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The Birth Of The Texas Tornado / Lone Star Brahmas And The NAHL South

The year was 1999, the Dallas Stars had landed in Texas just six years before and the North American Hockey League was about to embark on a experiment that would change the face of Junior A hockey in the United States. That was the year that the Texas Tornado franchise would land at the brand new Blue Line Ice Complex that would later become the NYTEX Sports Centre.

The Tornado were the first and only Junior A hockey team in the Southwest. Most people in the hockey community thought a Junior A team in Texas was a folly doomed to fail. Tornado Head Coach Tony Curtale related the number one question that he received was how in the world he was going to get players from up North to come down to Texas to play hockey. But come they did and the Tornado turned Junior A Hockey on its head.

In that first season the franchise erased every NAHL expansion team record as they ran off a 42 – 12 – 2 record to claim the West Division and League Regular Season Championships. Ron Vogel won an amazing 37 games in net and was named NAHL MVP as he led the Tornado to a Robertson Cup runner up finish in their first season. In all seven members of the team would receive NCAA Scholarship or move directly to professional hockey. What many did not realize at the time was that the Tornado franchise had just planted the seed for the current NAHL South Division which many consider to be the preeminent division in the NAHL.

After making it to the finals in season one, the franchise had a lot of work to do to prove that the Texas experiment was not a fluke. There was a big hole in the roster with Vogel moving on to the pro ranks in the ECHL. In stepped Brandon Crawford-West and Al Montoya. Montoya would eventually go on to play for the US National Team before the University of Michigan and a career in the NHL. Crawford-West became the first player in franchise history to be selected in the NHL Draft when thePittsburgh Penguins took him in the eighth round. The Tornado were also set up front with Jason DeitschJason Bloomingburg and Jason Guerriero who all three earned NCAA commitments while with the Tornado. With the outstanding goaltending and firepower up front the team ended with a 40 – 12 – 4 record to once again claim the West Division crown before defeating the Soo Indians to claim the Robertson Cup National Championship in only their second season. For the second season in a row a member of the franchise was named as the NAHL MVP as Guerriero received the honor. The Tornado moved a total of 13 players to the NCAA or pro ranks after the season.

As the 2001/02 season rolled around there were no more questions about the viability of an NAHL franchise in the hockey hinterlands of Texas. The Tornado had proven to everyone that if you built a good organization the players would come. Once again the franchise established new NAHL records with their third consecutive 40 win season and West Division title. Forwards Geoff Smith and Jason Bloomingburg were named to the All NAHL Team and Bill McCreary was named to the All Rookie Team. Six members of the Tornado would sign NCAA commitments or move on to professional hockey following the season. In all an astounding 24 players who played for the franchise during the season would eventually move on to an NCAA program and or sign a professional contract.

A season removed from the franchise’s first Robertson Cup Championship the Tornado entered the 2002/03 season on a mission to reclaim the title. The team put up some big numbers during the season before falling to the Pittsburgh Forge in the Robertson Cup finals. During the regular season the Tornado had four players who scored in excess of 50 points with Mark Nebus potting 31 goals in 49 games played. There were also a couple of tough defensemen in Colin Trulock and Matt Nickerson who both racked up more than 225 PIMs. Nickerson caught the eye of those in the scouting community and in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft the Dallas Stars drafted Nickerson in the third round with the 99th overall pick. A total of nine players from the team received NCAA Div-I scholarships. The franchise rewrote the records once again with their fourth consecutive 40 win campaign and another West Division crown in what would be the Tornado’s last season at the Blue Line Ice Complex.

The Dallas Stars opened a new two sheet facility in the rapidly growing suburb of Frisco in the summer of 2003 and the Tornado moved into the new facility prior to the start of the season. With the Junior A hockey in Texas experiment a proven success, the NAHL formed the South Division for the 2003/04 season and added teams in Wichita Falls, Texarkana, Belton and a team in North Richland Hills to replace the Tornado. The franchise had established itself as one of the premier teams in all of Junior A hockey, so despite the added competition elite players still sought out the coveted roster spots. Only four players from the roster that season would not eventually play NCAA or professional hockey. With a team that loaded with talent a second Robertson Cup Championship for the franchise was just a matter of playing out the games. The team finished with a remarkable 48 – 6 – 2 regular season record as they ran away with the new South Division title, Regular Season Championship and the Robertson Cup Championship on home ice. Defensemen Trevor LudwigBrad Flaishans and Forwards Luke FlicekVince Goulet received All NAHL honors whileBrad Cooper was named to the All Rookie team. Ludwig also caught the eye of the Dallas Stars who his father had won the Stanley Cup with in 1999. The Stars made Ludwig their sixth round selection in the 2004 NHL Draft. A total of eight players received NCAA Scholarships.

As good as the 2003/04 team was, the 2004/05 team may have been even better even though their regular season record at 42 – 13 – 1 was a slight step back. Brad Cooper with 88 points and Karl Sellan with 83 points finished one and two in scoring during the regular season. Sellan found the back of the net an unheard of 43 times in 56 games played. Tom Train added a respectable 69 points to finish sixth in the league. In net the Tornado had the franchises most successful player ever in Ben Bishop. Bishop finished with a 35 – 8 – 0 record including 5 shutouts and a 1.93 GAA. He received a scholarship from the University of Maine and then was selected by the St Louis Blues in the third round of the 2005 NHL Draft. Big Ben has established himself as one of the elite goalies in the NHL as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The team went on to claim South Division and Regular Season titles and their second consecutive Robertson Cup Championship. The franchise saw a total of 10 players receive NCAA scholarships during the season.

