Blizzard to hit the ice in September

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Via the Associated Press

When the Brookings Blizzard drop the puck at Larson Ice Center this season, junior hockey teams from the Dakotas will make up two-thirds of the North American Hockey League’s central division.

Team owners Chris and Mitri Canavati relocated their club to Brookings after nine seasons in Alexandria, Minn., creating additional in-state and cross-border rivalries with the Aberdeen Wings, the Bismarck (N.D.) Bobcats and the Minot (N.D.) Minotauros, said Blizzard business manager Bryant Black.

The Blizzard opens its 2012-13 slate with an exhibition Sept. 7 at Larson Ice Center against Bismarck, with the home opener approaching Sept. 28 at home against Aberdeen.

Blizzard representatives admitted they’ve been fortunate with the scheduling against SDSU’s sports. They say they’re shooting for 400 to 500 SDSU students a night, an admittedly challenging goal. Blizzard single-game tickets for the regular season are $8 for college students and $12 for adults.

“We have avoided most of the football and basketball games and while we realize there’s other sports on campus, we’re trying to grab that niche hockey fan from the university and from the community,” Olson said.

Director of Marketing Riley Courtright said he’s already approached the SDSU women’s club hockey team and the school’s cheer and dance teams to have them participate in the team’s in-game experience. The team is offering internships for students who are might be interested in the sports world.

The team will also be able to sell alcohol, something SDSU can’t match and while the Blizzard will market to families, they aren’t exactly shying away from the alcohol aspect.

“There’s going to be something for every[one]. If people don’t want to be a part of that and it will be different from an SDSU game because you can come have a good time and if you want to have a few drinks or go downtown you can,” said Courtright, who added that the team will promote getting a safe ride home afterward too.

The Dakotas also have two teams in the Tier 1 USHL, the Sioux Falls Stampede and the Fargo Force.

“North Dakota and South Dakota hockey is continuously expanding,” Black said. “Right up I-29, that’s kind of where the shift has been going.”

The Austin (Minn.) Bruins and the Coulee Region Chill (Onalaska, Wis.) round out the central division of the NAHL, a Tier II junior hockey league about to kick off its 37th season.

Although the NCAA classifies the major junior Canadian circuits as professional, the 16 to 20-year-olds who compete in U.S. junior hockey leagues can maintain their college eligibility as they work to earn scholarships.

NAHL players earned more than 190 college commitments last season.

“Hockey’s unique because it’s really the only sport where there’s kind of this in-between step,” said Blizzard assistant coach Chris Olson. “Baseball, football, basketball, all these kids are going straight to college. Even the D-III schools now pretty much want a player that has a year, if not two years of junior hockey under their belt.”

More than two dozen players will be arriving in Brookings for training camp around Labor Day, and the Blizzard are still searching for about 10 more families to house or “billet” players for this season.

Billeting is a time-honored tradition in junior hockey but one that is probably more recognized north of the border. Each year, families in cities across the U.S. and Canada open their homes to players, receiving no more than a monthly food and housing stipend and game tickets in return.

Black said the Blizzard players are a great group of guys who are fun to be around, and they sit down with their billet families for dinner, play Xbox with their kids and attend school events.

“Another great thing is two, three years down the road, that family can be watching TV and they can see their billet son playing in a Gophers-vs.-North Dakota game,” he said.

The Blizzard began looking at Brookings as a potential home in June 2011 and announced the move in April. The team saw success 150 miles to the northwest with the Aberdeen Wings, a club that in 2010 quickly settled into the city of about 26,000, built a fan base and competed in the division.

“They’re one of the most successful teams in the league,” Black said. “They’re blowing the roof off the building every single night and that’s something that kind of intrigued us.”

Alex Kyrias, the NAHL’s director of communications, said the league has thrived locating teams both in suburban outlying areas of bigger cities and in smaller cities such as Aberdeen, Brookings, Minot and Bismarck.

“They’re smaller, they’re tight-knit,” Kyrias said. “The team in those markets is usually in the forefront and the fan base is very loyal.”