Junior hockey: Wilderness looking to save a season, extend some careers

The Minnesota Wilderness went 5-3 against the Austin Bruins during the North American Hockey League's regular season. In those eight meetings, the Wilderness scored 31 goals, including 17 while winning the final four head-to-head clashes, all in ...

Minnesota Wilderness coach Tim Madsen talks to his players during Wednesday’s practice at Northwoods Arena. (Steve Kuchera /

The Minnesota Wilderness went 5-3 against the Austin Bruins during the North American Hockey League's regular season. In those eight meetings, the Wilderness scored 31 goals, including 17 while winning the final four head-to-head clashes, all in December.

Throw in the fact that they entered the playoffs on a 7-0-1 surge, and the Wilderness had every reason to feel confident as they traveled to Riverside Arena in Austin last week for the opening two games of a Central Division semifinal series.

They left in rough shape, their backs against the figurative wall following 2-1 and 3-1 defeats that propelled the Bruins to a commanding lead in this best-of-five battle.

"We just weren't good - we weren't sharp," Minnesota coach Tim Madsen said following practice Wednesday at Northwoods Arena in Cloquet. "The good news is it's a series, and it ain't over."

Game 3 is at 7:05 p.m. today in Cloquet. The Wilderness need a win to extend their season and force a fourth game. Doing so would allow a handful of players to continue their competitive hockey careers. That's the beauty and the burden of junior leagues like the NAHL, which provide additional exposure to college coaches for next-level hopefuls.


But if an opportunity doesn't come by the time a player is set to age-out, a grim reality surfaces - this could be the end of the line.

"That's the hardest part of coaching junior hockey," Madsen said. "You have 20-year-olds and if they haven't gotten their Division I scholarship offer ... they're humans just like we are and it gets to them."

The trick is to bury those thoughts once the puck drops. Play loose, don't grip the stick too tight and do your job.

"You can't really put that pressure on yourself because it's only going to make you play worse," said 2015 Duluth East graduate Nick Altmann, who is in his third and final NAHL season and, thus far, isn't committed to a Division I or DIII program. "Can't let it get to your head. All I'm worried about is playoffs and this season. I'm not looking ahead to next year right now."

Altmann has 12 goals and 16 assists. Madsen says the forward will have options to keep going. That's always the hope.

"Obviously, I want it to happen, but if not I'll go out and find something else, I guess," veteran forward Edward Lindelow said.

Fortunately for Madsen, and bench bosses throughout juniors, individual and team goals converge this time of year. The best way to attract attention is to ensure more "viewings" for college coaches, whose NCAA seasons are now finished. And the best way to do that? Keep winning.

If the Wilderness can stave off elimination and unleash a three-game winning streak today, and Saturday in Cloquet, and again Monday back in Austin, they would advance to the divisional round. The four teams still standing then head to the Robertson Cup finals, which Minnesota won in 2015 - over the Bruins, incidentally.


"This league is all based on team success," said Wilderness forward Ash Altmann, who's a year younger than his brother, Nick. "More schools will come if your team's doing well."

Added Lindelow: "With this team winning, I think I have a better chance of moving on."

Madsen, a former Division I assistant at Niagara University, is encouraged by the resilience his club has shown ever since it convened at the end of last summer. They're a mature and unselfish bunch. The theme after Wednesday's practice was team first. Madsen was preaching one shift at a time.

The Wilderness are ready to get back into this series.

"We did just get swept, so we're going to be playing with a lot of fire and a lot of energy," Nick Altmann said. "This could be our last game of the season, so we're going to be out there with all the energy and giving it everything we've got. We owe them."

• 2016 Hermantown graduate Eric Gotz, a defenseman who has committed to Miami of the NCHC, leads the Wilderness with 48 points (eight goals, 40 assists).

• Ash Altmann has had a tough go of it this season. In between tearing the labrum in his left shoulder and separating his right shoulder, Altmann broke a finger. He hasn't been in the lineup since late March, but plans to return tonight.

• According to the online rosters for both teams, the Wilderness and Bruins have 12 players out of Section 7. The Wilderness boast nine, including Garrett Worth, who recently wrapped up his senior season at East, leading the state with 47 goals as the Greyhounds finished second in Class AA. He's competing against his former East linemate, Austin's Ian Mageau. The Bruins also feature a pair of Duluth Marshall products in Levi Stauber and Lane Krenzen.


Forward Nick Altmann, a 2015 Duluth East graduate, practices with the Minnesota Wilderness on Wednesday at Northwoods Arena. (Steve Kuchera /

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