For the Green Bay Gamblers, their 2004-05 season begins and ends with Blake Wheeler, the fifth overall pick in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft. He is making the jump from high school hockey to the USHL this year, to a team who can really use his offense.
Debuting 10 years ago, the Green Bay Gamblers became one of the USHL’s elite teams. They have sent several prospects to the next level, and have seen Edmonton’s Ty Conklin and San Jose’s Tom Preissing move on to the National Hockey League. Green Bay also has two league championships to their credit. Recently, however, the team has fallen on hard times. Since their move into the new Resch Center two years ago, the team has become snake bitten, especially in net. Between erratic play and losing players to college programs just before the start of the season, the team has found themselves starting the season two paces behind.
This season the outlook is much brighter. New head coach Mark Mazzoleni moves to Green Bay from the Harvard Crimson. Some would call a move from division one college hockey to the USHL a step down, but don’t say that to Mazzoleni. The Green Bay native has improved the program of all three colleges he’s been at. In the 2003-04 season, Mazzoleni led Harvard to their first 20-win season since 1993 (22-10-2), and back to back berths in the NCAA tournament.
Michael Zacharias, who played for the St. Louis Heartland Golden Eagles USHL team a year ago, will lead the team in goal. With St. Louis, Zacharias was (9-22-5) with a 3.89 GAA. He posted better win numbers the year before in Topeka, going (14-7-4). Zacharias worked behind an undermanned team last season and still improved his save percentage from .888 to .900. Look for the 19-year-old to have career marks in wins this season. Backing up Zacharias will be New York native 17-year-old Daniel Rosen.
Corey Couturier, Jeff Hazelwood, Billy Smith, Jeff Carlson and hard hitting 16-year-old Randy King are the only players returning from last year’s team. As the team missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, change may be what the doctor ordered. Some of the intriguing additions to the team include not only Phoenix Coyotes first round pick in 2004, Blake Wheeler, but also Garrett Suter, a 17-year-old defenseman out of Madison, Wisconsin, brother of Ryan Suter, the seventh overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
A lot of the team’s success will depend on how quickly Blake Wheeler can adapt to the new level of hockey. Wheeler, from Plymouth, Minnesota, scored 100 points last year for Breck High School. The Gamblers were sorely without a finisher last year and Wheeler’s size at 6’4 and scoring touch could help the Gamblers immensely. The Gamblers have had 14 former players drafted by NHL clubs, but never have they had one drafted before they joined the team. Wheeler is the first player taken in the first round of the entry draft to play in the USHL.
The Gamblers struggled early on in this year’s preseason Buccaneer Bowl tournament at Des Moines. The team, after hearing criticism from the head coach, rebounded later in the tournament and ended it nicely with a win over Lincoln. Much like last year’s team that had late season surges and nearly made the playoffs, the team is again showing the ability to get up off of the mat. The first real test begins this weekend at home against Omaha. The Gamblers second game won’t be played until October 8th.