By Jim Smith
If one subscribes to the theory that a benefit of early season road trips for a team is the opportunity for players to bond, then the Dells Ducks of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League should be inseparable by now.
After opening the season with three home contests, the Ducks recently completed a streak of 17 consecutive road games, winning 13 of those away games. They opened the 2014-15 season with a 16-4-0.
Included among those road victories was a milestone achievement as the Ducks earned their 100th regular season victory since joining the MNJHL in 2010-11.
“I think it was good for us to get on the road. You’re around the guys pretty much every minute of the day, which is good to start off the year just to see what kind of chemistry you have,” said Ducks head coach Bill Zaniboni, the 2013-14 MNJHL Coach of the Year. “The biggest thing guys have to know, especially at the junior level is that you have to win games on the road to be a contender. All-in-all, I take a lot of positives out of the 17-game road trip.”
The next streak will feature home cooking as the Ducks will play 21 of their remaining 25 league games at home.
“I think we’re pretty excited about that, as last year we only had one loss at home. That is something we take pride in as an organization,” added Zaniboni. “We want to make this a tough place to play.”
The Ducks have seven returning players from their 2013-14 regular season champion and Minnesota Division championship team. Their mentor looks to those veterans for leadership this season.
“Ian Wood is our captain and a returning guy from last year. He is a guy that draws a lot of attention from the opposition as he can play in all three zones and adapt to whatever the team needs,” said Zaniboni. “He has done a really good job of taking control of the group in a positive way. He is a soft spoken guy who leads by example.”
Twin brothers, Bradley Hefner and Brady Hefner, serve as two of three alternate captains and have been with the organization for three years.
“These guys have been through the highs and lows in junior hockey. When I look at those two guys in our locker room I always know that we have a chance to win every night,” said Zaniboni.
The Ducks coach and former Northern Michigan University goaltender’s third alternate captain is netminder Sandro Aeschlimann, who played in the NAHL last season.
“He is a veteran and one of the best team guys. There are times when he has brought everyone together and he is here for the right reasons,” said Zaniboni. “That’s important for our younger guys to see.”
Aeschlimann has earned four shutout victories in the early going and has an opportunity to break the MNJHL record of nine in a season.
“We work a ton on the D-zone and taking care of our own end. I always say a save percentage is a goalie’s stat and your goals-against is a team stat,” Zaniboni added. “It’s something that everyone needs to look at and be accountable for.”
Offensively, the Ducks possess four solid lines and their coach promotes the concept of creativity and having fun while playing the game.
“We’re very capable of all four lines producing points. When I look at our roster, I don’t see any guys with 40 points, but I see a bunch of guys with 15 or 17,” Zaniboni said. “To have that depth makes you dangerous consistently over time and dangerous is what you need to be to win.”
The Ducks return two players on the defensive end from last year’s team in Bradley Hefner and Mike Sullivan, and they carry six blueliners on their roster.
“Our defense is anchored by Bradley. He is a fourth-year guy. He is not a big guy at 5-feet-7-inches, 180 pounds, but he plays like he is 6-6, 230,” Zaniboni said. “Our biggest thing is we want to get the puck and we want to move it.”
Matt Heim, from the Dallas Ice Jets of the Western States League, and Lucas Smith from Calgary are new to the Ducks defense this season.
“There are a lot of guys that I am excited about,” said Zaniboni.
Goaltender Jared Young backs up Aeschlimann and is, according to his coach, “really starting to make a name for himself.”
So as the Ducks return for a home game at Poppy Waterman Ice Arena for the first time since mid-September, the one thing they certainly know is each other’s name.
You can follow Jim Smith on Twitter @BlueLineNotes
Read past Minnesota Junior Hockey League articles in our archives:
Rochester Ice Hawks off to flying start
A new champion arises in Marquette
Our February 2014 cover feature: “Minnesota Junior Hockey League – It Starts Here”