CHIPPEWA FALLS — Making the trip to state had been a dream of Isaac Lindstrom's long before he ever suited up for the Chippewa Falls varsity hockey squad.
Like many Cardinals players, the program is a family affair for him. Isaac's father, Karl, played on two state Chi-Hi hockey teams. He was able to find his dad easily in the pair of team photos, 1988 and 1989, that hang on the wall along with every other Chippewa roster in the team's lounge area at Chippewa Area Ice Arena.
Leading up to high school, he'd talk to his classmates and those a grade below them about how this 2019-20 team could be something special, too.
"That's all I've been hearing through childhood, especially when I got to high school, about what a great feeling it is to bring a team to state," Lindstrom said. "Hearing that growing up, it was something I really strived for."
Now he's felt it himself.
Lindstrom, the Cardinals' first line center, helped lead Chi-Hi to its first state tournament appearance since 1999. The first team All-Big Rivers selection was a piece of an impressive core that set a new program record for wins in a season, knocked off three state tournament programs from last year in the postseason and rallied a community.
And before he moves on to the next stage in his hockey career, Lindstrom will receive one last honor: All-Area boys hockey player of the year.
“He really developed into a player that really caught a lot of people’s eye with his style of play," Chippewa Falls coach Scott Parker said. "Gritty, relentless, he loved to go to the net hard. A lot of kids don’t like doing that now."
On the ice, Lindstrom embodied the best attributes of the Cardinals program. He was creative, clearly possessing strong stickhandling abilities, but didn't ignore the blue collar nature the program prides itself on. He went to the dirty areas, backchecked and forechecked, didn't give up on plays. Four goal outings this year against Eau Claire Memorial and Menomonie showed how dominant he can be.
"In hockey and in life, the hardest working guy is going to come out on top," Lindstrom said. "My dad has preached this one saying to me since when I was little. 'Hard work beats talent if talent doesn't work hard.' I think I just took that to heart."
It was his effort in practice that really stood out to Parker, though.
"Sometimes I had to pull the reins back a little bit because he was so intense," the Chi-Hi bench boss said. "We had to monitor that."
He made tremendous improvement in the weight room over the last four years, helping him become one of the program's most durable players. Parker remembered watching Lindstrom frequently racing his teammates down the ice after practice was over, and Lindstrom rarely liked to admit if he came up short against the competition.
"I feel like that pushed everyone else," Lindstrom said. "When we skate lines, at the beginning I would work as hard as I could and I was way out in front of the pack. Toward the end, people were catching me. I was like, 'Yes, that's what I want to do.'"
"He really strived to be the best," Parker said.
To be a part of the best, or at least winningest, Chippewa Falls team ever, Lindstrom and his teammates needed to fight through a grueling postseason slate. The WIAA's split of boys hockey into two divisions cranked up the challenge in the Cardinals' sectional, with Chi-Hi needing to beat Eau Claire North in addition to hockey powers Wausau West and Hudson to get to Madison's Alliant Energy Center. Chippewa Falls had gone 2-3 against that trio of foes in the regular season.
That path fittingly started with one of the Eau Claire schools, which have served as a glass ceiling for the Chi-Hi program in recent years. Chippewa hosted the Huskies, who ended the Cards' season last year, in the first round, and were stuck at 0-0 entering the third period.
In that final frame, it appeared Lindstrom wasn't ready for his career to end just yet. He scored a minute and 17 seconds into the third, then once again five minutes later after North's Brayton Thillman equalized.
"He's got just a go switch," North coach Ryan Parker said. "He comes out and he plays hard, he plays tough and he's relentless. ... He put it on his shoulders."
Both goals were spectacular individual efforts, with him possessing the puck all the way from center ice to the crease on the first goal and scoring the second after winning a faceoff and driving straight to the net. Sawyer Bowe sealed the 3-1 triumph late with an empty netter.
"That kind of leadership takes you a long way," Scott Parker said. "Without that leadership, that could be a whole different story."
Chippewa surprisingly rolled second-seeded Wausau West, with Lindstrom notching a goal in an 8-1 drubbing, before upsetting Big Rivers rival Hudson 2-1 to earn the state berth. Lindstrom had the primary assist on Isaac Frenette's equalizing goal in the second period, while Cole Bowe scored the game-winner in the third.
"Having gotten down there was great just to prove to everyone across the state that Chippewa Falls, we're not a slouch team," Lindstrom said. "We've been up and down the rankings all year for the last two years. It's just nice to go out there and send the message, 'Hey, we're real.'"
The trip to Madison didn't end with a state title banner, instead with a heartbreaker in the Division 1 semifinals. Verona's Walker Haessig ended a marathon game in double overtime, finally beating Chi-Hi goalie Bridger Fixmer to lift the Wildcats to a 1-0 victory.
Verona went on to win the state title but once again needed overtime to best Notre Dame, showing how slim the difference was between Chippewa Falls and its competition.
It was obviously a tough pill to swallow for the Cardinals in the moment, but with some time they were able to look back and reflect on the magnitude of their accomplishments.
"We achieved that," Lindstrom said of making it to state. "It would have been nice to get a little bit more. That's what we wanted, but I guess closure is a good word for having the season end in Madison. That's where we planned on having the season end."
Lindstrom graduates fifth in program history in career points with 115 and fourth in both goals (60) and assists (55). His 34 goals this year was the second highest single-season total in Chi-Hi history, and his 56 points were good for third all-time.
After a long high school career, only one player suited up for more games in a Chi-Hi uniform, Lucas Steinmetz, and he edges Lindstrom out by just one game.
