It’s no fluke that the Niverville Nighthawks are firmly in the playoff race in their inaugural season. Not only have the players on the club been heavily scouted over the past year and a half, but they’ve also been slotted in to play specific roles on the team.
Although the teammates hail from all over North America, perhaps the area with the highest concentration of players is northern Minnesota and North Dakota, which is in close proximity to Niverville and the rest of southeastern Manitoba.
Carson Reed comes from Warroad, while Gavin Gunderson grew up in nearby Roseau. The two towns, about 20 miles apart on the Minnesota side of the international border, are famously hockey rivals.
Going a shade further south, you’ll find Brendan Bottem’s hometown of Thief River Falls. Ty Kennett comes from Red Lake Falls, also in Minnesota, and Braden Panzer hails from Grand Forks, North Dakota.
All five players play critical roles for the first-year Nighthawks—and within the ranks of the team, they’ve become known as the Nighthawks’ own “Minnesota Mafia.”
One of the team’s scouts, Scott Oliver, operates out of the United States and has been instrumental in bringing these players into the fold. Oliver has been coaching high school hockey in Minnesota for years, so he has a good handle on all the different programs on that side of the border and some of the key players in the region.
“He’s been an invaluable resource in bridging that gap, and helping on the recruiting side,” says Nighthawks assistant general manager Mike McAulay. “We had some limitations when building our roster out. It’s not the NHL, and there wasn’t an expansion draft, so we were limited as the 12 other MJHL teams had a 50-player protected list. So 600 local players were already accounted for. It made us unlock different players outside the province.”
It’s almost comical, in a way, but these five American players actually have a shorter commute home to and from Niverville than someone who lives in Brandon.
“It’s really nice to jump in the car on a day off and only be a few hours from home,” adds McAulay. “For their families to be able to get off work on a Friday and be here for a game Friday night is great too.”
McAulay can speak at length about these Minnesota acquisitions and the tremendous value they bring to the team. He says that they all have the skills necessary to compete in the North American Hockey League (NAHL), one of the top junior leagues in the U.S, and then some.
“They really looked at Niverville being a first-year team and thought they could come in and play a key role right off the bat, which would help with their development,” he says. “They all have college hockey on their minds, and that’s their ultimate goal. So I think they looked at coming up and playing some meaningful minutes with us, and really kind of jump at starting their overall development.”
Early in the season, the Nighthawks made a move and acquired Braden Panzer of Grand Forks. The 19-year-old had spent time earlier this year with the Minot Minotauros of the NAHL.
“I watched him play at Grand Forks Central as a senior, and I really liked him then,” adds McAulay. “He was a USHL draft pick too, with the Fargo Force, so we knew there was a lot of skill and a lot of compete there. Panzer was looking for more of a role and to be more of a go-to guy to play in different situations, and we had that for him. So we’re really fortunate to be able to broker that deal with Minot to bring him in.”
The so-called Minnesota Mafia is working out well so far for the Nighthawks, as they currently sit in an MJHL playoff spot at the one-third point of the 2022–23 season.