One season after changing their home rink, the Granite City Lumberjacks are ready to start play in a different league.
The Lumberjacks begin play in the NA3HL against the Twin City Steel at 7:30 tonight at Sports Arena East.
Last season, Granite City moved to Sauk Rapids after playing home games at the Municipal Athletic Complex in previous seasons.
Granite City spent the past four seasons in the Minnesota Junior Hockey League.
Both the NA3HL and the MNJHL play for a Tier III national championship at the end of the season and players pay to play in both junior leagues.
“Being in the new league, guys know that it’s going to be better competition, game in and game out,” Lumberjacks head coach/general manager Brad Willner said. “Talking to (potential players) about that, they kind of figured it out.”
The Lumberjacks will play a 48-game regular season schedule in the NA3HL.
The league, which expanded to 16 teams for this season, has been broken up into four, four-team divisions.
Granite City will play in the West with the Minnesota Flying Aces of Little Falls, the expansion North Iowa Bulls of Mason City, Iowa, and the Steel, who play their home games in Vadnais Heights.
Granite City won the MNJHL regular season and postseason titles last season and both trophies will be on display during tonight’s game.
The Lumberjacks have 12 players back from last season in forwards DJ Vold (39 games played, 5 goals, 11 assists, 42 penalty minutes), Peter Lindblad (47-GP, 17-G, 39-A, 68-PM), Ezra McPhail (40-GP, 9-G, 11-A, 86-PM), Trevor Ness (51-GP, 27-G, 30-A, 19-PM), Cody Chiverton (21-GP, 2-G, 4-A, 53-PM), Tyler Cayemberg (50-GP, 26-G, 22-A, 36-PM), Zac Sikich (31-GP, 4-G, 7-A, 50-PM) and Taylor Portner (29-GP, 15-G, 26-A, 58-PM); defensemen Brandon Peabody (28-GP, 2-A, 85-PM), Nick Zierden (45-GP, 1-G, 5-A, 50-PM) and Brian Richert (44-GP, 12-G, 19-A, 40-PM); and goalie Matt Grove (19-4-0, 2.29 goals-against average, .906 save percentage).
“With the (forwards) we return, we think are going to be very strong,” Willner said. “Lindblad and Ness were on our top line last year.”
In addition to the forwards is TJ Christenson (Antigo, Wis., 5-GP, 1-G, 5-A), who played at the end of last season for Twin Cities Northern Lights of the MNJHL.
Defensively, the Lumberjacks lost two of the team’s top four scorers when Bobby Chayka (52-GP, 31-G, 35-A, 128-PM) and Mike Wolter (49-GP, 18-G, 33-A, 97-PM) finished their eligibility.
“Nick Zierden was out top defensive defenseman and he’s back. Brian Richert was our No. 2 guy in plus/minus (rating), but we lose a little offense,” Willner said of his team’s defensemen.
The Lumberjacks added Nick LaRue (LaCrosse, Wis.), who had 28 points in 42 regular season games for Rochester in the MNJHL last season.
“LaRue was a power-play and penalty kill guy from them and we think he’ll do the same for us,” Willner said.
Granite City could also see a boost in offense from Jake Peterson, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound defenseman who is a junior at St. Cloud Tech. Peterson starts at running back for the Tigers and will miss some early Friday games for Granite City because he will be playing football.
“The thing is his vision on the ice is so good, he skates very well and he makes good decisions with the puck,” said Willner, a former St. Cloud State assistant coach who played for Lake Superior State and was a fourth-round draft choice of the New Jersey Devils.
“We see him being a power-play guy and helping us offensively.”
The Lumberjacks, who had their first practice Tuesday, also have made a change for their off-ice training this season.
The team, which previously did weight training, will be cross training twice a week at Functional Athletic Sports Training in St. Cloud. FAST is owned by former St. Cloud State hockey players John Swanson and Jackie Jensen.
“It’s a tough program, but it’s really going to help us out,” Willner said. “Every guy on our team is excited about it.”