Last hockey season was the first time in the Gillette Wild’s history that the team didn’t make the North American Tier III Hockey League playoffs.
Going into this ninth season since the start of the program, second-year coach Steven Kruk is starting the year off with the slogan “unfinished business.”
“It was a discipline issue. We spent too much time in the penalty box,” Kruk said about last year’s squad. “I think our group is excited to get back in front of the community and prove that. Not that we didn’t make them proud last year, but truly give them something to be proud of, be a team that’s extremely unselfish, extremely disciplined.”
The group starts its season Friday and Saturday with a home-and-home exhibition series against Sheridan. On Saturday, the team is hosting a tailgate at 3 p.m. in the parking lot outside Spirit Hall Ice Arena before the game starts at 7:05 p.m.
There are seven returning players this season, including goalie Shane Phillips, who played in about a third of the games last season, Kruk said.
“We had a lot of ups and downs last year, and I think a lot of the problems were our own fault,” Phillips said. “We had a lot of issues to fix, and I think this year they’re already looking better.”
A group of 17 first-year players comes to the team, including three new goalies, four defensemen and 10 forwards. Pablo Palos is an incoming first-year forward to watch. He comes from Texas and is in his second year of junior hockey.
Palos liked what Gillette had to offer as a hockey town.
“(It’s a) small town, hockey environment. The main focus is hockey and always will be,” Palos said. “There’s no distractions, no excuses.”
Palos said the most difficult thing for him moving to Gillette was his lungs adapting to the elevation.
The Kaminski brothers, Tyler and Jacob, are both returning players expected to make an impact. Jacob is a senior at Campbell County High School. They are both from Rockford, Michigan.
Tyler, who is two years older than Jacob, started playing juniors for the Wild, and Jacob followed him as a junior in high school to play at the highest level he could.
“Last year, the first couple games I was a little timid, and then I just found my way,” Jacob Kaminski said. “It’s looking a lot better than last year, the compete level’s a lot higher. “
The Wild want to become a more visible organization in the community and plan to volunteer with local organizations like Blessings in a Backpack, and they plan to visit each elementary school in the city, Kruk said.
The first regular season game is away Sept. 13 at the Great Falls Americans in Montana.