Texas entered the 2005/06 season with one question on their mind, is a Threepeat in the cards. They had Sellan, Train and rookie Ryan Fuller who was on the NHL Watch List up front. They also had NHL bloodlines in Lyon Messier and Tyler Ludwig on defense. The Tornado won six of their first seven games to set the stage for a 42 – 12 – 4 record on their way to another South Division title. The seven consecutive 40 win seasons and Division titles are NAHL records that may never be broken. Brett Blatchford would establish himself as one of the premier defensemen in the league as his 49 points led all blueliners in scoring and earned him All NAHL First Team honors. The Tornado went 10 – 3 in the playoffs on their way to a championship matchup with the Bozeman Icedogs. Sellan scored twice in the third period against Bozeman to put the game away as the Tornado secured their back-to-back-to-back Robertson Cup Championship and the fourth in franchise history. Five Tornado players came out of the season with NCAA scholarships in hand.

2006/07 would mark the first season in franchise history that the team failed to reach the 40 win mark and claim a division title. Texas finished 38 – 18 – 6 good for third in the South Division. They did continue one streak by making the playoff for the eighth consecutive season but lost in the second round to the eventual Champion St Louis Bandits. Despite their early exit, the franchise had nine players receive NCAA scholarships, produced an Olympian in Italian goaltender Thomas Tragust and two players who would eventually sign NHL contracts in Defenseman Jake Newton and Forward Stephane Da Costa. Da Costa would play 47 games with the Ottawa Senatorsscoring 11 points before moving to CSKA Moscow of the KHL for the 2014/15 season.

The franchise’s first sub .500 season came in 2007/08 as the team went through a coaching change late in the offseason. Dwight Mullins came in as Head Coach withCraig Ludwig as the Assistant. The team stumbled out of the blocks losing six of their fist nine games to set the tone for the season. Once again the Tornado had NHL bound players on the roster. Matt Tennyson who would eventually end up with the San Jose Sharks was a key component of the Tornado defensive core. In addition to Tennyson, Dallas Stars draft pick in Sergi Korostin joined the Tornado prior to the trade deadline and scored 18 points in 19 games down the stretch. Korostin was taken with the 64thoverall pick in the third round by the Stars in the 2007 NHL Draft. Sergi played one season with the Texas Stars in the AHL before returning to Russia to play professionally. The Tornado finished the regular season at 20 – 33 – 5 fourth in the NAHL South Division and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

Expansion of the Frisco Stars Center started in the summer of 2008 put the Tornado on ice for a season as the franchise requested and were granted inactive status by the NAHL.

In 2009/10 the team was back on the ice with Tony Curtale once again behind the bench. With the team coming out of a dark season they had no protected veterans to build around and ended up with a young roster. For only the second time in franchise history no Tornado players finished in the top 25 in the league in scoring. There were a few bright spots as rookie Jack Prince tallied 23 goals and 50 points while goalie Dan Sullivan and forward Justin Jones earned Div-I scholarships. Texas was once again back in the playoffs having finished third in the South Division with a 25 – 28 – 5 record, but for the second season in a row they were bounced in the first round.

The 2010/11 NAHL South Division, which had come to dominate the league, could once more boast of four teams in the Lone Star State. Amarillo and Corpus Christijoined Texas and Wichita Falls as the two holdovers. The Tornado franchise was back with an older more competitive roster and finished the season with a 35 – 15 – 8 record good for second in the division. At one point the Tornado ran off a 15 game win streak, but were once again out of the playoffs after the first round. Latvian Ralfs Freibergs, who would go on to play in the 2014 Olympic Games and sign with the AHL Ice Caps, emerged as the leagues best defenseman scoring 55 points on 7G – 48A. British born Prince led the team offensively for the second season with 60 points. Prince and Freiberg faced one another in the opening round of the 2010 IIHF Division I World Junior Hockey Championships as Latvia claimed the tournament championship. Freibergs was named as the Best Defenseman by the tournament Directorate and Prince led all goal scorers in the tournament with five in five games played.

Texas’ influence on the NAHL was strengthened again for the 2011/12 campaign as the Odessa Jackalopes joined the South Division. The Tornado finished the season with a 36 – 16 – 8 record tied with Topeka for second. However, the Road Runners held the tie breaker over the Tornado making Texas the number three seed entering the playoffs. Once again the Robertson Cup Tournament was to be played at the Dr Pepper Stars Center in Frisco and the Tornado who were peaking at the right time made the best of their automatic bid as host of the tournament. The Tornado lost their opening game to rival Amarillo 3 – 2 in overtime before defeating Port Huron by a single goal in game two. Texas lost game three to St Louis in overtime by a score of 3 – 2, but had picked up points in each of their games moving them into the championship rounds. After St Louis ousted Amarillo, the Tornado knew who their final opponent would be if they could get past Fairbanks in the semi-finals. Once again the game went to overtime with the Tornado grabbing the 4 – 3 win. The finals was a see-saw affair with Texas holding a one goal lead after one and St Louis holding a one goal lead after two. The Tornado tied it up with just over five minutes to go in regulation setting up their third overtime game in a row. At the 4:36 mark of the extra period Plano native Justin Greenberg jumped on the rebound of a Prince wrister for the game winner. The championship was the fifth in 12 seasons cementing the franchise as the pinnacle of the NAHL.