It's been an interesting few weeks for the Minnesota Wilderness, a Tier II junior hockey team located in Cloquet, Minnesota, just outside the city of Duluth.
The Wilderness were champions of the Superior International Junior Hockey League this year, which earned them a trip to compete for the Dudley-Hewitt Cup, given to the top Junior A team in Central Canada(basically Ontario).
In the final of the Dudley-Hewitt Cup, the Wilderness went up against the vaunted St. Michael's Buzzers program. On paper, the game appeared to be a bit of a mismatch. The Buzzers had nine players currently committed to D-1 colleges, including a likely NHL draft pick in Matt Buckles, and two potential picks in next year's draft in Notre Dame recruit Jake Evans and Michigan recruit Jared Walsh. The Wilderness have...a lot of guys I sort of remember from Minnesota high school hockey. But the Wilderness were able to pull off the upset, defeating the Buzzers 4-3 in overtime, to advance to the RBC Cup, to vie for the title of Canada's top Junior A team.
The Wilderness face-off in the RBC Cup later tonight against hosts Summerside. You can follow the tournament here.
Meanwhile, it was officially announced yesterday the next year, the Wilderness will be moving to the North American Hockey League. Officially, the Wilderness are taking over the dormant St. Louis Bandits franchise, though that's more a matter of internal league paperwork. In essence, they're basically starting a new franchise, though many of the players on their current were sort-of fringe NAHL players to begin with, and would likely have an inside track on making the team next year.
The Wilderness will give the state of Minnesota three teams in the NAHL next year, joining the Austin Bruins and the expansion Minnesota Magicians. The NAHL has made various forays into the Minnesota market in the past, with mixed results, though those franchises were mainly in smaller markets in the southern and western parts of the state. Adding franchises in the Twin Cities and Duluth markets will be an interesting experiment for the league.