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Landscape may be changing for Wilderness, but goals remain the same

A group of Minnesota Wilderness junior hockey team finalists gather for a team photo before Tuesday’s Labor Day parade in Cloquet. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com

The landscape for the Minnesota Wilderness junior hockey team is changing, in more ways than one.

First-year coach Tim Madsen will welcome only five returning players from last season’s 34-18-8 team, which finished third in the Midwest Division before bowing out to eventual Robertson Cup champion Fairbanks in a five-game playoff series.

That’s the other way the landscape is changing. The league has realigned for the coming season, with the Ice Dogs moving out of the division.

“There are plenty of good teams in this league, so we’re still going to get tested,” Madsen said. “But we’re excited for what’s ahead.”

Madsen replaces Corey Millen behind the Wilderness bench for the coming season. One of Cloquet’s so-called “holy trinity” of players which includes Stanley Cup champions Derek Plante and Jamie Langenbrunner, Millen will spend this season as a volunteer assistant at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota.

Still, don’t expect it to take long for Madsen to put his imprint on the team. The Elk River native won a Robertson Cup as an assistant with St. Louis in 2009 and has also spent seven years at the NCAA Division I level as an assistant at Niagara University.

“I want relentless players,” he said. “We want players who can make plays and we’re going to give kids the opportunity to make those plays.”

Madsen describes his style as offensive-minded, and he wants to see his players be aggressive all over the ice.

“Players have fun when they’re scoring goals and winning games,” he said. “We have to recognize that this is a developmental league and the best way to develop players is to help them be successful.”

That success, if it comes this year, will come against a new set of opponents.

The Wilderness have been moved out of the Midwest Division with Fairbanks, Kenai River, the Minnesota Magicians and Coulee Region and into the Central Division. There they will compete as part of a six-team division which will also include the Aberdeen Wings, Bismarck Bobcats, Brookings Blizzard, Minot Minotauros and the Austin Bruins, the team the Wilderness beat to win the 2015 Robertson Cup.

Thirteen players from last season’s team made NCAA Division I commitments, and Madsen sees no reason that total can’t be reached again this season.

“We don’t have players on this team that aren’t capable of playing at a Division I or Division III level,” he said. “The level of play will continue to be very good.”

The team has already played one of its two scheduled pre-season games, losing 4-1 in Richfield against the Minnesota Magicians after holding out its top line and top defense pair. The teams will meet again Thursday night.

“We got a chance to look at some other players,” Madsen said. “We’ve got a good group here and I think they’re going to jell given some time together. They are a pretty tight group already and I’m optimistic about what they can do together.”

The regular season begins Sept. 16-17 at Janesville against the Jets before the team faces the New Jersey Titans, Johnstown Tomahawks, Topeka RoadRunners and Kenai River at the NAHL Showcase in Blaine the next week.

The Wilderness do not play a home game during the entire month of September, playing their first nine games away from Cloquet. The home opener is scheduled for Oct. 14 as part of a home series against Aberdeen.

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