Al Rooney, the recently hired head coach for the North American Hockey League’s newest team — the Chippewa Steel, knows what kinds of kids he wants on his roster.
The former assistant with the Lone Star Brahmas and Austin Bruins seeks guys who play well in his fast system and who can help him build a culture of winning.
He knows he won’t have to travel too far for players who fit those exact characteristics.
“Part of the appeal is that we are going to have local talent to pick from,” Rooney said. “It makes it that much easier to recruit.”
It’s no secret by now there’s a plethora of players who are good enough to compete at the next level year in and year out in the Chippewa Valley. On cue, every prep season ends, and the conversations begin about if a player at a nearby high school will stay or go on to compete in juniors.
Until April 30, when Steve Black purchased the NAHL’s Coulee Region Chill and relocated the team to Chippewa Falls, those area kids didn’t have a junior program within an hour of home.
Now, there’s one right in their backyard.
“To be able to have guys locally is certain a plus,” Rooeny said. “We aren’t going to force it down anyone’s throat, but I don’t think it will ever come that. We want that and expect that.”
The logistics of it certainly seem appealing. Suddenly, families might have to travel to Janesville, Cloquet, Minn., or Austin, Minn., to see their kids play. And it might be more appealing to kids to have the opportunity to live at home while pursuing a junior team.
When Steve Black and his son, Bryant, were looking to take ownership of an NAHL team, they were looking at an area where hockey is valued. Thanks to conversations with the Chippewa Falls Youth Hockey Association, they were reaffirmed that this was an area they wanted to settle in and reach those goals.
“You think Wisconsin hockey and you kind of think Eau Claire/Chip,” Bryant Black said.
The Steel will play their home games at Chippewa Ice Arena, which is operated by the hockey association.
“They bought in to us, and now it’s time for us to pay it back,” Black said.
It’s a balancing act for any NAHL team, and there’s not as clear a measuring stick for success as some other sports leagues. The reason players go to the league is to develop themselves as players for a chance at a college career and beyond. In fact, UW-Eau Claire coach Matt Loen is licking his chops as the short recruiting trips he now gets to make. About 90 percent of his players, he said, come from the NAHL.
Rooney wants to get as many guys to that next level as possible. And in fact, he’ll have someone on his bench who can be somewhat of a guiding factor. The team announced on Monday the hiring of former Minnesota State-Mankato captain Carter Foguth as assistant coach.
There’s also a competitiveness Rooney expects from his guys. He’s no stranger to winning in this league, having won a Roberson Cup with Lone Star two years ago.
He said it’s a two-fold equation. Building a winning culture right away will hopefully help attract high-caliber players, which will then result in high-caliber Division I and III institutions plucking kids to play for them.
“They go hand in hand,” Rooney said. “The more we win, the more attractive to become to college coaches.”
Don’t be surprised if local talent is a part of that.
This organization has big goals and wants guys to be active members of the community, and it wants to be a player in the area.
“Ultimately, winning and placing guys is what’s going to make those kids want to come to Chippewa and make Chippewa a national brand,” Black said.
And if this region has shown anything since the hockey wave hit about 20 years ago, it’s that it will embrace the sport.