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Wilderness debut season

It's September. Are you ready for some hockey?

The Minnesota Wilderness certainly are — and they kick off another season in the NAHL with four games in four days in the annual NAHL Showcase this week.

"It's going to be busy," coach and general manager Dave Boitz said. "But we're ready to go and we're excited."

It was scheduled to start Wednesday, Sept. 19, with a morning matchup against the Johnstown Tomahawks, followed in rapid succession the next three days by games against Fairbanks, the New Jersey Titans and Lone Star Brahamas.

"We'll get tested early," Boitz said, "and that's great. The players have been working very hard and we're ready to get started."

For Boitz, it will be the first game action he's seen from behind the bench in eight years. Taking over for Tim Madsen, who left to coach at St. Scholastica, Boitz has a special level of excitement for the year.

"It felt good to be back there during exhibition games," he said, "but they're only exhibition games. The real games will be even better."

There will be a number of familiar names back with the team this season. Cloquet natives Dylan Johnson and Ryan Nelson are on the season-opening roster, as are returnees Ash Altmann (Duluth East) and Luke Dow (Duluth Marshall/East).

Defenseman Luke Drougas of Superior and forward Peter Grytdahl of Hermantown are also on the team.

"We have more of a Minnesota flavor than in years past," Boitz said. "You'll be able to see local players playing for us."

Boitz hopes that, as well as a renewed emphasis on defensive responsibilities, will make for an entertaining season ahead.

"We put in a few things that we think will help us reduce the amount of shots on goal we see against us," he said. "We plan to be sure our defensive end is taken care of."

In light of that, the Wilderness must still play in the brutally competitive Central Division.

"Bismarck (N.D.) will be loaded for bear after missing the playoffs the last two seasons. Brookings (S.D.) and Minot (N.D.) will be tough. Aberdeen (S.D.) will be strong and Austin (Minn.) is always good," Boitz said. "It will be a fight."

As such, the "four-point wars" the teams in the Central Division will play against each other take on added significance.

"For us, it's about surviving the division," Boitz said. "And trying to get a spot in that top four."

The fourth-place team in the Central Division has made it to the last two Robertson Cup finals — a fact not lost on Boitz.

"It goes to show how tough our division is," Boitz said, "We don't necessarily want to finish fourth, but the point is that any team in our division that makes the playoffs can go all the way."

But a busy off-season in which Boitz wore two hats as coach and general manager is now over and it's time to concentrate on the game again.

"It's busy for me, especially in the early part of the season," Boitz said. "But people have stepped up their roles in the organization in terms of the day-to-day things and I have very good assistant coaches (Garrett Hendrickson of Virginia and Mark Vichorek of Moose Lake), so we're well-looked after on the hockey side as well."