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Wilderness look at year of change

They aren’t your father’s Minnesota Wilderness. In fact, over the last year, they aren’t even your older brother’s Minnesota Wilderness.

Over the last 12 months, the team has changed owners, changed leagues, changed uniforms, changed coaches and changed out its entire roster of players. The only things that haven’t changed are the team’s name and the team’s home ice.

Oh, and results. They haven’t changed much either. They’re still excellent.

At the end of 2013, Coach Corey Millen’s team is second in the six-team Midwest Division of the 24-team North American Hockey League, a sprawling endeavor with teams from Texas to Fairbanks.

At the beginning of 2013, the Wilderness were winning games in the four-team Superior International Junior Hockey League for fun.

“There really isn’t anything other than the name that ties the two organizations together,” Millen said. “The ownership is different, no players carried over, and the league is different.”

But the Wilderness, 18-7-5 heading into a New Year’s Eve contest in Brookings against the league’s third-worst team, the Blizzard, have made solid strides toward forming a new identity.

“Last year’s players were good,” Millen said. “With all due respect to them and their accomplishments, which were quite impressive, most of those players were kids who didn’t make the North American league last year or who were ‘bubble’ players. That takes nothing away from their accomplishments, but this is a better league.”

And the ‘new’ Wilderness have adapted well to it. They aren’t an especially high-scoring team — they’ve scored only 70 goals in 30 games so far and leading scorer Jakob Romo is the only player on the team in double-digits in goals — but they play great defense in a league that is becoming known for it.

Goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo, a native of Vantaa, Finland, is second in the league in wins with 15, leads the league in goals-against average at 1.35 and leads the league in shutouts with eight. Nine regular goaltenders boast averages below 2.00, which makes Kaskisuo’s accomplishments even more important.

The Finn was 5-2-1 in November with 0.74 goals-against average and allowed only six goals on 241 shots. To the surprise of no one, he’s the league’s reigning goaltender of the month.

“Every night when we play at home, we have Division I scouts there,” Millen said. “We get NHL scouts to look at our goaltender, and that makes it exciting for the program and the kids.

“It is a markedly better standard of hockey, and that’s what we want to get across,” Millen added. “This level and brand of hockey is better. It’s very competitive and all these kids are inspired to do well. It’s another level of commitment and intensity, and it’s getting better all the time.”

The team started 14-2-4, a surprising and pleasing start for Millen, but has since gone 4-5-1 in its last 10 games.

“From a hockey standpoint the last 10 [games] haven’t been great,” Millen said. “The first 20 went surprisingly well, but we hope that shaking off the holidays and getting reset mentally will help us.”

This season has also given Millen a chance to return to his hometown. A 1983 graduate of Cloquet High School, Millen was named one of Minnesota’s 100 best-ever high school players last year and liked the thought of coming home.

“Originally, it looked like a perfect scenario,” he said. “I haven’t spent much time in Cloquet in the last 25 years, so there were some no-brainer things about coming back. It’s been great to be around family.”

Of course, family takes a back seat when the puck drops and that means Millen works for owners Chris Trapp and Joe Dusek.

“They’ve been fantastic,” Millen said. “They bend over backwards to make things easier for coaches and players — whether it’s financial or whatever, they are there. They treat people very well. They want to stay here and make it work.”

Heading into this weekend’s home series against the Minnesota Magicians, who are last in the Midwest Division, Millen does have a wish for 2014.

“I’d love to see better support. That would be exciting,” he said. “I hope that comes to fruition. I want this to work, it’s a big bonus for the town, the area, and Northern Minnesota. The support we have is great but we would love to see it improve.”

So as a year of change ends for the Wilderness, Millen is pleased.

“We got a late start putting this group together,” he said. “My mind set was hoping for .500 at this time of the year. If you had said we’d be there (in a division race) at the New Year, I might not have believed you.”