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Minotauros emerging as Robertson Cup contender bolstered by team mentality and strong goaltending

Adam Papin/MDN Members of the Minot Minotauros return to the ice prior to the start of the third period against the Aberdeen Wings on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023

Attend any Minot Minotauros practice and one of the first things you’ll notice is one player wearing a pink jersey, emblazoned with the Number 99 and the word ‘not’ on it. Each Thursday, at the end of practice, the Minotauros have a shootout contest. The loser wears the jersey at practice the next week.

99 is the number “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky wore, and “Not” is a reference to the player being “not Wayne Gretzky.”

It’s a light-hearted way to build team unity, and that team first mentality is a big reason why the Minotauros entered this past weekend atop the North American Hockey League (NAHL) Central Division standings, two points ahead of the second place St. Cloud Norsemen.

As of Dec. 1, the Minotauros have a 16-5-1 record, with two games in hand over the Norseman.

“Ever since Cody [Campbell, the Minotauros head coach] came in, we’ve built a pretty strong culture here, and it’s nice to see it coming to life,” said Trevor Stachowiak, who recently set the team’s all-time games played record. He first joined the Minotauros in 2020-21 and has played in 182 games for Minot. Through Dec. 1, Stachowiak has four goals and ten assists for fourteen points on the season.

“Everyone is in it for everyone else,” said the Chicago-area native. “No cares who’s doing what every night. Every guy is doing some type of job to help get the win. Everyone’s positive and making sure we’re doing the right thing.”

Off the ice, the team is always hanging out, and according to multiple players and team officials, it’s rare to see Minotauros out in Minot in anything other than a group. Earlier in the season, the team had a golf outing where players dressed up in different costumes and had lots of fun bonding with each other. Goaltender Brady James dressed in pajamas, and another player dressed as Yoda.

According to James, “Cody does a great job of bringing us together, but even our leadership group, our session captains do an amazing job of bringing the boys together and rallying them.”

James is in his first year playing for the Minotauros, coming from Montreal Quebec.

“It’s a little change from where I’m from in Montreal, but I think Minot’s a great town with good people in it and around here.”

James comes across as extremely humble and soft-spoken, but his play in the net has been anything but. In 12 games this season, James has posted a 9-2 record for the Minotauros allowing just 1.83 goals a game for a save percentage of 91.41%. He also has a perfect record in shootouts this season with two wins.

James isn’t the only goaltender for Minot though. James Norton has been equally impressive in net. In the 11 games he’s played, Norton has gone 6-3-1 while allowing 19 goals for a 1.73 GAA average and a 91.52% save percentage. Norton recently became the first Minotauro to commit to the University of Massachusetts.

Entering this past weekend, the Minotauros 46 goals allowed are the fewest given up by any NAHL team, and the goaltending is a big reason why Minot sits atop the standings.

“Both our goalies are extremely capable, and I feel very comfortable with those guys back there,” said Campbell. “They’ve played a big role in our success, and we’ve done a good job of limiting the number of real high-quality chances that they have to face each night.”

According to Campbell, that success stems from everyone buying into the overall system and structure put in place. From forwards to defenseman, everybody defends.

“It’s been a complete effort from the net out, really to make sure we haven’t given up a lot this year.”

Norton is joined by other current Minotauros who have committed to NCAA Division I teams such as Philippe Lalonde, who has committed to Dartmouth College and Pavol Funtek with the University of Alaska-Anchorage.

While many of the players directly cited Campbell as a reason for the strong culture, the Minotauros’ head coach credits the players just as much.

“I’m in my third year here now, and something that I really value is that any team I’m head coach of is going to have a strong culture and it takes time to build that, but again, it goes back to the players. They bought into that. The guys who returned last year; the guys like Colby Woogk and Trevor [Stachowiak] that have been here the whole time I’ve been here have bought into that message and vision.”

Campbell acknowledges that the culture has become more of the players own than it has been a result of him.

“Those guys take pride in that and therefore the rest of the group takes pride in it as well,” said Campbell. “That’s something that we try to work on every day.”

According to Campbell, culture isn’t a finite thing, where you can point to certain things, and say “that’s culture.”

“Asking why our culture is good is like asking, why is water wet?” said the coach.

The offense has been led by forwards Jack O’Hanisain and Joel Lehtinen.

O’Hanisain, a native of Troy, Mich., leads the team in points through November with 20. In his second season with the team, O’Hanisain has already doubled his production from a year ago when he finished with 10 points in 44 games.

Joel Lehtinen is second on the team in scoring with 19 points, off of six goals and thirteen assists in 22 games. Lehtinen was the Tauros seventh round pick in this year’s NAHL Draft but came to the Minotauros with some elite hockey pedigree.

His father, Jere Lehtinen had a storied career with the Minnesota North Stars and Dallas Stars organization, winning the Frank J. Selke Trophy three times as the NHL’s top defensive forward. After retiring from the Stars organization, he served as the general manager of the Finnish national ice hockey team. He is in both the Stars ring of honor and in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) Hockey Hall of Fame.

The younger Lehtinen is focused on forging his own hockey path and signing with a Division I school.

Other forwards playing strong for the Minotauros are Niklas Ketonen and Chad Muller.

However, if there is one potential weakness for the team, it is their lack of goal production. While Minotauros enjoy a +18 goal differential, they rank in the bottom third of the league when it comes to goals scored, and on nights when the goaltending has been off, the team has struggled to keep up. For example, in both games against the rival Bismarck Bobcats, Minot lost 5-4, on Oct. 19, 2023, and 6-5, on Nov. 22. They also dropped a 4-1 game to the Aberdeen Wings on Nov. 25, as Minot closed out the month with three losses.

Nonetheless, Campbell doesn’t feel the offense is a liability yet.

“I’ve been happy with our offensive production because at the end of the day, you play to win. You don’t play to score as many goals as you can,” said Campbell. “You play to win, and those two things go hand in hand.”

According to the coach, the Minotauros are a tough beat for any team.

“When we get the lead, we’re tough to play against. When we’re down, we’re able to battle back and end up doing what we need to be doing,” said Campbell.

Right now, everyone in the organization is enjoying the ride.

“I think a successful season is something where you look back on, and you have no regrets. You don’t go, I wish I did this differently. I wish we did that differently,” said James. “Right now, everyone is really happy.”

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