It’s been over 35 years since an expansion franchise won the North American Hockey League title.
The Anchorage Wolverines are three wins from joining a short list of NAHL champions who won the Robertson Cup their inaugural season.
The Wolverines face the St. Cloud Norsemen this weekend in a best-of-three series with a chance to advance into Tuesday’s single-game Robertson Cup championship contest. The two teams face off Friday and Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ADT, with a third game scheduled for Sunday if necessary at Fogerty Ice Arena in Blaine, Minnesota.
Only three teams have pulled off the feat and one comes with an asterisk. Little Caesars took the title in 1975-76, the league’s first year which necessitated a victory by an expansion team.
The other two occurred in the 1980s. In 1983-84, the St. Clair Falcons won the title in their first season and in 1985-86, the Compuware Ambassadors took the first of their 11 Cup titles in their first season.
“Just shows you how hard it is to do it,” Wolverines head coach Mike Aikens said. “You figure what we’re doing as a first-year organization is really special. We’re really proud of the guys and what they’re doing.”
If they are to join the short list, the Wolverines will have to earn it. St. Cloud has been among the best teams in the NAHL all season, tallying 85 points to win the Central Division regular season. That’s 17 points clear of their closest competition and 11 more than the Wolverines had during the regular season, placing third in the Midwest Division.
“They’re very deep and very talented,” Aikens said. “Anybody you talk to will tell you they’ve been one of the best teams, if not the best team, all year long. (Head coach) Corey Millen has won a championship in this league.”
Despite being underdogs as the No. 4 seed facing the top seed, Aikens believes the Wolverines have developed a recipe for success.
“We’ve felt that against all the teams we play, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing,” Aikens said. “Everybody is good. You’re going to have to perform and capitalize and limit other teams. You need some breaks and have some things go your way. I don’t want us to be squeezing our sticks and being afraid to play. We just want to go out and play the game and take care of the puck.”
The team’s top scorer this season has been Talon Sigurdson. The Sartell, Minnesota, native grew up less than 10 minutes from St. Cloud and not much more than an hour from the arena in Blaine. He expects to see plenty of familiar faces.
“It’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s good to look up in the crowd to see your parents and family there. It’ll be good for us to just play some hockey.”
The team has seven total players from Minnesota along with Aikens, who hails from Rochester, Minnesota.
“Last weekend in Cloquet we had a lot of parents there, including out of state, from Manitoba and Pennsylvania,” he said. “I’d expected almost all the families to be here and relatives and friends. It’s going to be an exciting weekend.”
Back in Anchorage, the team’s fans will congregating at a number of watch parties in town.
“I watched some video of watch parties (from the earlier rounds),” Aikens said. “I think it’s just awesome how the community and the fans have rallied and supported the guys.”
Aikens built team depth all season and Sigurdson believes that may be the difference
“I think it’s going to come down to our third and fourth line,” Sigurdson said. “We all know we can rely on each other to carry our end of it. We know we can rely on every guy to do their job. We’ll all be pulling the rope in the same direction.”
Although the Wolverines didn’t secure a playoff berth until the final week of the regular season, they’ve been playing strong hockey since March. It’s not an unusual circumstance for teams to catch fire in the playoffs and go on runs.
Both first-year teams who won the title had losing regular-season records. The Falcons were 22-23-5 before going on the playoff run and the Ambassadors were 17-20-6 in a 43-game regular season.
While first-year titles have been elusive, second-year teams have won titles in recent seasons. The Minnesota Wilderness, who were coached by current St. Cloud head coach Corey Millen, won the title in 2014-15. The Shreveport Mudbugs won the Robertson Cup in 2017-18.