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NAHL: Chippewa Steel move out of basement, into contention in second season in Chippewa Falls
NAHL | Chippewa Steel

NAHL: Chippewa Steel move out of basement, into contention in second season in Chippewa Falls

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Janesville Jets at Chippewa Steel 9-14-19

Chippewa's Jacob Dirks moves up the ice with the puck during a game against Janesville on Sept. 14 at Chippewa Area Ice Arena.

Year 2 in Chippewa Falls was a successful one for the Chippewa Steel.

The North American Hockey League team won 10 more games than it did a season ago in nine fewer contests and was on the verge of clinching a playoff berth when health concerns amid the spread of COVID-19 moved the league to cancel the remaining regular season and later the upcoming postseason.

Chippewa finished with a 29-18-3-1 overall record in coach Carter Foguth’s first full year leading the team. The Steel were second to Fairbanks in the Midwest Division standings and were never below the .500 mark throughout their 51-game schedule.

Coming off a 19-38-2-1 effort and a last-place finish in the Midwest Division in their inaugural season in Chippewa Falls, Foguth wanted to see his team take significant steps forward this season. A young group that took its lumps in 2018-19 returned older, wiser and stronger for this year.

“Starting the year we had training camp, and it was a tough training camp for the players in terms of conditioning and all that stuff,” Foguth said. “Just from the start they embraced that underdog mentality, if you will, and we always talked about having something to prove. Every weekend they did a good job of going out, working hard and playing for each other.”

Chippewa opened the year with a weekend sweep of the rival Janesville Jets in mid-September, a sign of things to come in the series this year as Chippewa won eight of the nine meetings with their fellow Wisconsin team to gain possession of the Milk Can Trophy, a traveling prize that goes to the winner of the season series each year. Janesville won the trophy a season ago.

The Steel were also boosted by an early eight-game winning streak, starting with a 2-1 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights on Sept. 20 and carrying it through a 4-1 victory over the Jets on Oct. 26. For a growing team looking for some additional confidence, the early success was just the trick.

“Obviously as a coach we’re implementing systems, we’re implementing strategy and when they see that strategy working they buy into it,” Foguth said of the winning streak. “Winning definitely helps solve those things.”

From there, the Steel remained a fixture in the top half of the division standings, fighting through injuries and stretches of struggles to pass the Kenai River Brown Bears for second place in the league standings in the weeks leading up to the cancellation.

“I’m proud of the guys because really all year long — even when we had some tough stretches and injuries and losses and stuff like that — they stuck together as a family, and that was the biggest thing was them establishing that culture of being a family and working hard and working for each other,” Foguth said.

The team’s returners anchored the attack on offense with five veterans finishing the year leading the team in scoring.

University of Alabama-Huntsville commit Connor Szmul led the team with 48 points in 51 games after tallying 30 points in 55 contests a season ago. Ferris State University signee Jacob Dirks was the team’s most prolific goal scorer with a team-high 27 to go with 47 points after scoring 24 goals and 40 total points in 60 games in 2018-19.

Second-year forward Killian Kiecker-Olson had 28 assists and 42 points in 37 games, while Belarus native Grisha Gotovets had a steady second year with the team by leading the Steel with 29 assists to go with 34 total points in 46 games.

Forward Isaac Moberg scored eight goals and added 22 assists for 30 points in 49 contests this year.

Defensemen Spencer Oyler and Michael Black and forwards Ian Famulak and Brendan Ogle were also fixtures in the Chippewa lineup and helped anchor a much-improved Steel defense. Goaltenders Trent Burnham (17-14-0-1, 2.61 goals against average, 92 percent save percentage in 35 games) and Grant Boldt (12-3-0-2, 2.93 GAA, 89.9 save percentage in 19 games) shouldered nearly the entire load between the pipes for Chippewa.

But just as important as their production on the ice, the veterans returning for Year 2 were able to set a good example for the youngsters to follow.

“That was huge for us. That was something we didn’t have the year before, obviously being a new team was having guys that had been in the league and guys that could take that step for us offensively,” Foguth said. “It’s big to have guys that have played games in the league to lead the way for you.”

Foguth said most of the players have returned home from living with their billet families following the announcement of the season’s end. Those that have not will be returning soon. The organization going forward is planning for its pre-draft camp in late May and June’s NAHL Draft as normal until it is told to do otherwise.

Chippewa enters the offseason looking to improve even more. The organization will seek out players to add that can add to the team’s culture that Foguth started the season hoping would be established.

“We wanted a buy-in that regardless of what your role on the team was you were going to do it to the best of your ability and you would do it for each other,” Foguth said.

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