Hockey team helps round out Eau Claire`s organized athletics roster
I don’t know that I recognize little ole’ Eau Claire anymore. Organized athletics are flocking to the metro area like Minnesota sports stars to Boston: there’s another new one every two to three years. This is not the Eau Claire sports scene I grew up with, and I like the change.
You may have heard about the latest addition to the roster: The Eau Claire (or Chippewa Valley, or Western Wisconsin) Something-or-Others of the new Wisconsin Junior Hockey League. No, they don’t have a name yet, though you have to admit Something-or-Others is unique. The WJHL hits the ice this fall, aiming to field eight teams. Get used to seeing Rhinelander, Stoughton, and Monroe on the screen during the 10 pm TV sports segment. We’ll have some of the top 17- to 20-year-olds in the state and region coming through Hobbs Ice Arena throughout the winter, sort of a hockey version of the Northwoods League.
What I like is, for the fourth time this decade, the Eau Claire metropolitan area (doesn’t that term make it sound like a big urban center?) has managed to land a team playing in a league featuring an “L” in its acronym. Anytime you have an “L” in your name, you come across as more important than you may otherwise be perceived. NWL? WJHL? NEFL? They sound close enough to the likes of the NFL, NHL and others to at least seem big-time, and seeming big-time is what we have been waiting way too long for in western Wisconsin.
Eau Claire went a long time without bringing in anything even resembling minor league athletics. True, the Eau Claire Cavaliers filled the gap for many years with some exquisite baseball in the Tomter Era. Yet, for a city the size of Eau Claire, I was embarrassed to see the city thoroughly incapable of securing a team (baseball, football, basketball, hockey) part of a structured league — a league with division titles, playoffs, and the prospect that a decent number of players might someday reach stardom.
The mindset has slowly evolved over the last decade. First, the Chippewa Valley Predators came in 2001. Yes, they played their games in what amounted to an open field in Augusta, but it was something. Then, incredibly, we welcomed a top-notch summer collegiate baseball group in the Northwoods League. Next thing you know, the Predators relocate to Carson Park, and we get a second semi-pro football team in the Eau Claire Crush. With our new WJHL team, it’s like we can’t stop quenching our thirst.
This is, after all, a very deep thirst. We have always wanted to have such teams to root for, yet the disorganized mindset of the city for too long kept us from pursuing organized athletics. It kept us from building an arena even though we were years behind La Crosse.
Talk about an inferiority complex: La Crosse is smaller than Eau Claire (with a much smaller metro area), yet it’s had an arena since 1980, which has delivered minor league basketball and indoor football, plus the city got a Northwoods League team before Eau Claire. Today, Wausau has a design and plan to build a new area, yet Eau Claire is still just talking.
Now is the time for the next step: build that arena, already. Hobbs will be a great place to watch our WJHL team, and its coming renovation will be nice, but imagine games in an actual arena, surrounded by fans (not just on two sides of the rink). Plus, you build an arena, and Eau Claire can maybe land an NBA D-League team. We have seen the turnout for the Express, Predators and Crush; and I imagine, with a metro area population of 160,000, a fan base exists for basketball, maybe even indoor football.
Come on, City of Eau Claire. Now with the WJHL’s arrival, you’re clearly on a winning streak. So keep the momentum, build the arena, and keep changing little ole’ Eau Claire. As it turns out, change is good.