One of new Chippewa Steel head coach Al Rooney’s favorite teaching points to his junior hockey league players is a simple three-word phrase — speed to space.
Rooney was named the head coach and general manager of Chippewa Falls’ new North American Hockey League Tier II junior hockey team on Monday and four days later was touring Chippewa Ice Arena and the surrounding area to get up to speed with where his new team now calls home.
Prior to being hired by the Steel, Rooney was an assistant coach for the Lone Star Brahamas in 2016-17 when the team won the Robertson Cup before moving on to the Austin Bruins as an associate head coach last season. Rooney was a head coach for the Texas Brahamas of the NA3HL from 2014-16 and brings an extensive resume as a coach as well as a player.
The sale of the franchise to the Black family was formally announced almost two weeks ago as the team formally known as the Coulee Region Chill moved north to Chippewa County. The chance to get in on the ground floor with the franchise was an opportunity Rooney couldn’t pass up.
“Every coach has a certain amount of ego to them in that you want to shape your vision and to have the ability to do it from scratch as far as coming in, putting a footprint in the community, a footprint in the league and hopefully establishing a tradition of excellence on and off the ice here,” Rooney said. “It’s a draw as a coach.”
The team acquires the player roster from the Chill, and Rooney said he has already been in contact with players while evaluating the roster and looking at possible moves for the future.
“There’s a lot of pieces coming together that are going to shape what we’re going to do moving forward on the ice,” Rooney said.
Rooney will be handling the roster maneuvering while Bryant Black will be focusing on the business end of things as the team’s vice president of operations. Black and his family spent time in Chippewa Falls prior to the sale during negotiations and said he quickly discovered Chippewa Falls was a place to be.
“We knew right away that this is a community we want to be in and a community a junior team can thrive (in),” Black said.
Black’s family has experience in junior hockey ownership. Currently it owns the New Ulm Steel in the Tier III NA3HL and also has been involved previously with the Brookings Blizzard of the NAHL and the Alexandra Blizzard and Wausau RiverWolves of the NA3HL.
Rooney got to see his team’s new home for the first time on Friday as well as meet members of the Chippewa Youth Hockey Association, a group instrumental in helping to make the move happen.
“The support is not just talk, there’s action behind their commitment,” Rooney said. “Just getting a tour of the rink, they do everything top notch and first class. Those are the types of people that you need to be a successful junior program.”
Chippewa Ice Arena recently underwent $1.2 million in renovations, most notably building an outdoor rink, upgrading the locker rooms around the south rink and installing new lights. The north rink is also undergoing similar upgrades estimated at around $700,000 that did not coincide with the arrival of the Steel, but are nonetheless appreciated by the arena’s newest tenant.
“Having that reassurance they’re invested in us puts the pressure back on us that it’s our job to put the right kids on the team and the right kids in the community,” Black said.
The team will be busy in the coming weeks with a pre-draft camp in West Dundee, Ill., from May 25-27 before an open tryout in La Crosse on June 8-10. The NAHL Entry Draft will take place on June 5 and is open to amateur players ages 21 and younger as of Dec. 31, 2018. That means finding players through a combination of tryouts, the draft and with returners that fit what the vision of the team is about.
“We want to play fast, play where they aren’t, make them come and chase us,” Rooney said. “I pride myself on the discipline of my team, and it’s not just not taking penalties, on being prepared and executing a gameplan.”
Last season the Chill finished with a 17-34-9 overall record and were fifth in the NAHL’s Midwest Division, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013-14. But Rooney is confident the team can contend in 2018-19 and can take a few pointers from the Vegas Golden Knights, a first-year NHL expansion team preparing to play in the Western Conference finals.
“We have a shared vision that we expect to produce a winner right off the get-go,” Rooney said. “This isn’t a slow process, we expect to be Vegas right off the bat.”
One of Black’s main objectives early on after the sale is establishing host families for his players to live with during the season. Families are compensated for their support, and Black said he’s already been approached by local families about helping out.
Families interested in hosting a player can reach out to Black by phone (320-760-3030) or email (Bryant@chippewasteelhockey.com).
“I like to have our players once they make the team have a good three weeks to a month to communicate with their host family and get to know them,” Black said. “That way when they move in day one they’re comfortable. The last thing you want is a player to be here in Chippewa and they’re comfortable in their hockey but they’re not comfortable in their surroundings. The more comfortable we can make them, the better.”
The new season starts this fall and Rooney, said the team will be one the community will be proud of.
“There’s going to be culture of accountability here. Not only to each other and to yourself but how we conduct ourselves on and off the ice,” Rooney said. “Respecting the game, respecting officials, respecting our opponent and respecting the community around us and becoming a part of it.”
“We want to play fast, play where they aren’t, make them come and chase us. I pride myself on the discipline of my team and it’s not just not taking penalties, on being prepared and executing a gameplan.” - Chippewa Steel head coach/general manager Al Rooney