Junior hockey: All hands on deck for new WarHawks coach


— As long as new head coach Payton Ruter will be at the helm of the

Willmar WarHawks

, there will be an open-door policy in the program.


a former hockey player for River Lakes and graduate of New London-Spicer born and raised in Kandiyohi County

, understands the importance of taking input from not only other coaches on his staff, but his players as well.

He played in various junior hockey programs across the U.S. and Canada and was once in the same position as his players. But he wants them to have a head coach that he never had.

"When I was playing juniors myself, I wish I had a coach where you weren't afraid to ask questions or be like, 'Hey, can we watch video together?'" Ruter said. "I remember being nervous every time the head coach walked in.

"It's not like that anymore. Sure, I demand respect from my players, but at the same time, they know that I skated in their shoes once. I walked in their shoes when I was a player myself."

Ruter is aware he might make mistakes and that it takes every individual to have a successful program.

"I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel," Ruter said. "I might make a mistake myself. It's not a one-man band and it takes all of us. I take advice and input from anybody. ... I'm all ears."

Ruter steps into a WarHawks program that has made the Fraser Cup Playoffs in each of the past three seasons. Willmar had a 20-25-2-0 regular season record and went 0-2-0-0 in the playoffs against Granite City in 2022-23. The Lumberjacks went on to win the Fraser Cup title.

He wants to keep Willmar on that postseason track in hopes of helping the WarHawks capture their first Fraser Cup title.

"I want to have a good hockey team" Ruter said. "I want to make sure the people around the Kandiyohi and Willmar area have the best hockey in the league."

The path back to the Fraser Cup Playoffs will be tough for the Ruter and company.

"We have the toughest division in all of tier three junior hockey," Ruter said of the NA3HL's West Division. "If we could finish in the top three, I think that's a huge win, and then, obviously pushing the pace in the playoffs and see how far we could get. It would be awesome to win a championship."

The WarHawks will look to get back to the playoffs despite the loss of Michael Sweetland and a handful of other key pieces.

Sweetland, who was the team's captain, led Willmar with 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists) in 42 regular season games. He is set to play college hockey at the Division III Concordia College in Moorhead.

Other key losses include Jake Hosszu, Gunnar Sibley, Braydon Buckingham and Luke McCarthy.

Hosszu will play for the Division III Hamline University and Sibley signed with the Division III New England College. Buckingham signed a tender with the Amarillo Wrangers of the NAHL and McCarthy was drafted in the third round and 79th overall of the NAHL Entry Draft by the Bismarck Bobcats.

"They were leaders," Ruter said. "Now we have a bunch of guys that have been playing juniors for two or three years who were a part of our team last year and have really stepped up. They're going to be getting a lot of looks to go to college hockey."

Tyler Misialek, a forward who is back for his third season with the WarHawks, had the most points of any returning player last season. He had 18 goals and 15 assists for 33 points in 41 regular season games.

Other core returners include but are not limited to: Nik Johnson, Sam Holm, Spencer Bergman and Jordan Fields.

Ruter mentioned Gus Cantwell, Hudson Zinda and Gavin Simon as players to watch this season. Jesse Easterwood and John Simon will be the WarHawks' net-minders.

As all these players join forces in trying to help Willmar to a fourth straight postseason appearance, Ruter has the same goal for all of them: help players get to the next level, whether that be the NAHL or college hockey.

"I would love it if we can get guys to move up to the tier two level (NAHL)," Ruter said. "But at the end of the day, what would make me the happiest, is if we can get a few guys to get some college opportunities and they get a college scholarship out of the deal."

Ruter also is not short on the team helping out within the community.

The WarHawks helped out at the Willmar Noon Lions Club Pancake Day last Saturday, where the proceeds supported local programs for sight, hearing, diabetes, youth and more. The team also will wash cars from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at Walt's on First Street South in Willmar.

"We like to help out in the community and the guys are a pretty tight-knit group," Ruter said. "These guys know that some of these young kids look up to them and want to be just like them some day. It goes a long way."