In Minnesota Junior Hockey League play, the Dells Ducks have just wrapped up a stretch of 28 days off.
However, a five-day whirlwind tour of college programs left Ducks players both ready and excited about their final 15 games of the regular season.
“It was awesome,” Ducks coach Bill Zaniboni of the trek, which began late last week and saw the team log hundreds of miles and dozens of hours of ice time in Illinois and Michigan.
The trip accomplished a variety of goals -- most importantly, giving the players exposure in Midwest College and Junior Hockey locations, along with an experience they won’t soon forget.
The Ducks were on the ice every day, either practicing or playing, and won against each opponent.
The trip had stops at Bensenville, Ill., where the team defeated a squad from Lewis University and then went through a fast-paced practice in front of officials from Robert Morris University.
On Jan. 5, the team toured Ferris State University in Michigan, including a look at the locker rooms, then took in Ferris' home game against Michigan State University. The team continued to to play and practice in Sault Ste. Marie, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, then played two games against the Northern Michigan club team to wrap up the trip.
“It was just a great experience for everyone,” Zaniboni said. “We got into a lot of places the kids had never been. They saw some of the locker rooms, watched teams work out and practice, and just saw what it’s all about. It was pretty cool.”
Zaniboni said there was some genuine interest in Ducks players from various schools. But the other motive for making the trip was preparing a rusty group of players for the playoff push that remains ahead.
“I feel good about the way we played,” Zaniboni said. “The exhibition games at Northern put us in some tough situations and we played well. It was good see our guys not backing down.”
It also gave Zaniboni a chance to see his troops in action as the team looks to enter the final part of the season without its top scorer.
Dunk Abbott, a former NCAA Division I football player from Montana, has seen his patience pay off as he has made numerous trips to Port Huron to practice with the Tier II team and was added to the roster over the holiday break.
He is playing a regular shift with the team, and the chance of his return to the Ducks is slim.
“Dunk was a huge guy for us, especially on the back end for the power play,” Zaniboni said.
But, he added, this advancement is what playing in Tier III junior hockey is all about.
The focus now has shifted to the Ducks' final 15 games, a stretch that began Friday night with a start of a three-game weekend series at Poppy Waterman Ice Arena in Lake Delton against the Hudson Crusaders.
The Ducks will rely heavily on the backstopping efforts of John Sellie-Hanson between the pipes. The other Ducks goalie, Robbie Meadows, was one of a couple of local players injured on the road trip.
Meadows is out for a week or more with a high ankle sprain. Also, a tough run of luck continues to plague defenseman Connell Totten. Back from a leg injury, Totten suffered a concussion on the trip and likely will miss the entire weekend.
New faces will include both Liam Koons, a 20-year old from Viroqua who joined the team before its Showcase tournament in mid-December in Rochester, Minn., as well as Tyler Jones, a forward from the Sault Ste. Marie area who played some Canadian junior hockey this winter but came to the Ducks in a cash deal from the Minnesota Northern Lights. Jones had four assists in the four showcase games.
Also back with the team is Jake Hainline, a regular a year ago who wowed a lot of scouts over the summer, then went to the Northern Ontario Junior Hockey League playing primarily on defense. He will go back to being a power forward with the Ducks.
Layne Martin, who enjoyed a brief stint with the Ducks after being loaned to the team from the Soo Eagles of the North American Hockey League, has returned to the Ducks' roster.
The Ducks return to the ice against the last place Hudson Crusaders at 6 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.
The Ducks will be on the road next weekend, then return for their final homestand of the regular season against the Minnesota Owls Feb. 1-3. The Ducks will play six straight road contests to wrap up the regular-season schedule.