NAHL squads aren’t typically built for the long term.
That’s the nature of tier-two junior hockey leagues. Even with more and more NAHL prospects garnering Division I scholarships, most top-end players still aspire to play at the tier-one level — which, in the United States, means the USHL — where Division I recognition is even more common.
But that jump doesn’t work out for every NAHL player. At least not at first.
Such was the case for Holmen native and Coulee Region Chill forward Justin Kendall, who voluntarily cut short his debut season in the USHL after 21 games before rejoining the Chill — for whom he scored 16 goals as a rookie in 2015-16 — on Feb. 10. With the promise of increased playing time, Kendall wanted to finish an otherwise frustrating campaign on a high note.
He’s done that and more.
“I was playing like every other game, something like that. Maybe not even that. I just wasn’t playing much,” Kendall said of his former club, the Lincoln Stars, who selected Kendall in May with the 59th overall pick of the USHL Phase II draft.
“Obviously I want to play. I didn’t want to sit in the stands the whole year.”
Kendall satisfied that desire with a move back to Coulee Region, and it has since paid huge dividends, both from a personal and team perspective.
“He does so much for us both on and off the ice, and his presence has added confidence in our group,” Coulee Region coach Ryan Egan said. “I think he was the last piece to the puzzle.”
Kendall’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time.
He returned just in time for a Feb. 10 road clash against the Austin Bruins. The Chill lost that game 6-2, marking their 15th loss in 20 games since the start of December. When Kendall returned to the Coulee Region, the Chill hadn’t strung together consecutive victories in three months, and hadn’t swept a weekend series in four.
That all changed once Kendall started getting his goals.
“As soon as he stepped on the ice, he was scoring right away,” Egan said.
After a fruitless debut performance on Feb. 10, Kendall buried nine goals over his next nine games — including a pair of two-goal outings — to help lift Coulee Region back into the Midwest Division playoff picture. And now, with 20 NAHL appearances to his name this year, he’s still averaging more than a point per game (1.15), and his 14 goals — despite playing just one-third of the regular season — rank sixth on an already-potent Chill lineup.
“I think what Justin did coming in was he immediately added confidence to the room when he walked in the door, because guys knew what he was capable of,” Egan said. “That brought a sense of, ‘OK, this is a good thing for us.’ I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s been huge.”
And Kendall is enjoying every minute of it.
“I love it here,” said Kendall, who racked up 71 points as a junior for the Aquinas/Holmen/G-E-T co-op boys hockey team in 2014-15, his final season at the prep level.
“Coming into a new team — whether there are still guys from last year or not — it’s always a new challenge. Coming back, I thought, ‘All right, I want to be a top guy here, and I want to score goals.’ So coming in, I was pretty excited to be back. Obviously I’m fitting in well right now, so things are good.”
And he isn’t the only one reaping the benefits of his recent play.
“I think he’s come in and really made an impact,” Chill forward Caleb Schroer said.
Kendall’s reintroduction to the Chill lineup has induced matchup nightmares for opposing defenses, which has subsequently made things easier for Coulee Region’s other top-end forwards, especially Schroer.
“For whatever reason, the matchups we’re able to get with Justin freed up Schroer, and he really caught fire,” Egan said.
Now playing on Coulee Region’s second line with Joey Sofo and Jacob Schmidt-Svejstrup, Schroer has been one of the league’s hottest scorers since Kendall’s return, averaging 1.57 points per game since Feb. 10. Schroer’s season total of 67 points ranks third in the NAHL and first in the Midwest Division, and is just three points behind league leader Chase Thudium of Odessa.
Schmidt-Svejstrup is another player enjoying his best form of the season, thanks, in part, to Kendall’s presence. Alongside Sofo — still Coulee Region’s leading goal scorer with 27 on the year — Schmidt Svejstrup has compiled 15 goals in his last 19 games, the first of which he scored in Kendall’s second game back.
Kendall’s linemates, Kevin Dineen and Isaac Theisen, are both averaging a point per night since Feb. 10.
As a result, the Chill finished the regular season as the NAHL’s third highest-scoring team with a whopping 220 goals — and a per-game average of 3.67 — to their name.
“When Justin came back, it solidified our lineup a little bit,” Egan said. “You’re always looking for the right matchups and who’s going to play with who, and I think he fit real well with Dineen and added confidence to Dineen, and I think it added a spark even for Theisen, who’s had a little bit of a roller-coaster year.
“And once we got those three going, it allowed us to put different players with Schroer, and they’re having success. Then we were kind of able to solidify that third line, too. So it was just a matchup thing and a confidence thing, just knowing what he was capable of and what he could bring to us. It’s obviously working out really well.”