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The Wilderness way

Cloquet players fill college, pro ranks

The Minnesota Wilderness has enjoyed a huge second-half resurgence this season and are fighting for a top playoff spot in the North American Hockey League.

What most local fans of the Cloquet-based team do not know is the significant impact the team has made in the upper echelons of college hockey and even the professional hockey ranks.

Just this past month, 14 former Wilderness players played in the NCAA Division I hockey tournament, with six on the roster for University of Minnesota Duluth alone.

“It is pretty impressive if you think about it,” said Dave Boitz, head coach and general manager of the Wilderness. “The reason our league is here and our primary purpose is to get guys ready for the next level of play.”

Cloquet’s Koby Bender is one of those UMD players, along with Kobe Roth, Louie Roehl, Darian Gotz and goalie Ryan Fanti. Following the season, Fanti signed a professional contract with the Bakersfield Condors, which is an affiliate of the NHL Edmonton Oilers team. On Monday, Bender signed a contract to play professionally with the Bridgeport Islanders of the American Hockey League.

“When I came into the league it wasn’t this way because the USHL was the dominant junior league,” said Boitz. “After the USHL instituted some rule changes, it allowed the NAHL to become an older league with more seasoned players, and I think you are seeing the results of that.”

Three former Wilderness players also played for the Michigan Tech Huskies in the tournament, including Eric Gotz, Grant Docter and Levi Stauber.

North Dakota also featured three former Wilderness players in Nick Portz, Ashton Calder and Kaleb Johnson.

Over in St. Cloud, the Huskies featured Ondrej Trejbal and Nove Mesto na Morave, also former Wilderness stars.

There were also 10 former Wilderness players who played Division I college hockey this season who did not make the NCAA tournament.

Playing for Bemidji were Aaron Meyers, Will Zmolek, Dante Lawson and Brad Johnson. Nate Horn played for Air Force Academy; Josh Bohlin played for Army. Kimball Johnson played at St. Thomas and three players played for Union College, Tyler Watkins, Bram Scheerer and Josh Phillips.

In addition to these former players currently playing Division I hockey, there’s a long list of players who played Division I and have since graduated or gone on to play professionally, like Fanti and Bender will.

Former Wilderness goalie Kasimir Kaskisuo, who went on to play for UMD and in the NHL, is still playing professionally in Sweden.

Fanti and Kaskisuo, along with Hunter Shepherd, all played in the NAHL and then went on to star at UMD and sign pro contracts.

Currently, another 20 former Wilderness players are playing professionally all over the world, with Cole Koepke of Hermantown now just a step away from playing in the NHL, after having a huge year with the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL. Syracuse is the top affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

According to Boitz, numerous players on this year’s Wilderness roster have either already signed or will be signing with Division I teams before the season ends.

“I wouldn’t be shocked if our entire defensive corps signs,” Boitz said. “I just hope fans realize the type of players and athletes we have here and how good some of these kids are.”

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