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Brandon Berg: Hosting United States Women's National Team scrimmage the latest accomplishment in banner year of hockey for Chippewa Falls

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Individually, each achievement is impressive.

Together, they form a path that few other cities can say they’ve carved out.

Monday evening’s scrimmage between the United States Women’s Hockey National team and Chippewa Steel at Chippewa Area Ice Arena was the latest in a year-long string of impressive hockey accomplishments for Chippewa Falls. Bringing the 2018 Winter Olympic gold medal winning American squad to town for an exhibition with the city’s North American Hockey League team came together quickly and like other hockey endeavors during 2021 proved to be a big success.

A packed house greeted the American’s with raucous cheers as the U.S. and Steel played two scoreless periods before the offensive floodgates opened up and Chippewa earned a 7-2 victory in the exhibition.

Monday’s event was the cherry on top of a sweet sundae of success on the ice for Chippewa Falls hockey in 2021. The Chippewa Falls/Menomonie girls hockey team won the program’s first state championship with a 3-2 overtime win over the University School of Milwaukee on on Feb. 20. One week prior, the Chi-Hi boys hockey team, Eau Claire Regis/Altoona/McDonell squad and the Sabers all played in the sectional finals — the first time Chippewa Falls’ three hockey teams were each a game away from state at the same time.

During the fall, Chippewa Area Ice Arena was the site for another high-profile exhibition when the University of Wisconsin met the University of Minnesota-Duluth on Oct. 3 in front of 1,122 fans. The event raised $19,112 for the Chippewa Youth Hockey Association’s Ice Endowment Fund and tickets sold out 17 minutes after they originally went on sale.

The Chippewa Area Ice Arena is run entirely by volunteers, and CYHA president Bob Normand said the team’s ability to provide a safe and clean place for teams to practice and play amid the initial rise of the COVID-19 pandemic last year helped the organization attract additional attention with those teams staying to play again this year.

“It just went over really well,” Normand said. “We had a lot of activity. Because of that people saw what we could do and they came back the next year.”

Both the association and the Steel have worked hard to help big events such as October’s college scrimmage and Monday’s showcase of the United States’ Olympic hopefuls happen.

“It’s been great,” Normand said. “Working with the Steel to bring this in they’ve done a lot of the work on this and working with them before on the Badgers/Bulldogs game, we’re out there. People see Chippewa Falls as a place to go and see hockey, play hockey and do hockey. We’ve got teams coming in from all over. All of our tournaments are full. We’re running 16-team tournaments, 20-team tournaments and they’re all full with waiting lists to get in.”

Chippewa Steel coach Casey Mignone is in his first season leading the team, but the Steel have bounced back from a tough 2020-21 season to reestablish themselves as contenders in the Midwest Division standings. Chippewa enters this Friday and Saturday’s games against division-leading Anchorage in third place, six points behind the Ice Dogs as the team nears the midpoint.

“It’s just a lot of hard work from a lot of people culminating in a great night, great crowd (and) pretty good game,” Mignone said after Monday’s scrimmage. “They play hard and it was hard, the guys competed hard and it’s a long day but I think it went great.”

Chippewa Falls/Menomonie’s journey from Big Rivers doormat to state champion was punctuated with February’s title, but the Sabers got a thrill of another kind on Monday as the U.S. National Team used the Sabers’ locker room. Not only can Chippewa Falls/Menomonie call itself state champions, but the Sabers can now say they shared the same locker room as a defending gold medal winner.

“When I first heard they were going to be coming to our rink and using our locker rooms, I really couldn’t comprehend it,” Chippewa Falls/Menomonie senior defenseman Emme Bergh said. “But now that it’s actually happening, its kind of unbelievable that we literally have the Olympic team here using our locker rooms and it’s just so cool.”

Back in October, many local prep and youth players marveled at seeing former local standouts Sam Stange, Daniel Laatsch and Zach Urdahl return to the Chippewa Valley as members of the Wisconsin Badgers. Other youngsters had a similar thrill on Monday watching Wisconsin natives Alex Cavallini, Anna Wilgren, Amanda Kessel and Brianna Decker return to their native state.

“It’s definitely an ego booster watching these girls keep up with the boys and its overall just really awesome to watch them show off their girl power,” Bergh said.

That is a responsibility the Hudson native Wilgren and her teammates don’t take lightly.

“It’s amazing. That’s what we do it for because we all once those little girls and it’s so inspiring to see them all so happy,” Wilgren said. “No matter what the score is they’re just so happy to be able to watch.”

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