BLAINE, MN -- The Robertson Cup, contended for in Minnesota, returns to the Deep South.
One year after the Lone Star Brahmas won the North American Hockey League’s championship trophy, the second-year Shreveport Mudbugs claimed the championship. They won the single championship game, 2-1, over the Minot Minotauros on May 14 in Blaine, Minn. History was definitely on the Mudbugs’ side – they became the fifth second-year NAHL team to win the league playoff championship since 1977.
That year, Chuck Robertson’s own Paddock Pools Saints claimed the prize – and the next six thereafter. Also hitting the jackpot in Year 2 were the St. Clair Shores Falcons (1984), Texas Tornado (2001) and the Pittsburgh Forge (2003).
“Last year, the process began. The first year was all about how we went about recruiting, since we saw the big picture,” said head coach Karlis Zirnis, who once played for the former professional team known as the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs. “We had a lot of returning players coming back. Everyone knew in the locker room from Day 1 what the expectations were.”
The fact that there were expectations at all speaks volumes to the culture Zirnis and the rest of the Mudbugs staff was able to create. They made something out of nothing, in one of the last places in the U.S. people would associate with hockey – the Louisiana bayou country.
“No one knew about Shreveport in junior hockey, so I give props to those [first-year] guys coming in and believing in what we were trying to do for them,” said Zirnis.
The first-year Mudbugs went 35-19-6 and finished second in the South Division. The Corpus Christi IceRays sent them packing without a first playoff win after three games.
“We had a good first year, making the playoffs, but [the loss] left a bitter taste in the mouth. They wanted to come back and prove they could do more. They were ready to go from Day 1 of this season,” added Zirnis. “The new players coming in saw how important it is to everyone to work hard every day and compete.”
Zirnis said the Mudbugs operated every day with three concepts always on their mind – development, advancement, and community involvement. Junior hockey is alive and well in the South, since the top three teams in terms of attendance this year were from Texas and Louisiana. The Mudbugs were second only to Corpus Christi, bringing in an average of 2,925 fans per game – just 25 short of the IceRays’ league-leading 2,950 average. Zirnis was grateful to the dedicated Mudbug fans and said it spoke to the organization’s close bond with the Bossier-Shreveport area.
“We were in the community just about every day – bagging groceries, visiting schools, visiting the Shriners hospital, visiting with our sponsors,” Zirnis added. “The youth hockey numbers are growing in town, and a lot of that is because the Mudbugs are in town. Our players are out at Learn To Play Hockey and youth hockey practices, and that community involvement is one of the pillars of our organization.”
The development aspect of this threefold mission is epitomized in basically everything the Mudbugs do every day.
“Skills work and team practices are very competitive on a daily basis,” said Zirnis. “Obviously, the gym is a big part. These players are at a prime age where they can get faster and stronger. We do the video work with the players as a team and individually, and we work with them on making the right choices off the ice to make sure they are doing what they need if they want to be an elite athlete.”
Elite athletes are the ones who get the college commitments, and the Mudbugs listed nine NCAA D-1 commitments as of the day they won the Robertson Cup.
“That speaks volumes about the people and players we wanted. Last year, maybe some teams didn’t want these players, but they put the work in ahead of their skills and trusted the process,” said Zirnis.
This group is led, as was this year’s team, by team captain Dom Procopio – the UMass-Lowell recruit was one of a key group of returning players to this year’s Mudbugs team. He was joined in this respect by Jordan Fader, Andrew Lane and Cameron Cook. Cook brought immediate playoff experience to the Mudbugs lineup last year, having won the Cup with Fairbanks in 2015-16. A four-year NAHL player, Cook finished with 108 points in 175 regular season games. He’ll continue his career at Niagara University.
These players’ leadership was crucial through the long road to the Cup – the Mudbugs’ 13 playoff games was one short of the max. The only series that didn’t go to the limit was their semifinal series vs. the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights.
“Going into Blaine, we hadn’t won a single game on the road. Home ice was crucial. Georges Pond was always a packed house, with the fans bringing their rally towels. Their support meant a tremendous amount to our victories,” said Zirnis. “Even against Wilkes-Barre, we had two one-goal games against a very hard-working team that competed and played hard. In the championship game, once again, we got down 1-0 and ended up winning it in the third period. That speaks volumes to how resilient this group of guys was.”
At the head of this group was the eventual MVP of the Robertson Cup Tournament, Jaxon Castor.
“It started with Jaxon. He brings a calmness in the back. We can be a little more free up front because we know he’ll have our backs,” Zirnis said. “Procopio was the Defenseman of the Tournament, and contributed in the game-winning goal. Up front, Ryan Burnett [12 points in 13 playoff games] impacted all the games with his speed, grit and playmaking ability. The biggest key was our depth. We never had to shorten our bench.”
Shreveport welcomed its team back with open arms … and then some.
“There was a welcoming-back party, a parade where the guys got to ride on the fire trucks. The Shreveport airport changed its colors to teal and purple,” said Zirnis. “We [visited] the Mayor’s office and he [made May 22] Shreveport Mudbugs Day.”
The Mudbugs are happy to celebrate, but the work has already begun to build the Year 3 team.
“Some of our guys got drafted in the USHL Draft, so we’ll see how those guys do. We are also losing 10-plus guys aging out or ’98’s and ’99’s going to college,” said Zirnis. “It’s great to win, but it also means the off-season is shorter. We’re back at it, recruiting and getting ready for the NAHL Draft on June 5.”
“It never stops in hockey.”