Working hard with a little creativity from beginning to end, the North American Hockey League successfully navigated the uncertain 2020-21 season.
A year after not being able to host a championship, it was with a sense of pride that the NAHL arrived at the end of its Robertson Cup Playoffs, with an added twist.
Along with crowning the Shreveport Mudbugs as champions in Blaine, Minnesota, June 22, the NAHL also conducted a variation of its Prospects Tournament that is usually a midseason recruiting highlight.
After being unable to complete the 2019-20 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NAHL embarked upon the 2020-21 season Oct. 8, about a month later than normal. The majority of the 23 active teams — down three from the season before and six short of the number getting ready to enter the 2021-22 season — played 56 games but the Midwest Division played 48 and there were a few other variations.
“Going back to the beginning and watching our owners react and trying to find ways to keep the league going,” commissioner Mark Frankenfeld said. “We’ve got a lot of owners in our league who are entrepreneurs and builders and creators. Those types of people are the ones that find a way.
“They were getting through this with patience and the perseverance. The ability and the desire to find a way was really refreshing.”
Plans were made, scrapped and revised when necessary as the league dealt with changing times and unforeseen challenges.
Frankenfeld said the respect he already had for the owners grew with what he witnessed.
“Just watching their desire to find a way, watching these folks play games without fans,” he said. “New Mexico didn’t play a home game. Other teams played some games on the road; playing in pods up in the Dakotas and just finding a way for the players to stay on the ice.”
Frankenfeld compared it to the way the league has grown and navigated the changing landscape of U.S. juniors during the 2000s.
“We were just kind of wading through those waters and finding a way,” he said.
The Top Prospects Tournament was one example.
“We did a lot of scheduling and rescheduling,” Frankenfeld said. “We probably looked at 20 different variations and templates. The [NAHL] Showcase didn’t happen and that was a disappointment. It’s one of our marquee events and it’s so important for our players, but with the NCAA blackout on recruiting and other timing, we just couldn’t do the Showcase.
“The owners felt they owed it to the players to do the Top Prospects.”
It paid off.
“We had a lot of commitments,” he said. “We just tied our NCAA commitments record the other day at 362 and the commitments are still coming.
“We felt we owed it to the players who could get that extra value out of it to have it at the Robertson Cup.”
The Robertson Cup went to Southwest Division champion Shreveport when it got past Aberdeen in the finals, after the Wings rolled through a 51-4-0-1 regular season to win the Central Division.
Shreveport won the title game, 4-2, with tournament Most Valuable Player Cole Hudson making 19 saves. Hudson finished 9-0 in the Robertson Cup.
Regular-season MVP Jake Sibell made 13 saves for Aberdeen during the scoreless first period, but Sean Bunting took advantage of a turnover by the Wings to open the scoring for the Mudbugs in the first minute of the second period.
Gio Procopio and Joe Mack scored for Shreveport before Aidan Metcalfe added an empty-net goal.
Liam Fraser scored both Aberdeen goals.
Hudson was joined on the All-Tournament Team by three teammates, forwards Braiden Dorfman and Dawson Sciarrino and defenseman Chris Hedden.
Forward Kyle Gaffney and defenseman Nico DeVita represented Aberdeen on the team.
The Minnesota Magicians and Maine Nordiques also won division playoff titles to make to the Robertson Cup in Minnesota.
The Janesville Jets and Johnstown Tomahawks joined Shreveport and Aberdeen as the regular-season division champions.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.