Lindstrom's hockey future is not set in stone. He's spent time this year with the Janesville Junior Jets of the North American Prospects Hockey League and Parker said there's some interest from the American junior level, the North American Hockey League and United States Hockey League.
"I've got a few teams that I'm talking to," Lindstrom said.
There's a recent path to follow for Chippewa players, paved by the last Cardinal to win All-Area player of the year, Jordan Steinmetz.
Parker said he expects Lindstrom will follow a similar trajectory. Steinmetz played a year for the Janesville Jets in the NAHL, then a year with the Sioux City Musketeers in the USHL before jumping to the collegiate level this season at St. Lawrence University.
Parker said that same drive that pushed Lindstrom to be a great high school player should help him find a niche at the next level, too.
"Now he's like a freshman all over again," Parker said. "I think that desire will carry him to the next level because he's going to have to work awful hard. I think he's used to that."
No matter what happens next, Lindstrom helped leave a legacy that won't soon be forgotten in Chippewa Falls.
"We set the record for most wins my freshman year and then beat it my senior year," Lindstrom said. "Hopefully in years to come they'll beat those records. Records are meant to be broken. I hope that the foundation has been put in place to carry future teams to success. I want to see a championship banner in that rink."
Also earning all-area selections:
Isaac Frenette, jr., forward, Chippewa Falls: Frenette, a Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association all-state honorable mention and all-Big Rivers second team selection, led Chi-Hi in points with 59 on 31 goals and 28 assists. His 53 points during the regular season was second in the BRC to Hudson's Peyton Hanson. "He's the straw that stirs the drink," Scott Parker said. "That kid's got some gloves on him. He can pick the puck out of the air with the best of them."
Joe Kelly, jr., forward, Eau Claire Memorial: The offensive leader of the Old Abes, Kelly finished with 51 points on 24 goals and 27 assists in 25 games. He made the leap from All-Big Rivers honorable mention as a sophomore to the first team this year and earned a WHCA honorable mention all-state selection. "He's a very gifted offensive power and he's got a very good shot," Memorial assistant Jeff Schemberger said. "He was always drawing the other team's best lines or defensive matchups."
Blake Trippler, sr., defense, Chippewa Falls: Trippler, a WHCA all-state honorable mention and All-Big Rivers second team pick, found the net twice and added 16 assists in 28 games with the Cards. "Trippler was the anchor of our team as a defenseman," Scott Parker said. "Trippler's like plus-74. I've been around long enough that I've seen kids that are like minus-25. That's my No. 1 stat, to me that's like ERA in baseball. That doesn't lie."
Easton Tok, jr., defense, Eau Claire Memorial: A steady presence on the Old Abe blueline, Tok recorded two goals and 11 assists in 25 games. "A throwback type of defenseman," Schemberger said. "He plays solid in all three zones, he makes good reads and decisions with the puck. The game is getting a little bit away from the physical side, but he brings that physical presence."
Bridger Fixmer, soph., goalie, Chippewa Falls: Fixmer was stellar in his first year as a starting goalie for the Cardinals, earning a WHCA all-state first team selection and finalist honors for Wisconsin Prep Hockey's Goalie of the Year. He posted a 1.48 goals against average and .948 save percentage. "I think it's pretty obvious he hates getting scored on," Scott Parker said. "He doesn't like it in practice and he doesn't like it in warmups. He's a competitive kid and has a real good sense of the net."
Joey Koller, sr., forward, Eau Claire North: The last remaining member of the Huskies' stellar first line from last year, Koller led North in scoring with 12 goals and 20 assists. He earned an all-Big Rivers honorable mention nod. "Joey offered us that grit in the offensive corners and battling in front," North coach Ryan Parker said.
Kaleb Miller, sr., forward, Menomonie: Miller finished fifth in the Big Rivers during the regular season with 40 points on 15 goals and 25 helpers. He notched seven more points in the postseason as he helped the Mustangs get one game away from making the state tournament in Division 2. "Kaleb was our captain and a great student athelete," Menomonie coach Matt Ellis said. "Very coachable, helped the younger players get better and a great young man. It was a privilege to coach him."
Max Savaloja, sr., forward, Eau Claire Memorial: Savaloja earned second team all-Big Rivers honors after notching 15 goals and 25 assists in 25 total games. He totaled over 40 points in each of his final two varsity seasons. "He's very talented as an offensive player," Schemberger said. "Max with his size and his strength and his physical ability, he was a very tough matchup at the high school level. He has the potential moving forward to be a very good two-way player."
Riley Strohm, sr., defense, Rice Lake: Strohm was an all-Big Rivers honorable mention after helping the Warriors earn their first trip to the state tournament since 2009. He scored seven goals and dished out five helpers in 25 total games this season. "Strohm played a huge part in our team's success," Rice Lake coach Josh Engel said. "He was a player that could make a difference every time he stepped onto the ice. His fundamentals and hockey IQ were up there with the best kids in the state."
Jaxon Vance, sr., defense, Eau Claire North: Vance was an all-Big Rivers honorable mention and led Husky defenders in scoring with ten points. "He played tough, he played about as consistent as we had all year," Ryan Parker said. "He played strong in the defensive zone but he also created some more offensive presence for us."
Colten Pace, sr., goalie, Eau Claire North: An honorable mention all-BRC pick, Pace posted a .917 save percentage and a 2.59 goals against average while facing 660 shots, the second most of any goalie in the league. "He kept up those high numbers seeing a heck of a lot more shots than anyone else did," Ryan Parker said. "He definitely won some games for us and kept us around for the opportunity to win some games."