The Chippewa Steel hit the road this week as the North American Hockey League squad starts a two-week trip to Alaska with Friday and Saturday night games against the Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
The trip is the first of two the Steel will take to Alaska this season, and both the team and its players think the northern excursion will be a good chance to build chemistry and camaraderie for a team with about a dozen rookie players.
“I think it’s nice to get on the road early and get a little team bonding in,” Chippewa Steel coach Casey Mignone said. “Obviously the results weren’t there this past weekend, but I thought we played well enough to win. We’ve got to find a way to close teams out when we have the opportunity and capitalize on our chances.”
Chippewa dropped two home games this past week to Springfield by scores of 4-3 and 4-1, pushing Chippewa to a four-game losing streak.
“I think we’re right there, it’s just figuring out ways to win games and not let teams hang on,” forward Ethan Benz said. “This last weekend, I think we played really good games and were just really close and right there.”
Benz currently leads the team in scoring with 12 points, including nine assists, and as one of the team’s most experienced players and a former Ice Dog, he’s been preparing the team for what to expect in the great white north.
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“It’s a fun experience,” Benz said of playing games in Alaska. “I told the younger guys last year to just enjoy it. When can you say you’re going to be playing hockey in Alaska? We’re pretty fortunate. It’s a fun time to hang out with the guys. I like that we’re doing it early this year, which helps with our team chemistry.”
Rookie goaltender Levi Gho grew up in Fairbanks attending Ice Dogs games and is the lone Alaska native on the team. This week, he’s excited to return home in front of family and friends as a member of the opposition.
“You grew up watching this team you always hoped to play for and it’s pretty much the same thing playing against them in the same league, same division and everything,” Gho said.
One thing the players are preparing for is a hostile environment in front of a large crowd. Fairbanks is currently third in average attendance per game at 2,217 fans, and Gho has plenty of experience to know how loud the team can be — especially against the visitors. Since a 5-2 start, the four consecutive losses have slipped the Steel under .500 and while Mignone doesn’t have one simple answer as to how the team can flip its fortune around, he believes playing in an environment like Fairbanks will be good for the team.
“Obviously Fairbanks is an unreal environment (and) they have great crowds up there — so maybe that energy they feed off of we can feed off of, too,” Mignone said.
The Ice Dogs are currently second in the Midwest Division with 15 points and have a 7-2-0-1 record through 10 games. Fairbanks is tied for the division lead in goals scored, with forward Alexander Malinowski tied for fifth in the league with 13 total points.
Following this weekend’s two-game set with the Ice Dogs, Chippewa will make the nine-hour trip south to Kenai for a three-game series with the Brown Bears on Oct. 21-23. Chippewa makes another trip to Alaska in late March, but on this one they’re looking to get back on track with some wins before returning home for games at Chippewa Ice Arena at the end of the month.
“(We’ll) hopefully come back with some wins and look forward to playing in front of the Steel fans soon,” Mignone said.