Ice & Steel: Junior league hockey team brings icy action to Chippewa Falls
Luc Anthony, photos by Andrea Paulseth |
If the Chippewa Valley is known for a particular sports passion (besides football’s ubiquity), one would choose baseball and hockey as two stand-out options. Both have enough of a following to garner support for a minor league-style franchise, and as of this autumn, the area has teams in each of those sports. Joining the summer collegiate baseball Eau Claire Express are the junior hockey league Chippewa Steel, playing in the higher-level North American Hockey League that has sent numerous players to Division I college programs and even the National Hockey League.
Bringing organized hockey to the Valley was the work of owner Steve Black, placing the former Coulee Region Chill in the Chippewa Area Ice Arena near the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Chippewa Falls. Meanwhile, Steel Business Manager Jake Serwe had experience running a team in the Northwoods League (home of the Express) and got the Steel job through his twin brother, who ran a lower-tier NAHL team in Wausau. Interns were brought in from UW-Eau Claire and Chippewa Valley Technical College, and the roster was finalized through a summer draft and international camp.
Serwe notes that the NAHL is “an elite-level league where recruiting takes place virtually all over the country, continent, and world.” Many sources contribute to the caliber of athlete that makes the team, and with more than 300 league players committing to a top NCAA hockey school, the guys you see on the Steel are becoming well-positioned for a career on the ice. “The length of the schedule and how tough every game on the schedule is, really pushes players to be better players or they won’t last long,” Serwe says. “So it’s much more competitive day in and day out for players in this league.”
With constant motion on the rink, watching hockey in-person requires constant focus. Yet the Chippewa Steel have made a point to highlight the broader fan experience. Serwe says being at a game allows folks to come together and unwind with their friends: “The best way to describe it is people enjoying a social gathering while watching the highest level on hockey in the Chippewa Valley.” Additionally, the Chippewa Area Ice Arena is an intimate venue, with a maximum of nine rows in the grandstand, and as a result, Serwe notes, “You’re right on top of the action no matter where you’re sitting in the building.” Additional in-game fan opportunities include seat upgrades and T-shirt giveaways thanks to collaborations with area businesses; other attractive promotions include $2 Beer Nights and Pepsi Family Four-Pack Nights.
If you find yourself or one of your kids becoming a fan of a skater, getting an autograph is easier than you might expect, as players can be found in the lobby signing their names regardless of the night’s final score. Being accessible to fans is one of many places where you are likely to see members of the Steel in the Chippewa Valley. According to Serwe, players talk to local students – based on their ages, these are their peers – about life and school experiences, while also volunteering and mentoring at the Boys & Girls Club. Of course, helping the next generation of pucksters is a natural for the Steel. Says Serwe: “The players on our team are also looked upon as mentors for youth hockey programs to help grow their game as well. The team spends each week volunteering time at practices and during open skate times.”
The Chippewa Steel have been getting a good response from hockey fans in the area, and in turn, the Steel plan to continue their integration into the community. Serwe sees the franchise becoming more involved with “community events and giving back.” As he says, “With the help of our business partners we will continue to evaluate ways to help our fan experience from the in-game promotions, giveaway items, and theme nights that we have during each of the 28 home games.”
Plenty of hockey talent is home-grown in western Wisconsin, with some players reaching the heights of the NCAA landscape and, for a select few, the NHL. The sport’s climate in the Chippewa Valley will be enhanced by the presence of the NAHL’s Steel, giving additional chances for fans and players to experience and absorb high-quality junior hockey.
The Steel play their home games at the Chippewa Area Ice Arena, 839 First Ave., Chippewa Falls. Learn more about the Chippewa Steel and check out their schedule at chippewasteelhockey.com or find them on Facebook.