Bagging groceries at Super One and handing out flyers at Walmart last fall gave Minnesota Wilderness players a way of connecting with folks in Cloquet.
The team was new in town, unknown to most after two successful years in Spooner, Wis., in the Superior International Junior Hockey League.
The Wilderness is no longer unknown in Northeastern Minnesota, thanks to a record-setting season.
On Saturday, the Wilderness becomes the first United States-based team to compete in Canada's Royal Bank Cup, which determines a national champion for players age 20 and younger. The nine-day event in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, concludes with a title game May 19.
"It's unheard of for us to do what we've done, but this is what we've talked about since the start of the season," said Minnesota defenseman Ben Michaud, a Cloquet native. "We have an idea of what it takes to win and we're ready for this. We believe we can win."
As a member of a Canadian-based league, Minnesota was eligible to compete for a spot in the Royal Bank Cup. A field of 127 teams started the season under the umbrella of the Canadian Junior Hockey League and five remain. The No. 2-ranked Wilderness is in round-robin play against the No. 1 Brooks (Alberta) Bandits, No. 4 Summerside Western Capitals, No. 13 Surrey (British Columbia) Eagles and No. 16 Truro (Nova Scotia) Bearcats.
Former Minnesota Duluth defenseman Rod Aldoff, who grew up in Lethbridge, Alberta, has been head coach and general manager during the three-year existence of the Wilderness. The team became a cult hit in Spooner, but previous owner Butch Johnson decided last summer to sell the team's home rink, the Northwest Sports Complex in Spooner.
Scott Thielen of Burnsville, Minn., took over as managing partner as the Wilderness relocated to Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet.
"We had 14 or 15 new players this season, and a new rink, so we were starting fresh," said Aldoff, who played in 136 games for the Bulldogs from 1991-95. "Everyone here was committed to making this move a success, and to win a league championship.
"We had had to earn the respect of the (Cloquet) fans and we took that to heart. This team is a special group. They've traveled a lot of miles this season and pushed hard, and it's all been worth it. It's a tremendous accomplishment what we've done so far, and we're not going to (the Royal Bank Cup) just to be pretty faces in the crowd. We're going there on serious business."
While Minnesota dominated a not-so-powerful Superior International Junior Hockey League, winning regular-season and playoff titles for a third straight year, there's no disputing the team's impressive statistics in compiling a 62-8 overall record.
In league play, the Wilderness outscored opponents 282-85, scoring 5.03 goals per game and allowing 1.52. Minnesota had two win streaks, one of 18 games and one of 17 games, and during a 49-game stretch (including the playoffs) didn't lose in regulation time.
Minnesota forward Mike Dietrich of South Hampton, N.J., led the league in scoring with 28 goals and 49 assists for 77 points in 46 games. Teammate Jake Larson of St. Michael, Minn., was second in the league with 44 goals and 28 assists for 72 points in 49 games.
"When we hit, we can be a physical team, a great defensive team," said Wilderness right winger Jordan Shockley, a former Duluth Marshall player, who is the team's third-leading scorer with 58 points in 52 games. "At times (in conference play) it seemed like we were a jump ahead of everyone and that gave us a lot of confidence."
In the postseason, Minnesota defeated the Minnesota Iron Rangers and Fort Frances (Ontario) Lakers in the league tournament to advance to the Dudley Hewitt Cup in North Bay, Ontario. In the title game, Minnesota rallied from a two-goal deficit to beat the St. Michael's Buzzers of Toronto, Ontario, 4-3 as Michaud scored with 3:28 left in regulation and Nick Szopinski of Beaver Dam, Wis., scored in overtime. Wilderness goalie Gordy Defiel of Stillwater, Minn., was named tournament MVP.
Wilderness players, like those in other U.S. and Canadian junior leagues, have hopes of making a collegiate roster. So far, none of the Minnesota players have commitments for 2013-14. Shockley said he's talked with Wisconsin-Superior and Gustavus Adolphus. Michaud said he's talked with Hamline University and recently heard from Clarkson University.
"We have no prima donnas, no pretenders on our team. Everyone has a role," said Duluthian Chris Locker, a Wilderness assistant coach. "Rod has shown good leadership and has a good system. We play three-lane, three-zone hockey, and go up-and-down the rink. The biggest thing during the playoffs is that we've learned how to win the important games."
Minnesota opens play at 5:30 p.m. Saturday against host Summerside.
A year ago, Penticton (British Columbia), coached by former UWS player Fred Harbinson, won the Royal Bank Cup, using six Minnesota-born players, and finished 74-10-2.