The first two years of the New Mexico Ice Wolves’ existence were anything but normal as virus-related issues squelched the first season and led to a 45-game road trip in the second.
In a way, however, what the team in the junior North American Hockey League for players seeking hockey scholarships went through earlier paved the way for its success this season.
The Ice Wolves earned second place in the South Division with 81 points, 34 of those coming on the road. Now New Mexico opens the best-of-five playoffs opening round at home Friday and Saturday against the Wichita Falls Warriors.
“Playing 45 games on the road, you’re either going to learn from it or it’s going to break you,” said coach Phil Fox. “I think one of the things that made me feel optimistic about the team was they learned the importance of playing on the road. There was a time when we had an 11-game losing streak. But now they have the feel of knowing what it takes. We have to prepare differently. You get all the bad road stuff out of your system.”
When Fox evaluated his team during training camp, he was pretty sure this is where the Ice Wolves would end up.
“For the organization to get the postseason taste here in our first normal year, it’s really exciting,” he said. “It lets the community know that we can succeed and that hockey can succeed here. Realistically, we’re right where I thought we would be at. I said it from Day One, that this is a special group for us here. They dug their heels in all year, and the results are making the playoffs.”
It helps that the Ice Wolves were loaded with strong, veteran blue-liners who made the defense among the most feared in the league, allowing just 145 goals on the season – second-lowest by a single score in the league.
“We have a lot of experience. A lot of older guys coming back this year,” said defenseman Jeff Hutchinson. “And a lot of younger guys stepped into big roles and (have) grown throughout the season. That core group, the veteran group, helped us at the start of the season and the rest of the young guys picked it up and helped grow into the team that we are now.”
Among those younger guys, forward Tony Leahy totaled 20 points and quickly found his niche.
“It’s been a lot of fun, being able to have a lot of success right away as a team has been great,” he said. “We figured it out right away from the get-go. All older guys have been great leaders, showing us the way and how junior hockey works because it was very different than what we were used to. Immediately, all the guys were super-welcoming, making you feel like you were a part of the team. Right from training camp, everybody was really inclusive and as games went on you discovered your role. Everybody had to help to be successful.”
That defensive strength is anchored by veteran goaltender Beni Halasz, who had a 2.14 goals-allowed average.
Offensively, Dillon Bentely, one of the best players in the league according to Fox, finished with 64 points, including 30 goals. He was the only Ice Wolve among the NAHL’s top-20, but that’s fine for the coach, who relishes the ‘grind it out’ mentality the team employs, especially against a team like the Warriors that likes to show off a lot of offensive skill.
“That’s the mentality. Those guys are going to think they’re better than us,” Fox said. “When that puck drops, we’re to be giving them some ‘holy (crap)’ moments and take the play to them. As soon as you establish that, it doesn’t matter.”