The days are getting shorter, the nights cooler and the leaves have begun to change color on trees. It all points to one sign – summer is over. That’s not all – it also points to the return of the Wisconsin Lumberjacks junior hockey team.
Based in Spooner, Wis., the Lumberjacks will take to the ice for the first time since a playoff loss in April when they open the 2022-23 season against the Red Lake Miners of Red Lake, Ontario, Canada in a Superior International Junior League Hockey League (SIJHL) showdown on Friday, Sept. 23 and Saturday Sept. 24 at the Spooner Civic Center.
The Lumberjacks are looking to build on last year’s mark of 16-25-1-1. Admittedly, it’s not the most impressive mark, but that can be chalked up to youth.
“I think last year, yeah, we kind of struggled a bit,” second year man assistant captain Zach Carson says. “Definitely a really young group, but I think this year we have a lot of returners and veterans, and we came in right away with plenty of guys to start. I think it helped going on that preseason trip and started to get back in the thick of things, and I think we’re just a few key players away from doing something special.”
Another big reason for the Lumberjack’s record comes down to who they were playing in 2021-2022. The Lumberjacks were finally able to cross international borders and play against Canadian teams for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic with majority of their games on the road to open the season.
“COVID was a weird time, so having the ability to play hockey again, and just kind of get to go do the thing that we love each and every day meant the world to each and every one of us, especially myself, returning goalie Kyler Lowden says. “The year before I had to sit out my first year of juniors due to with the border being closed, so just to get back on the ice, that’s really all I could ever ask for.”
And Lowden, newly named assistant captain, the Lumberjack’s only returning cage-minder, could not be happier to get the season started. A 20-year-old playing in his last year in the junior leagues, Lowden has been playing since he was eight years old. His year away from the ice and international competition weighed heavily on Grand Rapids, Mich. Native.
“Oh, it means everything,” Lowden said about being able to continue the sport he loves, and the opportunity the Lumberjacks have given him. “This is something that I’ve always wanted to do since I was little, and to have this opportunity here in Wisconsin, it’s a dream come true.”
Like every member of the Lumberjacks, Lowden wants to win this year and make a deep push into the playoffs, but he also wants to leave the program knowing it’s in good hands, and on an upward trajectory.
“It’s really special to be here. I mean, we’re here to start this program off and hopefully leave it in a better place than where we started. We just hope that with whatever we do this year, that it draws kids in the future, and shows how great this program is and what the potential of it is.”
Every Lumberjack took away valuable experiences from their time in Canada and competing on the ice again. And after taking their lumps, they’re ready for this season, especially after getting some preseason games in earlier this month.
“If you want to be the best you have to play the best and we definitely got a taste of that over that preseason trip,” Zach Carson says. “We played some great teams up in Canada, and we could see them again at the end of the year in the playoffs.”
There were also several lumberjacks who distinguished themselves on and off the ice and were recognized for their efforts by the SIJHL.
Brock Weimer, who was an age out last season, was named Rookie of the Year in SIJHL for his 62 points – 34 on assists and 28 goals in just 37 games played. Salvatore “Sal” Poggiali, who was an assistant captain last year and has been named captain for this season, earned the Scholastic Achievement award for maintaining a 4.2 weighted grade point average, proving the Lumberjacks are just as proficient off the ice as on it.
“It was a big announcement last year during the playoffs against Thunder Bay,” says Poggiali. “It was a really cool moment for me just being able to be awarded for something like that because, you know, junior hockey, a lot of people think they neglect academics because you’re out of school. So, they do recognize the hard work that you put in off the ice too and so it’s a pretty special honor.”
Like many of his teammates on the Lumberjacks, Pogialli is hoping to show colleges his full range of skills, and with one more year under his belt, last year’s assist leader is hoping to increase his total from last year’s 56 points – 21 goals, 35 assists.
It helps that the Lumberjacks return three of their top five offensive playmakers. Forward Ryder McMillen scored 51 points off of 34 assists and 21 goals, and defenseman Zach Carson tallied 42 points in 41 games from 22 assists and 9 goals. Many more players are eager to show what they learned during preseason and last year’s games.
“Last year our whole team was a bunch of rookies, then we had to deal with stuff with COVID, and then bringing guys back,” says second year defenseman and newly appointed assistant captain Dylan Jouppi. “This year we got a really good group of guys, lot of returners, brought in a couple of key pieces that we were missing. This year we’re looking to put us on the map.”
Helping make this happen is the numerous sponsors from local area businesses and also the support of hockey fans from around Northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“Oh, I love the town. The town support here is awesome. I love my billet – shut out to Chad,” Jouppi says. I just I love this place, love the facility, love the boys, love the staff. I mean, we got it amazing here. When this place gets packed, it’s rocking in here. It gets rowdy, and I love it and the boys love playing in front of a big crowd.”
Jouppi says the biggest thing he learned was just how physical the game is in Canada. That took some time getting used to for Jouppi and his teammates, but with the Spooner Civic Center having a gym and weight rooms to train, the Lumberjacks themselves are stronger, faster and more mentality prepared for the nine-month season.
“They play a whole different style of hockey. Being from Minnesota, it’s a lot more skill based hockey, but Canada is a lot more physical, a little quicker and a harder, faster pace of hockey. It brought a different dimension in our game.”
New appointed Lumberjack assistant captain Brandon McDonald, now in his second year with the Wisconsin Lumberjacks, is eager to get the regular season started. With multiple returners on the 2022-23 team, McDonald says the team is a lot stronger, and closer and ready to help the Lumberjacks make a name for themselves in the SIJHL.
“I feel like all the guys became one,” McDonald says about this year’s group. “We all clicked at once, and I feel like this year is going to be a pretty big jump forward as in the tightness of the team.”
A common theme amongst all the Lumberjacks that will age out after this year is to leave their mark on the program this year, and to give every game their all.
“I’m going to age out, so this is my last year of junior hockey, and I want to get into college next year, as well as the other age-outs too, so I think that’s my biggest goal,” Poggiali says. “But before that I think as far as the team goes, winning our league this year, that’s our ultimate goal. I think we have the pieces and parts to do that.”