For the first time, it’s game week for the Chippewa Steel.
Chippewa Falls’ new North American Hockey League team makes its regular season debut this weekend when the Steel host the Fairbanks Ice Dogs this Friday and Saturday at 7:10 p.m. at the Chippewa Area Ice Arena.
A whirlwind stretch that started this spring with the team formally known as the Coulee Region Chill being sold and moved to Chippewa Falls now hits its biggest milestone as the regular season gets underway.
The Steel and first-year coach Al Rooney opened training camp last month and earlier this week trimmed the roster to 27 players ahead of the opener against a Fairbanks team that has been a consistent contender atop the league.
“Every team has a significant amount of turnover,” Rooney said. “I can say this — the Fairbanks Ice Dogs are perennially among the top teams in the league.”
The Ice Dogs and Steel are both a part of the Midwest Division, a division Fairbanks won convincingly last season with a 45-8-4 record.
“We’re diving into the deep end first,” Rooney said. “We’ve got a real tough opponent coming in this weekend.”
The NAHL has had significant turnover in recent years as for the fifth year in a row more than 330 players have signed college commitments, more than 80 percent of those players moving on to the Division I level.
The Steel played exhibition contests over the weekend against the Minnesota Wilderness with Rooney seeing plenty of good things and things to work on.
“It was a little hectic at times, it was a little up and down,” Rooney said. “I thought there were times where we dominated for stretches and there were times when we couldn’t string a couple passes together because our positioning was out of whack and so on and so forth. It was a typical preseason sloppy game but it was good to get those two games under our belt.”
Chippewa has some catching up to do early in the season as it starts the team’s inaugural season in town with a strong slate of opponents off the bat. Each team has new faces to mesh with but the Steel also have a new coaching staff, new style of play and new surroundings to add to the equation.
So as Rooney’s team opens regular season play this weekend, the biggest thing he’s looking for can be summarized in one word — structure.
“Structure and playing to expectations, that’s the main thing. I’m a big believer that this is a very talented league and that a lot of the teams are built fairly similar,” Rooney said. “We’ve got some guys that can score, some guys that can skate, hit, shoot, pass and all those foundational skills. What separates teams is their ability to stay organized, play within structure and play within expectations.”
The team did swing a trade earlier this week, acquiring defenseman and Menomonie native Chase Davidson from the Johnstown Tomahawks. Davidson played in 50 games last season for the Tomahawks, scoring one goal and adding three assists. The 6-foot-5 Davidson gives the Steel a steady defender on the perimeter of a young defense.
“(Davidson is) a big vet that can play simply, steady, stay-at-home and not try to do too much,” Rooney said.
In all the opening day roster for the Steel features nine Wisconsin natives — Hutson Collins (Eau Claire), Jacob Peterson (Oak Creek), Austin Mikesch (Green Bay), Connor Zilisch (Appleton), Jacob Dirks (Mindoro), Sam Dabrowski (Onalaska), Michael Gobhardt (Mequon), Grant Reichenbacher (Madison) and Davidson.
The team has spent this week not only getting ready for the regular season, but also taking part in a number of events in the community. The Steel made an appearance at an assembly at Hillcrest Elementary on Tuesday, worked with a local boys and girls club and also lent a hand during tryouts for the upcoming Chippewa Youth Hockey Association season.
“As an organization from top to bottom we’re just very excited,” Rooney said. “We’re ready to finally put the show on so to speak for the community.”