Back to the bear’s den

Published 11:02am Friday, September 28, 2012

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After two strong years, the Austin Bruins return for a third season

When Austin Bruins owner Craig Patrick came to town three years ago to start an NAHL hockey franchise, he probably had some doubters.

After all, Albert Lea’s team had just folded, the Owatonna Express moved out the next year, Mason City struggled to keep a team and Rochester couldn’t hold onto a USHSL team.

But things are looking much different now as the Austin Bruins enter year three. The team is leased on for at least three more years — Patrick said he’d love to make it longer — and the team has had a dramatic boost in season ticket sales this year.

Add to the fact that the Bruins increased their win total by 17 from year one to year two and the team played in the NAHL Central Division finals last season, and you could say the Bruins are booming.

“This is what I was hoping for. It just feels right,” Patrick said. “I’d like to thank the people of Austin for being great fans. We’re working really hard to be Austin’s team.”

The Bruins have changed their jerseys to gold, added some special effects to the pregame routine, and they’ve hired two new full-time assistant coaches. But the team doesn’t plan on changing its winning ways from last season.

“We made a night and day improvement from year one to year two and this year we’re hoping to get even better,” said forward Chris Fischer, who is one of the two remaining Bruins from the team’s original squad.

Austin has been successful on the ice and it’s also becoming successful at sending players to the next level: In just two seasons, six Bruins players have committed to Division I colleges. That success has translated into a stronger following in the community.

“Within the community, I think we’ve made a real good mark,” Austin head coach Chris Tok said. “I don’t know how many people have said to me they don’t know the game of hockey, but they like to come to our games and when they see the guys out in the community, they think it’s great.”

Tok said he was well aware of Albert Lea’s NAHL team leaving and he said some local businesses had their doubts about the Bruins early on. Now some of those same businesses are investing in the Bruins, because they’re excited about what’s happening in Riverside Arena.

“I would be flat out lying if I said I knew we’d have this good of fan support this early,” Tok said. “To see the town of Austin come together, it’s been awesome. They’ve been very receptive to us and hopefully it continues.”

It’s no coincidence that the Bruins are getting bigger in town. They’ve gone out of their way to make appearances at public events and they’re reading sessions at schools have made Bruins fans out of many local youths.

The Bruins also launched the Paint the Rink Pink fundraiser in their first year of existence, raising more than $22,000 for The Hormel Institute’s cancer research. In year two, the Austin CVB got involved, transforming it into the citywide event Paint the Town Pink. The Bruins came through again, raising $39,000 as the entire event brought in $62,500 for local cancer research.

But those aren’t the only places that the Bruins have had a big impact.

Come to a Bruins’ practice and you’ll likely find an Austin High School player or two skating with the team. In particular, you’ll probably see Packer goalie Rainer-Londino Green and forward Ethan Larson getting the workout of their lives.

The Bruins don’t give any breaks to the Packers’ players as they go through the same drills as the team does. About the only thing different about how the AHS players are treated is they have a different locker room.

“We want to get them better,” Fischer said. “Most of us are older, and most of us are bigger and stronger. Playing with us gets them better and we want the high school team to get better, just like we want to get better.”

Tok said as many as 15 AHS players showed up to the dry land workouts before the ice opened in Riverside Arena, and he said there are usually a few community members at power skating in the morning.

Tok would like to see more AHS players come to work out with the team.

“I think we can help create a better culture,” Tok said. “We can make them better by skating at this speed and then they can pass some of this on to their teammates.”

While all of the things that go around the Bruins have helped the community, the biggest thing they have done is give Austin a place to go on Friday or Saturday night, where community members can sit back, relax, and watch some good hockey.

Patrick certainly doesn’t mind spending a bulk of his weekends in Riverside.

“I’ve been all around this league and I’ve seen all kinds of venues, including larger markets with expensive arenas,” he said. “When we have one thousand people in Riverside, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Bruins at a glance

Years in existence: 3
Record: 63-53 (40-22 in 2011-12, including 4-4 in NAHL playoffs; 23-31 in 2010-11)
League: North American Hockey League, Central Division
Head coach: Chris Tok
2011-12 key returnees:
—Brandon Wahlin, 13 goals, 27 assists
—John Simonson, 18 goals, 20 assists
—AJ Reid, 8 goals, 21 assists
—Chris Fischer, 9 goals, 19 assists
—CJ Smith, 13 goals, 14 assists
—Colton Kramer, 15 goals, 9 assists
—Austin Nelson, 11 goals, 9 assists
—Goalie Nick Leher, 9-8 record, 91.8 save percentage
—Defenseman Michael Bond
—Defenseman Jake Flynn

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