Brendan Ogle

Brendan Ogle of the Chippewa Steel follows the puck during a game against the Springfield Jr. Blues on March 9, 2019 at Chippewa Area Ice Arena.

CHIPPEWA FALLS — The Chippewa Steel took a major step forward last season.

After finishing last in the Midwest Division in 2018-19, the franchise’s inaugural year, the Chippewa Valley’s junior hockey squad jumped up to second under coach Carter Foguth and was poised to clinch a playoff spot for the first time before the season was brought to a halt.

They never got to make that history or see out the team’s potential. Like every group of athletes in the area who were competing last spring, Steel players had to come to terms with their campaign ending prematurely when the North American Hockey League announced it was canceling the remainder of the regular season and the entirety of the playoffs in mid-March.

“It was definitely upsetting to see,” defenseman Spencer Oyler said. “It would have been nice to see that group of guys be able to fight their way through playoffs. We definitely had a good group last year.”

Many players from that group are still with the Steel, and they are chomping at the bit to get competing again.

“I think we have a good group this year too,” Oyler continued. “I think the playoffs is definitely in play for us.”

The Steel will kick off their third season at Chippewa Area Ice Arena on Friday against Kenai River, the first of four straight against the Brown Bears at the beginning of a 48-game regular season schedule. The season debut comes after months of uncertainly, with the fate of junior hockey leagues around the continent up the air. It took a great deal of planning for the country’s big four pro sports leagues to figure out a way to play amid the coronavirus pandemic. Could junior hockey really pull it off?

“There was about a two- or three-month stretch where you would get news every three or four weeks, and that was about it,” Foguth said. “It was a lot of waiting, a lot of not much information. As soon as the league decided they had the procedures and the protocol in place, it took off pretty quick once it started up. We went from absolutely nothing to we’re playing hockey again.”

Unlike the National Hockey League, Chippewa will not be playing in a bubble. There will be travel and there will be fans. The Steel are requiring masks for those in attendance and the franchise has said it will provide sanitation stations and other safety measures during games.

Steel players and staff present a unique challenge among Chippewa Valley sports teams when it comes to containing the virus. Chippewa will frequently be traveling outside of the state of Wisconsin to play away games in Minnesota and Alaska.

The NAHL has started up games in the league’s three other divisions, with some teams playing as often as nine times. That’s at least given the league a test run for the Midwest.

“I expect a lot of making sure we’re doing things by the book,” Foguth said. “The league has the procedures in place that we’re trying our best every day, even if it takes us a while and it delays things a bit, just making sure guys are doing their daily check-ins and wearing their masks, trying not to be in a group unless you’re on the ice. In terms of travel-wise, we just have to be responsible.”

Foguth said players needed a negative COVID-19 test result from the previous three to five days before joining the squad. Each day players fill out a symptom sheet. If they don’t have any symptoms, they can participate. If a player does have symptoms, Foguth said they will be sent home and get tested.

One of the pleasant surprises for the team has been the ability to get everyone to Chippewa Falls despite stricter border rules around the world amid the pandemic. There was some worry about Belarusian forward Grisha Gotovets, but Belarus’ embassy opened just in time for him to get a U.S. visa and fly over.

Thirteen players who suited up for a game with the Steel last year are back, including Gotovets, last year’s assist leader, and goalie Grant Boldt, who put up a .899 save percentage and 2.93 goals against average in 19 games. The team did need to shore up the offense through the draft after losing Chippewa’s top-three point producers from last year and five of the top six. After Gotovets, Oyler and Braden Lindstrom lead the returning scorers.

“That was our biggest need heading into the season and I think we addressed it,” Foguth said. “We were very fortunate with the guys that we were able to bring in to be able to replace some of those guys.”

The Steel will play 23 games at Chippewa Area Ice Arena during a regular season that stretches from November to April. After then, Chippewa hopes, there will be some of those elusive playoff games.

“It sucked last year, ending like that,” forward Ian Famulak said. “I think for the returners, it fires us up even more to carry that over and continue the success we had last year.”