey. Overall, 211 NAHL players committed to college teams in 2013-14, according to Let’s Play Hockey.

Boitz said the Wilderness essentially will have their team picked after this weekend’s camp.