The Chippewa Steel have not formed its full roster yet or played a single game.
But Chippewa Falls’ North American Hockey League franchise has already found a rival. And a trophy to play for when they clash on the ice.
The Steel and Janesville Jets introduced their rivalry prize — the Blain’s Farm and Fleet America’s Dairyland Milk Can trophy — on Wednesday morning at a press conference at the Cobblestone Hotel in Chippewa Falls.
The trophy was originally introduced as a prize to the winner of the season series between the Jets and Coulee Region Chill at the start of the decade. The Chill were sold to Steve Black earlier this year, moved to Chippewa Falls and rebranded as the Chippewa Steel.
Now the Tier II junior hockey team that will call the Chippewa Ice Arena home has a rival and one that is a natural fit. The Steel and Jets are Wisconsin’s only two NAHL franchises and found another natural fit with the Milk Can, a tribute to the state’s rich dairy history.
The sponsorship from Blain’s Farm and Fleet is another tie-in to both cities as the company is headquartered in Janesville and has stores all around the state, including in Chippewa Falls.
“It adds to the rivalry of the teams,” Janesville Jets president Bill McCoshen said. “Regardless what our records are or where we’re sitting in the standings, every night means something to the players on Chippewa or Janesville to try to compete for this trophy.”
Janesville dominated the rivalry with the Chill, winning the trophy each season since its inception.
“The nice thing is they (Janesville) set the bar. We know we need to continue to build the Steel culture and it starts from ground zero,” Black said. “That’s one of the reasons we brought (coach and general manager) Al (Rooney) in and are making the team our own.”
The new-found rivalry also has an interesting twist with Chi-Hi graduate Jordan Steinmetz playing for the Jets. Steinmetz had 19 points in 55 games this past season for the Jets as they advanced to the second round of the NAHL playoffs. Steinmetz will return to Chippewa Ice Arena this fall on an opposing team after scoring a program-best 91 goals and tallying a program-record 180 points during his career with the Cardinals before graduating in 2017.
“Jordan is one of those players that plays hard all the time,” Jets coach Gary Shuchuk said. “He plays with a passion for the game. He’s just a great kid and he loves coming to the rink. He’s so enjoyable to coach. He always comes to the rink with a smile and he works hard.
“His play dictated how we played in some of the games. Guys jumped on his back with him being a young kid and he progressed. From day one of the camp, I hate to say this but I didn’t think he had a chance of making it but he just grew on you and I think that’s the biggest thing.”
The 23-team league has set records for the amount of players to sign with Division I college programs in each of the previous five years and is adding a 24th franchise for the 2018-19 season with the addition of the Maryland Black Bears, a team based in Odenton, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore.
Both teams are busy scouting players and preparing rosters for the upcoming season. The Steel recently wrapped up a predraft camp in West Dundee, Illinois and will host an open tryout camp in La Crosse on from June 8-10. The Steel have already signed several players to tenders and the NAHL Draft is set for Tuesday, June 5, an event where the Steel will be busy with plenty of picks.
“Both organizations want to give Wisconsin high school players a place to play that can help and achieve their NCAA dreams and stay close to home,” Rooney said. “Janesville has proven that year in and year out and our goal is to be in that spot as well.”
Rooney is continuing his whirlwind scouting session this week, traveling overseas to scout for a few days in Europe all in search of the right players to help the team be successful in its first season in Chippewa Falls that begins this fall.
“It really starts and ends with finding the right players to create that culture and if you find that and instill the right structure and create the right environment for them, the winning takes care of itself,” Rooney said. “You can’t go in and demand results. But you can demand preparation, you can demand execution and you can do those sorts of things and if you can do that, good things will happen.”