It moved quickly.
In the time it can take some to simply get a proposal acknowledged, Chippewa Falls had a North American Hockey League team.
The announcement of the team formally known as the Coulee Region Chill being sold and moved to Chippewa Falls was released in late April. It was the culmination of months of behind-the-scenes work and fast-moving teamwork that all started with a simple meeting with something smaller in mind.
The Chippewa Steel coming to Chippewa Falls is the 2018 Chippewa County Sports Story of the Year.
Well before the thought of a Tier II junior hockey league team calling Chippewa Area Ice Arena home became a reality, the Chippewa Youth Hockey Association held a meeting.
The group brainstormed ways it could bring an additional entity to the area to use the arena, to go along with the youth and prep teams that already call it home. CYHA President Bob Normand said initially the group had discussed bringing in a team for the Great Lakes Hockey League, an amateur men’s full-contact ice hockey league with players of college, junior and semi-pro experience. But the youth hockey association would have needed to provide significant money up front and run the team itself. In addition, most of the teams in the league are located on the eastern side of the state as well as in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, making a potential team an outlier geographically.
Discussions then turned to bringing in a junior hockey league team and last winter the organization began discussions with ownership of the Chill, a NAHL team based in La Crosse. Talks included either moving or creating a Tier III NA3HL team to Chippewa Falls to serve as a feeder team for the Chill. The NAHL did not want a Tier III team for Chippewa Falls, but had interest in a Tier II team and previously had discussions with Eau Claire about placing a team in the Chippewa Valley.
“They’ve been trying to get into the area for years and think it’s a great place to have one of their teams,” Coley Murphy, liaison between the association and Steel, said of the NAHL moving to the area.
Chill owners Michelle and Kevin Bryant sold the team to Steve Black of JB Black Enterprises, LLC. But even with the ownership change, the motivation to put a team in Chippewa Falls didn’t falter on either end of a potential deal.
“When we purchased the team, we knew Chippewa Falls was where we wanted to go,” Chippewa Steel Vice President of Operations Steve Black said. “There was a two-part (situation), one thing needed to happen in order for the other.”
So once the deal was finalized, CYHA began discussions with the Black family and by the end of the April it had a deal to formally announce.
How it moved quickly
The Black family are not strangers to junior hockey. The family owns the New Ulm Steel in the NA3HL based in New Ulm, Minnesota. Originally with so much to get done, Steve and many others didn’t believe the Steel would be ready to play in Chippewa Falls until the 2019-20 season.
“We didn’t think we were going to be able to get a lease done so quickly and all the people with the (youth hockey) board at Chippewa Falls worked so quickly and were so easy to work with that the timeline just got moved up quicker than initially intended,” Black said.
Part of that brisk pace was because Chippewa Area Ice Arena is owned by CYHA instead of the city, meaning decisions could be made quicker because it didn’t need to go through any more methodically paced city council meetings. The Black family went the governmental route with its team in New Ulm and many requests took significantly longer to complete.
“(When) you want something to get done you submit a formal request in writing, it goes to a city council meeting and you’re doing all of those steps and by the time your simple request gets looked at it might be a month down the road,” Black said. “In this situation, we could make a phone call at eight o’clock at night on someone’s personal cell phone and they would answer it and try to work through it with us. We were seeing results every day or every other day.”
And while many in the youth hockey organization weren’t familiar with the junior hockey league process, it had an ace in the hole with Murphy.
Murphy’s son, Logan, played for the North Iowa Bulls of the NA3HL for three seasons after starring at Chi-Hi and was able to relay to the community what went into having a junior hockey team and what it was all about. The Murphy family is one of many billet families in the area, families that offer room and board to players on the team for a stipend.
“It was a different thing for us as parents,” Murphy said. “So when this whole thing started coming around, we talked to a few friends and we decided we were going to be a host family for someone else’s young son that was going to try to do the same thing.”
The Steel kicked off the season on Sept. 14 with a 3-1 win over the Fairbanks Ice Dogs in front of 1,112 fans at the arena. The team wrapped up the unofficial first half of the season with a home series against the Ice Dogs this past weekend. The Steel are currently sixth in the Midwest Division with a 9-23-1-1 record and have already made a coaching change, relieving inaugural coach Al Rooney of his duties in November and replacing him with interim coach Carter Foguth.
“I think things are turning in the right direction and as we come into the second half of the year we expect to win more hockey games and as we build for our future in year two we expect to be a top team in the league, especially with the young guys we have on our roster that we expect to come back next year,” Black said.
Normally, NAHL teams play in venues that can host at least 1,500 people. But the Steel received a waiver for Chippewa Ice Arena and are ranked 16th out of 24 teams in average attendance per game at more than 600 fans per contest.
“We want to become more active than we already are in the community. We’re doing a lot of things in the community — volunteering at the boys and girls club, doing different things in the community as far as with the (youth hockey association) — we’re always looking to get more involved. I think everything goes hand in hand,” Black said. “The more we can get involved in the community, the more that our players can volunteer not only helps our players and teaches them lifelong lessons, at the same time it can help grow our fanbase, grow our awareness in the community and I think everything goes hand in hand.”
Home games are also attracting fans to the Chippewa Valley, which gives a boost to local tourism.
“Those people are coming into our community and they’re staying at hotels, they’re eating at restaurants, they’re buying gas, they’re stopping downtown to shop, they’re going to visit the Leinie Lodge and some of the other venues we have around town,” Murphy said. “It’s not only a good thing for the hockey association, it’s a nice thing for our community to help with a little bit of tourism and a little bit more money in this area.”
The Steel are halfway through their first season and have their sights set on growing in the years to come. The team has several Division I college commits as well as local players such as Eau Claire Memorial grad Hutson Collins.
The team is cultivating a fan base in the Chippewa Valley and is hoping to become key piece in the local sports landscape, like the Eau Claire Express of the Northwoods League are for summer baseball.
The process of getting a NAHL team to Chippewa Falls was a brisk one, but one that was built on communication between ownership and the CYHA.
“We’ve had a really good relationship with them as far as they’ll ask for stuff and we’ll come back and say we can do this, but we can’t do that,” Normand said. “But we can work with you to get this accomplished. They’re starting to understand with how as a volunteer organization we operate.”