Trio of former Central players thrive despite playing 43-straight road games, including 16-hour road trips
Cole Hanson, Brandon Holt and Will Howard played the 2020-21 season in the North American Hockey League for New Mexico, which didn't play a true home game until April.
The day before their home opener, the New Mexico Ice Wolves players began arriving at Outpost Ice Arena at about 6 a.m.
They got ready for practice, then head coach Phil Fox ran the team through drills. Once practice was complete, they showered, packed their gear and boarded a bus sitting outside the arena.
By 9 a.m., the Albuquerque-based North American Hockey League team was headed east on Interstate 40.
They crossed into Texas about four hours later. Lunch time passed. They turned onto U.S. Highway 287 and began cutting south. Dinner time passed. At 9 p.m., after a full day on the bus, the Ice Wolves finally pulled into their hotel just outside of Dallas-Forth Worth.
This trip was not an outlier. It was the norm for the Ice Wolves and the three Grand Forks Central players on their roster -- Cole Hanson, Brandon Holt and Will Howard.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, the Ice Wolves weren't allowed to play in their home arena for most of the season, so they played their first 43 games on the road.
Their "home" games were five-and-a-half hours away in Amarillo, eight hours away in Odessa, nine hours away in Wichita Falls, 11-12 hours away in Dallas-Forth Worth and even 16 hours away in Shreveport, La.
During the season, they spent about 375 hours on a bus and traveled roughly 20,000 miles.
"By the end, I don't think anyone wanted to see a bus," Hanson said with a laugh. "It got very long. But I was really proud of our team for just sticking with it and battling through adversity. It was hard for everyone, but I was so proud of all the guys.
"Our owner is awesome, too. I don't think there are any other owners in junior hockey who would do what our owner did, playing 45 games on the road, just so we could have a season."
Despite all of the bus hours and endless road trips, the trio of former Knights thrived with the Ice Wolves.
Hanson was one of the best players in the NAHL.
The former North Dakota Mr. Hockey winner was the third-leading scorer in the 25-team league with 60 points in 53 games. He became the first New Mexico player to earn first-team all-NAHL honors, leading the Ice Wolves in goals (21), assists (39), points, power-play goals (five), power-play assists (12), shorthanded goals (three) and shots on goal (145).
"Cole had an unbelievable year," said Fox, the second-year coach. "He has great instincts. Not only that, he has unbelievable skill and scoring touch. He can shoot a puck. He has a nice, quick release. His speed, when he's moving his feet. . . he can burn. He's got everything."
Hanson said his offseason workouts after an injury-plagued first year of junior hockey helped him stay in shape despite the grueling schedule and hours crammed on a bus.
"I also had really good linemates," he said.
Fox wondered what type of numbers Hanson would have had if New Mexico was able to play a regular home schedule. The Ice Wolves didn't play a game in Albuquerque until April, and Hanson had 19 points in his 11 games at Outpost Ice Arena.
"I'm telling you, he had a great year with a really, really great finish," Fox said. "I hate saying it, because it is what it is, but what if we had a full year at home? What if he had 30 games at home? It could have been a lot different of a year. But it was a very positive year for Cole and the rest of the team.
"They made a lot of buddies that will last a lifetime, because they spent a lot of time together."
Holt, Howard take a step
Hanson wasn't the only former Knight who had success with the Ice Wolves.
Holt, who along with Hanson went 76-1-2 at Central, scored six goals and tallied 22 points in 53 games. Holt, a defenseman, performed so well that he earned a spot in the NAHL Top Prospect Tournament.
"He was our captain for a reason," Fox said. "He's an actions-speak-louder-than-words leader. That's what he did all year. He played a ton for us, chewed up a lot of minutes in all situations. He got dinged up a little bit, played through injuries, battled and always brought what Brandon Holt is going to bring -- consistency on the back end. He's a guy who is going to compete every night and be one of the best players."
Fox said he expects Holt to field Division-I offers next season.
"They're just waiting for him to take one more step and kind of dominate next year," Fox said.
Howard, a forward, had four points in 31 games.
"Will got a lot better from when he started with us," Fox said. "Will is a glue guy. The boys all love him. He works hard and wears his heart on his sleeve. He's willing to do whatever it takes to play. Those are the guys you want in the lineup. He's got good net-front presence, great hand-eye and he's willing to do the little things it takes to be successful. Those are the guys that make careers for themselves as time goes on. His game grew and developed and now it's got to take another step."
A new direction
The trio will be splitting up next season with Holt and Howard remaining in junior hockey, while Hanson begins his college career at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.
"I'm definitely ready to go to school after last year," Hanson said. "I'm excited. Colgate is a great school and a great opportunity. I'll be working hard this summer and I think I'll be ready to go."