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Rebels put difficult season behind them

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MOOSE LAKE -- Survival mode. Along the sports spectrum, it's on the opposite end from Beast Mode. Survival mode is where the Moose Lake Area's boys hockey team found itself last season. The team endured one lopsided loss after another. They opened the campaign with just nine players. A school-hall recruiting effort bolstered the roster with former youth hockey players, some years removed from their last ice time, and even football players, who joined the fray out of devotion to school and classmates. Their efforts weren't rewarded with victories, but the program stayed afloat after postponing the opening two games.

"We struggled to get three lines with players who knew how to skate," said then assistant and current head coach Joe McDonnell.

The last line of defense in the face of that inexperience: senior goalie Gage Mohelsky.

"Last year was rough," he said, before acknowledging the sacrifice some of those teammates made. "The losing was frustrating. But it was a close team. They were good friends for doing what they did. We had a lot of fun. There wasn't any fighting."

Today, those unsung players are gone. The program begins 2013-14 on an uptick, with 16 varsity players including a once-unthinkable three goalies. During practice Monday, Mohelsky was in the face-off circle, performing a drill with a fellow netminder. As a sophomore, Mohelsky was the only goalie on the roster.

He's surrounded by youth now, all the new blood bringing with them the continuity of bantam and Pee Wee hockey.

"There's a difference between people who play hockey and being a hockey player," Mohelsky said. "These guys are hockey players."

McDonnell, who is in his third year as the district's health teacher and who grew up playing youth hockey in Duluth, refers to Mohelsky as the team's "cornerstone." Mohelsky wears the label well. He is wise beyond his years. Rather than be ground down by last season's struggles, he is quick to point out the benefit of what amounted to a season-long endurance test.

"Lots of experience," he said. "I saw more pucks last year than in any two of my other seasons combined."

The team opens play Wednesday at Mora.

"We're going to do better," Mohelsky said.

The reason for his confidence is simple: the product is already noticeably changed. Monday's practice featured power play drills, players working into and breaking out of the corners and whiteboard diagraming from the coaches that featured things that amounted to foreign concepts just a season ago for a team stuck in Skating 101.

"We get an hour-and-20 minutes a day with the players," McDonnell said. "This year we're talking hockey philosophy and putting in our systems."

A scrimmage against Becker-Big Lake left McDonnell encouraged. His young team absorbed the physicality of prep hockey and responded well to it. They were getting more shots than at any point a year ago. They wore down stamina-wise, but part of the reason for that was a diminished roster due to deer hunting commitments from some of the players.

"We've got a lot of work to do," McDonnell said, "but it's good work -- varsity hockey work."

At Riverside Arena, those words are the music of survival. As welcome to the ears as any goal horn.