MASON CITY, Iowa – In October 2019, the North Iowa Bulls – currently a member of the North American 3 Hockey League – were sold to F&S Management and owners Alberto Fernandez and Robert Sweeney. The business partners were drawn to Mason City and the Bulls for a couple of things Fernandez told KIOW in 2019. They could own both the North Iowa Bulls (NA3HL) and the Amarillo Bulls of the North American Hockey League (NAHL), plus the new arena in Downtown Mason City.
The Mason City-based team announced yesterday they would be making the climb from Tier III – NA3HL – to Tier II – NAHL next season. “The entire North Iowa Bulls hockey organization is pleased to announce that, starting in the 2021-22 season, the team will compete as a member of the North American Hockey League (NAHL). The approval for our entry into the league by the NAHL Board of Governors is exciting news for all Mason City residents, our hockey fans, and the young players who represent our team every year,” said a team statement. That announcement came simultaneously with an announcement to the Amarillo community that their Bulls would be leaving and moving to Iowa after this season. “Today, the Amarillo Bulls organization is announcing that the North American Hockey League Board of Governors has approved the relocation of our team membership to Mason City, Iowa, starting in the 2021-22 season. We share with fans the disappointment that, after eleven amazing seasons, the Bulls will no longer call Amarillo home. We are very sorry to have to share this news,” said a press release from the team.
The news was not taken lightly in Texas.
Les Jones says, “this makes me sick. I could say a lot of things that would get me banned, but I’m not going to say anything. Disgraceful.
Amarillo resident Scott Bradley was also upset, saying, “The writing was on the walls the day the new owners signed the papers. They conveniently bought (two) teams (one) in Amarillo and (one) in Iowa. If you didn’t think they were gonna move, you’re sadly mistaken.”
But what causes frustration and anger in one community has another one thrilled and excited. Mason City hasn’t played host to an NAHL team since the North Iowa Outlaws from 2005 to 2010. Since that time, North Iowa of the NA3HL has broken attendance records, won division titles, and even a couple of national championships. From 2011 through 2020, the Bulls have won 338 games and lost just 66. They won the West in ’13,’14,’15, and ’20. They won the Central in ’16,’17,’18. NA3HL and National Titles came in 2013, 2014, and 2016. On one story thread, Pat Walker said, “About time. The quality of hockey will be better.” Another, Chad Schreck, said, “Awesome news! Moving up another level in minor league hockey. It has been so great to see the big impact the new arena has made in just a year, even in the midst of a global pandemic.”
The future of the NA3HL franchise is still uncertain. Relocation is possible, but to where is still unknown. To Amarillo seems unlikely, seeing that part of the issue and reason to move the NAHL team to Iowa was arena negotiations, “the Bulls organization worked hard to avoid this outcome. In order to operate a sustainable business, we sought from the City of Amarillo a long-term commitment with reasonable terms to let us play out of the Amarillo Civic Center and continue to manage the ice for community events and recreation, continued the statement released by the Amarillo Bulls yesterday. They continued by saying, “We were unable to secure a partnership with the city to keep the Bulls in Amarillo. Nonetheless, we thank the City for all it has done for Bulls hockey over the years.”
The main difference in the tiers comes with the players they recruit. The higher the league, the higher caliber players will come. The currently Bulls players are usually competing for NCAA Divison III or ACHA roster spots. NAHL players showcase their talents for NCAA Divison 1 schools or maybe a transfer to Tier I the USHL.
North Iowa Bulls Head Coach and General Manager Todd Sanden had this to say, “It was my goal since my return to Mason City and the North Iowa hockey community in 2011 to bring a competitive, community-oriented, entertaining brand of hockey to this proud junior hockey town. Through the support of our ownership group at F&S Management, the NAHL Board of Governors, local city government, business leaders, and Mason City Youth Hockey, it is an exciting transition back to the NAHL”. Sanden credited the North Iowa fans for their support over the years, from the record-breaking crowds at home to the traveling fans who would fill opponents’ arenas. “Our tremendous fan base and community presence have obviously had an overwhelming impact on the
opportunity that presents itself. I want to thank all of our current and former players and their families who
have worked so hard for us to help make our team the success that it has become,” he continued by saying.
The Amarillo Bulls have seen success themselves. “They have established a track record of success since entering the NAHL in 2010”, said an NAHL statement. The Bulls have developed hundreds of players and moved them onto play NCAA hockey the past 11 seasons. They have won four South Divison regular-season titles and won the Robertson Cup (National Champions) in 2013.
The North Iowa Bulls will be a part of the NAHL’s Central Division in 2021-22, which will also include the Aberdeen Wings (Aberdeen, SD), Austin Bruins (Austin, MN), Bismarck Bobcats (Bismarck, ND), Minot Minotauros (Minot, ND), and St. Cloud Norsemen (St. Cloud, MN). Lining Mason City with the likes of these bigger communities.
The move will spell the end of decade-long rivalries such as the Granite City Lumberjacks’ unfriendly encounters. Even with league changes throughout the years, Granite City and Mason City have been mostly unchanged. Pre-global pandemic, the fans-bases would regularly load up charter busses to fill each other’s arenas with their own fans.
The North Iowa Bulls are currently 22-8 on the season. They’re in first place of the West Division and hold a nine-point lead over second-place Granite City. The Lumberjacks have played five fewer games than the Bulls, though, due to a midseason shutdown force by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz. Both the Bulls and Lumberjacks have clinched a playoff spot.
The Amarillo Bulls are currently in third place in their division. They’re 19-8 on the season and trail the Shreveport Mudbugs by only three points.
Both teams will remain in their respective leagues for the remainder of 2020-2021, with the transition to follow the season. The move isn’t expected to displace current North Iowa Bulls’ staff, but no further information about the move was made available.