Not every hockey team in the world got the chance to play this season. Not every team in North America got the chance to play this season. Heck, not even every USHL team got the chance to play this season. Getting any games in at all was a gargantuan task for the league, and yet, it was done.
A litany of protocols rained down from the league office to make a season possible at all in the first place. The announcement of a return to play framework in August. The schedule was released in September, and the regular season would consist of 54 games, down from 62. Every team had to be flexible. Anything could happen.
“Every team had its challenges. This season was very different. From the amount of players to training camp, to billet situations, from how players could and couldn’t interact off the ice, how to call players up, everything was different,” said Fighting Saints GM Kalle Larsson. “It was much, much, much more challenging than before. A lot of things were completely out of your control.”
That control was taken away from two of the Fighting Saints’ rivals. A devastating derecho caused extensive damage to The Stable in Cedar Rapids, and health officials did not allow the Madison Capitols to even practice, let alone play. If every team got to play 54 games, it would be a complete miracle.
Only six of the 14 teams who played this season hit that mark.
“The jumping off point is COVID. We made a very firm, clear decision that early on, safety was the number one priority,” said head coach Oliver David. “That decision didn’t come out of thin air. That is a standard that we valued prior to this season that we carried over and we really homed in on as the driving force to kick off this season during a pandemic.”
The first month was tumultuous in Dubuque. The Saints encountered an immediate nightmare situation. Several players caught the virus nearly right away, and that forced the postponement of two weeks’ worth of games. Through December 18, the Fighting Saints had a record of 1-10-0, and the prospects of a successful season looked grim. The team had given up 55 goals in eleven games, and won just a solitary 5-3 decision to the Waterloo Black Hawks on December 5.
“We took action that required a level of sacrifice from the players and host families, and a level of commitment by everyone, including the coaching staff, that bordered on extreme. We took extreme measures to maintain safety,” David added. “We lost games because of our choice to maintain safety. Some players didn’t get to play because of exposure to the virus. That sacrifice and that level of commitment was never going to be 100 percent successful, but the kids and the billet families and the staff gave an extraordinary effort to the cause.”
“We weren’t going to take losing. We didn’t want to throw in the towel. We weren’t going to throw in the towel,” Larsson said, emphatically. “We had to try to get better, but we did not want to give up our future players or high draft picks for next year.”
Thus began an evaluation process. A time to chart the course of what was next.
“For the group as a whole, Oliver didn’t put any big pressure on us to win when we were at our lowest. He wanted us to be better. Play every shift your hardest,” said first-year forward Connor Kurth. “Don’t worry about the score. It wasn’t about wins and losses. He just wanted us to get better every day.”
Seven players who started the year with the Fighting Saints were 17 years of age or younger. Generally, the number is closer to four in a normal year.
“The organization tried to get the younger guys to be part of the plan, and it’s a big jump from U16 hockey or any other junior league to the USHL. It got really tough this year for those younger players to get adjusted,” said veteran forward Robert Cronin. “I tried to keep pulling the guys together and have a positive attitude. It’s easy to turn against each other when things go wrong. We’re a team, we’re going to win as a team and lose as a team. We wanted to make sure everyone stayed positive. That’s the Saints culture.”
Some tough roster decisions had to be made by the reigning USHL GM of the Year. Fan favorite Reggie Millette and overager Tommy Middleton were sent to the North American Hockey League. Jake Goldowski went to the NAHL as well. Second-year goaltender Aidan McCarthy was traded to the Lincoln Stars.
It took some creativity to get something done to improve the overall roster.
“We made a decision to make moves,” David said. “Once we started to change the complexion of the roster, once we were as clear as we could be to make those types of decisions, and make them for the right reasons with the information that we had, our season took a turn for the better.”
The Saints brought Andrei Buyalsky into the fold on December 19—a 20-year-old Kazakhstani who did not speak a lick of English. Buyalsky had some pedigree as a ranked skater in the 2018 NHL Draft, but was never selected. He took a chance on playing in North America, scored 32 points in 36 games, earned a college commitment to the University of Vermont, and learned English all by himself. He was also really, really fast. A game-changer.
There was, of course, the move that shocked the hockey world, bringing in one of the top prospects in the 2022 NHL Draft into Dubuque—Matt Savoie—on January 5, just four days after turning 17. He responded by scoring 21 goals, 11th-most in the league, in far fewer games than his contemporaries. Savoie could very easily be a top-five pick, or even top-three pick, in next year’s NHL Draft. He showed those flashes of stardom. A game-changer.
As the Western Hockey League wavered to start their season safely and prudently, Spokane Chiefs goaltender Lukas Parik joined the organization in late January. The Los Angeles Kings prospect won 15 of the team’s 24 victories. He stabilized a volatile position, and only got better as the season went along. A game-changer.
Henry Thrun, who was injured in game two of the season, won the gold medal with Team USA at the World Junior Championships, and returned to the Saints’ lineup in February. The Massachusetts native could play in the USHL because Harvard declined to play due to COVID-19 related concerns. He would go on to be a two-time USHL Defenseman of the Week and a constant presence on the team’s top pair. A game-changer.
“Once we made those roster moves, our confidence started to rise, and we hit our stride,” Cronin said. “OD made sure to tell us we were right there. We had confidence that we had a great group.”
