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Expansion Ice Wolves prep for home opener

New Mexico Ice Wolves goaltender Josh Graziano, left, makes a save in practice this week in front of teammates Brandon Holt, center, and John Garvey. (Glen Rosales/For the Journal)

At the Outpost Ice Arenas, little fixes are still underway as the New Mexico Ice Wolves prepare for the first home game in their history.

Workmen on Wednesday were preparing a screen to protect the new video replay scoreboard, and the VIP lounge was still crowded with tools and chairs.

But owner Stan Hubbard said he was confident all should be ready by the time the puck drops at 7:30 p.m. Friday for the home opener against Odessa.

The team itself, an expansion member of the North American Hockey League, was expected to takes some lumps and bruises as the squad of mostly players between 17 and 20 years old tried to merge into a competitive unit.

After a grueling, six-game, 11-day road trip to Shreveport, La., and Blaine, Minn., the Ice Wolves (0-6) are the league’s lone team without any points..

“It’s been tough. It’s an uphill challenge for sure,” said coach Phil Fox. “I think it says a lot when you have a returning group of guys that kind of know the structure and the culture of what you want. It’s a lot easier. With that being said, that’s not what we have. We have to be prepared. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take work. It’s a process. We just have to stick to it.”

The Ice Wolves will be relying on their veteran leadership in the back to really get them moving forward.

Both goaltender Josh Graziano, the No. 2 overall NAHL entry draft selection, and defenseman Keenan Johnson, are playing in their third season in the league, which bills itself as “the oldest and largest junior hockey league of its kind in the U.S.,” as it tries to develop talent for college and perhaps even pro teams.

“It’s definitely exciting, especially being with an expansion team, that they’re willing to make that investment in me and have that confidence in me,” Graziano said of being the Ice Wolves’ top pick. “I have a lot to undertake this season and I was definitely excited when I saw that.”

Thus far, he is sporting a 0-5 record with 4.22 goals-against average.

“I think that there is always some sort pressure, whether it is personal or from the coach’s/team perspective,” said Graziano, who is from Buffalo, N.Y. “I really don’t think anything is different. I’m still motivated and I try to get better every day.”

Johnson said he tries to look out for the younger ones, as 17 of the 26 players on the roster are rookies.

“I think I just try and help them with the battles I encountered when I was their age,” he said. Johnson, who comes from Menominee, Wisconsin. “I know how hard it can be, your first year living away from home, so I try to support them and make sure they’re working hard more than anything.”

And though the players are hoping to catch the eyes of scouts, Graziano said they can’t lose focus on the importance of getting better as a team.

“I want the team to have a lot of success and come together,” he said. “Personally every guy here will tell you their goal is to play D-I college hockey, so I think in the back of everyone’s mind, there’s that goal. But more importantly, we want them the team to come together and have some success.”

To get the players to come together more as team, Fox said he’s encouraged outings away from the rink.

“We’ve done a couple of team-building events,” he said. “We had the guys go hiking on some of the trails here in New Mexico. That was fun for them, especially the guys that have never seen the terrain that this great state provides. They go go-karting, bowling. We try to get them to different events where they are away from hockey, but they’re still together.”

Getting out in nature has been one of the best parts of coming to New Mexico, said Johnson.

“I’m not used to the desert; I’m used to lakes and humidity,” he said. “But I love it. I love the mountains. I’ve been out fly-fishing and hiking quite a bit, so I love it here.”

Now the team sets out on some other type of mountain climbing – trying to reach respectability quickly.

“The big goal here is to get better as a team,” Fox said. “Are we generating more shots? Are we eliminating chances from the opposing teams? Those are the little thing you have to notice. Despite the scores and win and losses, you have to see the progression from that.”

NOTES: Farmington’s Chevel Shepherd, who won the “The Voice,” will sing “God Bless America,” and the national anthem before Friday’s game. …U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member John Mayasich will drop the first puck. …The game is being streamed live on hockeytv.com as the free game of the week.

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