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Central grads Brandon Holt, Will Howard lead New Mexico Ice Wolves to Robertson Cup Finals

A Grand Forks-to-Albuquerque pipeline has carried the Ice Wolves from expansion to the top of the NAHL in just three years.

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Grand Forks Central graduate Brandon Holt (left) celebrates with his New Mexico Ice Wolves teammates.
Photo by New Mexico Ice Wolves
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GRAND FORKS — Brandon Holt's high school hockey career ended on Feb. 23, 2019, with a third-straight North Dakota boys state title.

His Grand Forks Central Knights went 76-1-2 during his prep hockey career, and he thought that might be how it ends.

"I didn't know if I was going to keep playing hockey," Holt said.

But after a strong High School Boys National Invitational Tournament in the Twin Cities that spring, he received a unique offer. A startup junior hockey team out of Albuquerque, N.M., said they'd sign him to a tender and guarantee him a spot on the inaugural roster.

After some prodding by his Central coach, Grant Paranica, Holt decided to give it a shot.

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"Leaving home and moving down here was a big thing for me," Holt said. "Now that I've been here for a few years, I can't imagine doing anything different."

Holt's move was the beginning of an unlikely pipeline from Grand Forks to Albuquerque — one that has helped the New Mexico Ice Wolves on a quick ascent to the top of the North American Hockey League.

In Year 1, the Ice Wolves won just 13 of 52 games, finishing 24th of 26 teams in the league.

In Year 2, 2020-21, the Ice Wolves added Holt's old Central teammates Cole Hanson and Will Howard. They finished 19th in the league, despite having to play 43 consecutive road games because of the coronavirus pandemic . Hanson led the team in scoring, then left for college at Colgate.

This season, with Holt as captain and Howard as the team's second-leading scorer, the Ice Wolves have reached the NAHL's Robertson Cup Finals.

They upset the NAHL's regular season champ, Lone Star, in a best-of-five series. New Mexico trailed 2-0 in the series, then stormed back to win the final three games. They clinched it with a 1-0 victory Sunday to earn a trip to the Robertson Cup Finals, which will begin Friday in Fogerty Ice Arena in Blaine, Minn.

New Mexico will play the New Jersey Titans in a best-of-three semifinal. In the other semifinal, Roseau's Max Strand and the St. Cloud Norsemen will play the Anchorage Wolverines, whose assistant coach is former UND star Evan Trupp.

The national title game is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday.

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"It's crazy thinking about it," Holt said. "It has kind of been one of our goals this year as a team. The last two years, we haven't been that great. Last year was tougher being on the road so much. This year, we kind of knew we were going to be good. The win (Sunday) was one of the best feelings I've had in a while playing hockey. I'm super excited to play in the Robertson Cup."

Howard and Holt, two of New Mexico's top four scorers, both had unconventional routes to junior hockey.

Upon graduation from Central, Howard tried out for three NAHL teams. He got cut from all of them. New Mexico was the only team that hadn't held its camp yet. Howard emailed coach Phil Fox and asked if there's any chance they have a spot for him. Fox said there was one spot open, so Howard decided to try out for it.

"I had nothing to lose," Howard said. "I was playing for my hockey career. I had nowhere else to go. I had to play like my life was on the line."

Howard made the team.

He has rewarded New Mexico for choosing him, too. He has gone from tallying four points as a rookie to 42 this season.

"It's been crazy," Howard said. "I feel like we have a great coaching staff. I feel like I've gotten so much better in my time here. Our practices are great. They're intense and skill-based. It's easy to get better when you have the coaching staff we do. I think it's the best spot in junior hockey."

This will be Holt's final season with New Mexico.

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The 6-foot, 185-pounder has committed to the University of Maine and will join the Black Bears in the fall. Hanson will meet him there. He's transferring from Colgate.

"It's a dream come true playing D-I hockey," said Holt, who visited campus this season. "Maine is kind of similar to North Dakota, where it's the flagship program of the state, so everyone is behind it."

The Grand Forks-to-Albuquerque pipeline isn't over yet, though.

Howard will be back next season and Central graduate Dillon Kuntz has signed a tender to play with the Ice Wolves.

First, Holt and Howard have big goals to try to accomplish this weekend.

"This week is going to be really exciting for this organization," Howard said. "A lot of family and friends will be there. I know I have a bunch of buddies who are going to come down. But once we get there, it's a business trip. I don't know what to expect, but it will be a lot of fun."

And perhaps, Holt and Howard can finish on top, just like they did in their final game as high school teammates.

"That would be something," Holt said. "I'm looking forward to it. We'll see how it goes."

Robertson Cup Finals

Semifinals (best-of-three)
Friday
St. Cloud vs. Anchorage, 4:30 p.m.
New Mexico vs. New Jersey, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday
St. Cloud vs. Anchorage, 4:30 p.m.
New Mexico vs. New Jersey, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday
St. Cloud vs. Anchorage, 3 p.m. (if necessary)
New Mexico vs. New Jersey, 6 p.m. (if necessary)
Championship
Tuesday, May 24
Semifinal winners, 7 p.m.

Related Topics: BOYS HOCKEY
Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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