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NA Now: Wisconsin Windigo

September 7, 2023

The NA Now series features a look at all 32 teams in the NAHL for the 2023-24 season, with a new team being highlighted daily, leading all the way up until the start of the regular season. NA Now looks into each NAHL team including interviews with all the head coaches in the NAHL, as they provide fans with their expectations and outlook for the season, including taking a look at their strengths as a team and thoughts on the league. It will also take a look back on last season and how each team fared and what they accomplished.

Wisconsin Windigo

Head Coach: Blake Hietala (2nd Season)

2022-23 record: 60 GP, 39-18-3, 81 pts. (1st in the Midwest Division)

2022-23 leading scorer: Victor Widlund (49 points)

2023 Playoffs: Lost in the Midwest Division Finals to the Minnesota Wilderness, 3 games to 1

2023-24 Division: Midwest

First regular season game: Wednesday, September 13th vs. Northeast Generals

Home opener: Friday, September 22nd vs. Fairbanks Ice Dogs

The Wisconsin Windigo can look back on their first season in their new home in Eagle River, Wisconsin, and consider the entire thing a success. The team, who had played in the NAHL as the Minnesota Magicians in years prior, relocated to their new home in the off-season and were immediately the talk of the town. Under new Head Coach Blake Hietala, the team showed success early and poured it on at the end of the regular season to capture the Midwest Division regular season title with 39 wins and 81 points.

In the Robertson Cup Playoffs, the Windigo put up a solid defensive effort in their Semi-Final series against the Chippewa Steel, allowing just five goals in the three-game sweep. In the Division Finals, the Windigo would see their season come to an end at the hands of the Wilderness, who defeated them 3-1 in the series.

Hietala said that while falling short of the Robertson Cup after winning the Division during the regular season was disappointing, there was still plenty of bright spots. “It was a kind of a bitter ending for us, but as time passed after that last playoff series, we were able to take a step back and look at the season I think we can be proud of having that much success in Year 1. You always want to win your last game, but I think when we look at the big picture there were some things to be proud of,” said Hietala.

The Windigo also ended the season with 12 players on the roster committed to NCAA schools, with seven of those as NCAA Division I commitments. It is something that Hietala and the entire Windigo organization has put an emphasis on and are proud of. “I am proud of the advancement and commitments. That’s why we are here. That’s the focus of our ownership group, so everything we do is built around the development of our players. We saw a bunch of guys get better as the season went on and were rewarded with NCAA Division I opportunities, which was great,” said Hietala.

Watch: NA Now video interview with Blake Hietala

Heading into the 2023-24 campaign, the Windigo will try and repeat their regular season success and then take the next step in the Robertson Cup Playoffs to hopefully end up playing for the ultimate prize. Hietala said he learned plenty of things in his first season as a head coach in the NAHL. “I think just the overall experience of going through it for the first time and going through the whole year and the in’s and out’s was the most valuable to me and my staff. I know that I have talked with my Assistant Coach Casey Kirley and we have gone over things we would like to do the same and other things that we would adjust. The entire experience was invaluable and it’s really the only way you can learn,” said Hietala.

While the Windigo did lose key components from last year’s team, they do have some key returners up front and on the back end who proved themselves last year with some very steady production. “We've got a nice mix of guys that have already had success in the league and guys that I think are ready to take the next steps in their development. There are varying levels of experience, so it should lend itself well to our success and hopefully getting off to a good start,” said Hietala.

Up front the Windigo return Max Martin, who was 2nd in team scoring last year with 45 points in 56 games played. He was traded to Wisconsin from Minot midway through the season and flourished in a Windigo uniform. Forward Will Schumacher is also back after he put up 42 points in 42 games played last season. The depth up front continues with forwards Zachary Burfoot (35 points), Zachary Cline (33 points) , Drew Fisher (31 points), Luke Baker (18 points), Everett Pietila (22 points), and Tyler Grahme, who had 10 points in 22 games.

On defense, the Windigo also return players such as Daniil Dolzhenko (24 points), Samuel Groebner (12 points), and Mario DiMaggio (9 points). In goal, the Windigo recently traded for Linards Lipskis, who spent the 2022-23 season with the Bismarck Bobcats, putting up a 17-13-3 record with a 2.49 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.

 
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