Head coach Derek Ricke is excited to see how much improvement the Park Rapids-Menahga-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley boys hockey team will make this season.

An inexperienced team posted a 4-21 overall record last season, including going 1-7 in Mid-State Conference games and 1-13 against Section 8A opponents. The Panthers were outscored 170-55 in those 25 games, being shut out five times and scoring only one goal in five other games while allowing at least five goals 20 times.

Ricke is counting on his team to vastly improve on those numbers this season.

“We return the majority of our entire top two lines and top four defensemen, so we should take significant steps forward in all aspects of the game after having underclassmen gain valuable experience last season,” said Ricke. “The key to our season will be generating more offense and integrating our young goaltenders at the varsity level.”

Returning to lead the Panthers are 10 letterwinners and six other players who saw extensive varsity time last season. That group features seniors Josh Crandall, Brody Hagen, Alec Nordin, Caden Opheim and Jack Slagle; juniors Jaxson Lund and Sam Meier; and sophomores Ethan Eischens, Joey Hillukka and Quincy Jantz. Hagen, Nordin and Slagle each received all-conference honorable mention honors last year. Also being counted on to fill larger roles on the varsity are juniors Collin Hoyt, Nash Mitchell and Liam Torola; and freshmen Josh HIllukka, Quinn Hoscheid and Sawyer Torkelson.

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Nordin, Opheim, Hagen, Mitchell, Lund, Torola, Jantz, Joey Hillukka and Josh Hillukka will lead the offense as centers and forwards. Crandall, Slagle, Meier, Eischens and Hoscheid will serve as the defensemen while Hoyt and Torkelson will compete for the starting goaltender job.

Nordin (eight goals, 10 assists) and Joey Hillukka (seven goals, 11 assists) led the team in scoring with 18 points last season while Mitchell (six goals, seven assists) followed with 13 points. Also contributing points on offense last season were Lund (three goals, four assists), Jantz (four goals, three assists), Crandall (one goal, five assists), Eischens (two goals, four assists), Slagle (five goals), Hagen (two goals, two assists), Opheim (four goals) and Meier (two assists). All those players saw action in at least 20 games except Slagle, who missed 11 games with a knee injury.

Torkelson allowed 11 goals and made 35 saves with a 1-1 record while Hoyt gave up 12 goals while making 39 saves as back-up goalies a year ago.

The Panthers have two key spots to replace with the graduation of Ben Strandlie and Josh Kuhlmann. Strandlie was the starting goalie who went 3-20 with 144 goals allowed and 750 saves in 24 games while Kuhlmann contributed four goals and three assists offensively.

Several players decided not to participate in hockey this season because of restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic. All players must wear masks while on the ice and on the bench or add face shields to their helmets. Having only 14 skaters on the roster takes away having a junior varsity team this season and leaves the Panthers with a lack of depth.

“The pandemic is certainly having an impact on our team. The combination of all the restrictions resulted in several players not participating this year, significantly reducing our depth and eliminating our ability to have a JV,” said Ricke. “Most importantly though, it's hard as a coach to see these kids not playing. Hockey, and really all sports, have such a positive influence on kids' lives. It's hard to see them miss out on that. We're going to miss them.”

Even with only 16 players, Ricke is confident the Panthers will be more competitive in the conference and section this season.

In conference play a year ago, Detroit Lakes won the Mid-State title with a 7-1 record while Northern Lakes went 5-2-1, Prairie Centre finished at 4-4 and Wadena-Deer Creek posted a 2-5-1 record.

For the Section 8A tournament, the Panthers received the No. 10 seed and opened with a 7-1 loss to No. 7 Crookston. No. 1 Warroad defeated No. 2 East Grand Forks 4-0 in the section title game to advance to state. The other section seeds were Thief River Falls (No. 3), Kittson Central (No. 4), Detroit Lakes (No. 5), Red Lake Falls (No. 6), Lake of the Woods (No. 8) and Bagley/Fosston (No. 9).

Despite winning only four games last season, the returning players gained valuable experience playing at the varsity level. Ricke is counting on this group to learn from that playing time and improve on last season’s showing when the delayed season kicks off against Northern Lakes on Thursday (Jan. 14).

“Our entire team is excited about the opportunity to make a big step forward this season. Detroit Lakes and Northern Lakes are expected to be the favorites in our conference, but we are aiming to leap above Wadena and Prairie Centre and challenge those top two. It's a similar story in Section 8A. Warroad, East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls are pretty locked in as the top three. Detroit Lakes is likely next in line, followed by Hallock (Kittson Central) and Red Lake Falls. After that, the remaining teams are fairly close. We will likely be battling Lake of the Woods, Crookston and Bagley for the No. 7 seed, but we believe we have the ability to challenge Hallock (Kittson Central) and Red Lake Falls with some of the losses they have and could finish as high as No. 5 if we put it all together,” said Ricke, who will be assisted by Sam Coborn and Jared Naeve. “We're really excited to start games this year. Not only have these guys been waiting for an extra two months, but as a coaching staff, it's clear several of them put time in during the offseason to improve, and it's showing in practice. We're excited for them to have the opportunity to compete and show how far they've come.”

Jan. 14 - vs. Northern Lakes at Pequot Lakes, 7 p.m. Jan. 21 - vs. Breckenridge, 7 p.m. Jan. 23 - at Lake of the Woods, 3 p.m. Jan. 28 - vs. Bagley/Fosston at Bagley, 7 p.m.
Feb. 2 - at Red Lake Falls, 7 p.m. Feb. 6 - at Kittson Central, 2 p.m. Feb. 9 - vs. Detroit Lakes, 7 p.m. Feb. 11 - vs. Prairie Centre at Sauk Centre, 7 p.m. Feb. 16 - at Breckenridge, 7 p.m. Feb. 19 - vs. Kittson Central at Walker, 7 p.m. Feb. 23 - vs. Northern Lakes at Walker, 7 p.m. Feb. 25 - vs. Crookston, 7 p.m.
March 2 - at Detroit Lakes, 7 p.m. March 5 - at Wadena-Deer Creek, 7 p.m. March 11 - at Crookston, 7:30 p.m. March 13 - vs. Bagley/Fosston at Walker, 2 p.m. March 16 - vs. Prairie Centre, 7 p.m.