For the first time in a decade, the Hutchinson boys hockey team is starting its season as the defending section champion. But the Tigers know they have their work cut out for them if they hope to make it two in a row and return to state this year.

“It’s going to be who can gel together the quickest, who can stay injury free, and depth will be important,” head coach Matt Telecky said about the upcoming 2021 winter season.

Of course what makes this season unlike others in the past are the changes due to COVID-19. The season is starting later with a shortened schedule of just 16 games currently. And then there’s the issue of masks, which Telecky admits is not perfect.

The team, he said, has approached these challenges from the standpoint that everyone is in the same boat, this is what they must do to play, some may like it, some may not, they just have to make the best of it.

“I think that’s going to be the biggest thing, making sure we’re not making excuses about it,” Telecky said.

Besides, the Tigers have other things to think about, such as how they’ll make up for the loss of their top four scorers — Austin Jozwick, Hayden Jensen, Nik Johnson and Blake Schmidt — who combined for 144 points last year, more than half the team’s total.

“We graduated a lot of forwards who played a lot of minutes for us,” Telecky said. “But with that said, we’re still bringing back six forwards who played a lot for us, and then all five of our defensemen, and we’re bringing back all three of our goalies who played time for us. So we’re excited about those things.”

Despite the loses, the Tigers have a senior-heavy team returning with nine upperclassmen, plus six juniors. Returning to defense are seniors Alex Staples, Ty Glaser and Tristan Hoppe, and junior Gavin Hutchins, and sophomore Logan Hoppe is joining the mix.

Senior Cam Longie also returns but is making the move from defense to forward. He joins returning seniors Riley Anderson, T.J. Tydlacka and Joey Croatt, and juniors Mitchell Piehl and Brady Knorr. There’s also juniors Tate Renning and KK Starrett, and sophomore AJ Ladwig at forward.

In the net the Tigers have three options they’ll rotate once again, including seniors Austin Hagen and Jacob Huls, and junior Griffin Telecky.

While getting a late start to the season is not ideal, Telecky said the players have actually come into the first days of practice more prepared than usual. That’s because many took advantage of outdoor rinks and frozen lakes and streams during the past month. It’s the coaches, he said, who are playing catch-up.

“Usually we have a couple weekends of scrimmages, and in Hutch we usually get the kids late anyway because of football, and you just pray that the power play is clicking by Christmas,” Telecky said. “Well, here we started (Jan. 4) and we’re playing our first game (Jan. 14). We don’t have that feeling out, so there’ll be a little more juggling quicker with lines and things like that, trying to find those right connections.”

The Wright County Conference looks as tough as ever, with team like Holy Family Catholic, Delano, Orono and Mound Westonka competing at the top. As always, the Tigers hope this tough competition prepares them for the postseason, where they figure to compete for another section title against the usual suspects such as Litchfield/DC, New Ulm, Marshall, Redwood Falls and Windom.

“I would say it’s a little more balanced than in other years,” Telecky said about the section. “Usually at the beginning of the year you’ve got those one or two teams, but this year you could throw three, four or five in a hat and see what happens. And that’s also because of all the uncertainty.”