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Helena offers Adleman his chance to keep playing hockey

Helena offers  Adleman his chance to keep playing hockey Helena offers  Adleman his chance to keep playing hockey


The Medford Raiders’ 2-0 hockey win at Rhinelander on Feb. 11 was a significant team victory at the time, but it wound up being even bigger individually for senior goal tender AJ Adleman.

Video from that 42-save performance was the trigger that led him to reach his goal of playing junior hockey, which he plans to do starting this fall with the Helena Bighorns of the North American 3 Hockey League.

“It’s very exciting,” Adleman said last week. “I’ve wanted to play hockey after high school since I was a little kid. It will be fun to keep playing. I didn’t want this to be the last season. It will be really fun to meet a bunch of new people and be able to keep playing the sport I love.” Adleman expects to depart for Montana in early August and stay with a host family. If all goes well, the regular season would start in mid-September. The NA3HL teams played 47 regular-season games last winter with contests held virtually every Friday and Saturday from mid-September through February with a few showcase events mixed in. The Fraser Cup post-season tournament goes through March.

Helena went 17-26 in 2019-20 with two overtime losses and two shootout losses and earned the sixth and final post-season spot out of the league’s eight-team Frontier Division. The Bighorns lost their opening Fraser Cup playoff series to the third-seeded Great Falls Americans two games to none.

The NA3HL is one of two USA hockeysanctioned Tier III Junior leagues and, in 2019-20, included 36 teams in 17 states in six divisions, including nearby Central Division teams like the Wausau RiverWolves, Milwaukee Power and Coulee Region Chill of La Crosse.

Helena has a northern Wisconsin connection with Rhinelander Hodags Abe Laggis and Conor Pequet on the roster. That’s what led to the Bighorns finding Adleman and the video of Medford’s Feb. 11 win in the consolation semifinals of the Great Northern Conference tournament.

“They were watching the Rhinelander GNC tournament game because a few of their players play for Rhinelander,” AJ Adleman said. “I guess they needed a goalie next year and they saw that I was looking for a junior team. They asked if I’d be willing to play for them.”

“Last year AJ was at a lot of North America Hockey League combines and cutdown camps and he was scheduled to be in Detroit a couple times this summer,” said John Adleman, AJ’s father. “With COVID, it all got canceled. It was kind of a tough moment, thinking that juniors was going to go away. All of sudden they saw the Rhinelander tape, we talked and got in touch with the general manager and coach (Bob Richards). I sent them more videotape. They got them a Friday afternoon, they were on the phone trying to schedule a meeting with us on Friday and by Sunday they signed us.”

Adleman was a two-year starter in goal for the Raiders and had a big senior season that earned him All-GNC honorable mention. He was 13-9-1 between the pipes and set school records with five shutouts, an overall .908 save percentage and a 2.89 overall goals against average. He leaves as Medford’s career leader in shutouts with seven and career save percentage at .887. In the round-robin portion of Medford’s GNC schedule (seven games), Adleman was ranked fifth among conference goal tenders with an .865 save percentage with 230 saves on 266 shots faced. That percentage went up to .894 when he had 114 saves and only five goals allowed in the GNC tournament. His four nonconference shutouts came against East-Merrill United, Regis-Altoona-McDonell, the Shawano Co-op, and the Frederic-Grantsburg Co-op.

Adleman also was a second-team All-GNC forward for Medford’s co-conference champion boys soccer team in the fall.

“I’ve definitely gotten more confident, definitely a lot faster and I try to use my strengths instead of my weaknesses,” Adleman said of his improved senior season. “I’ve gotten a lot better at communicating on the ice, which definitely helps a lot at the next level. My stick play has definitely improved over the last two years which is one thing that’s like the new wave for goalies. That’s what they want.”

Working with a full-time goalie coach at Helena, Adleman expects those improvements won’t stop next year.

Adleman started playing hockey at age 4 while living in Park Falls. He said a few years in, he was introduced to the goalie position.

“Our goalie got hurt,” he said. “I was just like I guess I’ll give it a try because nobody else wanted to do it. Then I fell in love with it.”

Adleman moved to Medford in seventh grade. His older sister Taylor played on the girls hockey team and ran for the cross country and track teams. His dad coached the girls hockey team in the 2016-17 season. AJ won letters all four years with the Raiders hockey team, though he had to bide his time for the starting spot behind seniors Spenser Scholl when he was a freshman and Tyler Kadlecek when he was a sophomore.

In the meantime, he kept working virtually year round, playing for the North Wisconsin Blizzards summer team based out of Eagle River after his freshman and sophomore years and for the North-Central 18U team in the Wisconsin Elite Hockey League last fall. He’s also attended various camps, juniors tryouts and juniors tournaments.

“It’s nice to be able to bail your team out when things get messed up and creating chances by making big plays,” Adleman said of his love for being a goalie. “It’s nice being the guy that everybody falls back on. I guess it’s kinda just like being a quarterback. You control the whole play, you control the speed. I just like how versatile the position is.”

Junior hockey aims to provide opportunities for players up to age 22 the opportunity to play organized hockey and, for many, the goal is to land a spot in a college program. Leagues and teams are classified as Tier I, Tier II or Tier III with Tier I being the elite group.

The childhood dream would be to play for Michigan Tech, an NCAA Division I hockey program. Eventually, being an electrical engineer is on the radar as well.

“He’ll be in the NA3HL and then the next step would hopefully be NAHL and it just keeps going up from there as you get exposure,” John Adleman said.

“That’s what I’m thinking,” AJ said of a goal of eventually playing in college. “I’ll probably going to give it a year or two, see how it goes. I’m just going to try to see where it goes.”

“(The Bighorns) also have a pretty good history of moving goalies up to the next level,” John Adleman said. “That’s definitely a benefit of playing out there with them.”

The one thing about playing in the NA3HL that can make young skaters nervous is that players can be traded. If that happens, a player has 48 hours to report to his new team.

Adleman said moving so far away will be different, but the junior players he knows have said they’ve had good experiences. As he takes the next step, there are a few Medford memories that figure to remain for years to come.

“Definitely that playoff game versus Rhinelander and getting that 42-shot shutout was mind blowing,” he said. “I never thought that would happen. My junior year, shutting out my old team, Park Falls in every game that we played them was pretty fun. Going to a shootout against Waupaca was fun. I never thought I’d get into a shootout in high school. There’s a lot of memories. It was just a blast.”

AJ Adleman secures one of his 35 saves during Medford’s Jan. 9 hockey game against Mosinee played at the Simek Recreation Center.MATT FREY/THE STAR NEWS