Zero draft picks lost; zero future core players moved. The moves paid immediate dividends. Returners like Cronin, Stephen Halliday, Braden Doyle and Riley Stuart helped stabilize the ship. Newcomers like Tristan Lemyre, Daniyal Dzhaniyev and P.J. Fletcher played pivotal roles. The old guard of Ian Pierce and Michael Feenstra kept the defensive zone safe.
A 23-13-5 finish with these pieces, old and new in tow, gave Dubuque its tenth consecutive playoff berth. It took until Game 52, but it happened.
“It’s unbelievable to have achieved what we did. Looking back, when I was driving home to Minnesota from Dubuque, for us to make the playoffs the way we did was something special,” Kurth said. “I felt proud to be part of it.”
“You go back the last two years, how close of a group we had then, we thought we were going to go all the way. It was heartbreaking to have it come to a close early because of the pandemic,” Cronin said. “We all kept the faith this year, and I wanted to keep the playoff streak alive however I could. It’s pretty amazing how we came back and found a way to get a playoff spot in a tough Eastern Conference. It’s unbelievable. It’s going to be a great story. I wouldn’t be the player and person I am without my time in Dubuque. I will be a Saint for life.”
“We define success by consistency here in Dubuque. Our model is to be competitive every season. It’s something we’re really proud of,” Larsson said. “The coaches did an unbelievable job this year to get us into a playoff position.”
David, the reigning USHL Coach of the Year, guided the Fighting Saints in his fourth year at the helm. He was joined by second-year assistant coaches Evan Dixon and Justin Hale. All of them were put in a position completely foreign to the Saints’ tradition, especially after their 33-13-2 finish last season. The organization had never finished below .500 since its reinstatement into the league in 2010, and yeah, there were those pretty horrific teams back in the late 80s, but other than that, winning was the way.
When asked on his own effort, head coach Oliver David put all of the praise on his assistants.
“The amount of work and attention to detail, and self-reflection that it takes to find the solutions, and present them in a simple format to our players can never be questioned. It would never be questioned by anyone that had the opportunity to watch Evan Dixon and Justin Hale work,” David said. “Most importantly, they did the job that was needed, which was a never-ending, daily teaching loop to a lot of first-year USHL players in multiple age groups that were experiencing this high level of hockey for the first time.”
“My appreciation for the output of Justin and Evan runs very deep. I will never forget their ability and their output. That goes for every single game of the season.”
The goal at the end of the season was to create a core of players born in 2003 (colloquially known as ‘03s) that will make next year’s team even more fearsome.
“All of our ‘03s had different transitions to the league. Some quicker, some slower, but they all got better as we went along,” Larsson said. “This year it was about learning. Next year, they will need to be ready to meet expectations.”
Kurth (8th round, ’19) led the way in scoring for the ‘03s on the Saints. His scoring prowess earned him a C ranking from NHL Central Scouting at the midpoint of the season, and an invitation to the 2021 BioSteel All-American Game. His entrance into the league was a hat trick on Opening Night.
Kenny Connors (1st round, ’19), was a critical faceoff guy all season. His game remained consistent throughout, and when elevated in the lineup due to injuries at the end of the year, scored a crucial goal in the Clark Cup playoffs. He saw time on the Saints’ power play and penalty kill.
Max Montes (6th round, ’19), from right up the road in Waukesha, had a bit of a streaky first season, but remained a good depth scorer throughout the year. Two of his nine goals came while shorthanded, and both at very critical times. He showed an ability to score on his chances with a good 16.9% shooting percentage.
Max Burkholder (3rd round, ’19), small but fearsome, and Riley Rosenthal (5th round, ’19), tall and imposing, will also factor in to being future stalwarts on the blue line in their own individual ways next season. Burkholder was not afraid to get his hands dirty with some big hits, and Rosenthal saw time on the Saints’ penalty kill.
Hobie Hedquist (2nd round, ’19), who served mostly in a backup goaltending capacity this year, was called upon multiple times to step in. That was especially apparent when the season was teetering, and Lukas Parik was out of the lineup with a concussion in mid-March.
“Connor Kurth was a key guy for us right away. Kenny Connors was a great two-way player for us. Max Montes took strides this year. Max Burkholder and Riley Rosenthal saw key minutes in key situations. Hobie Hedquist got some big wins for us, especially against Chicago,” Larsson added. “All of them showed flashes of being productive USHL players. Now, they have to do it on a consistent basis.”
The next step for the Fighting Saints is the USHL Draft, which is to be conducted later this month. May 26 marks Phase I of the draft, which focuses on players with a 2005 birth date. Phase II of the draft, on May 27, is open to all players that are junior hockey eligible and not protected by any other USHL club.
By July 10, the Fighting Saints need to be down to a 30-man protected list, and an 18-man affiliate list. Then, the journey for another Clark Cup will begin.
This year took a lot out of everyone. Emotional, financial, physical strain clouded our everyday lives. And yet, the voices of Fighting Saints Nation would not be silenced.
“I want to thank all of the billets and fans and supporters. It was a challenging year, but we couldn’t have done it without everyone’s support,” Larsson said. “We look forward to hopefully a little bit more normal year and be a really good team again.”
Full boat, rocking crowds, the sound of ringing cowbells, and hopefully, a moment at the top of the mountain at the end of it all.